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Private Foundations Should Be Thinking About PR Today

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It might sound like a contradiction in terms, but increasingly, private foundations are adopting public relations programs to achieve organizational goals. Here's why some of the old objections to external communications are no longer valid.

In the veiled world of private philanthropy, the practice of public relations is eschewed by many foundation leaders. Some believe that proactive media outreach is tantamount to inviting the IRS in for an audit, while others feel that publicity in some way diminishes the altruistic nature of giving. Yet over the last few years, a shift has begun to take place, in which foundations are seeing how external communications can complement and even strengthen their giving.

PR can be an invaluable tool for foundations of all sizes. It shines the spotlight on grantee successes, inspires action among constituencies, creates an environment for collaboration among multiple stakeholders, advances key issues, and perhaps most importantly, it highlights the foundation's role as a good community citizen leading by example. All one has to do is read the newspaper today, and the impact of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector in general will be readily apparent.

Thanks in part to the high-profile actions of several mega-philanthropists (need I mention names?), top foundations and their grantees are commanding greater quantities of ink and air-time in the news. Not surprisingly, the media's coverage of the philanthropy space has grown in scope and fervor. This has created a tremendous opportunity for small- and mid-size foundations to also test the PR waters, as a means of building greater impact in and among the communities they serve.

Despite the changing media landscape and the increased use of communications programs, the foundations that are embracing PR are still considered the early adopters. Often, when speaking with foundation professionals, I find myself responding to their perceived hurdles for initiating a public relations plan. These are the ones I hear most:
  1. "External communications requires a fundamental culture shift, and that is just not the priority for us right now."

  2. "Press coverage is inevitably skewed, and the media is always looking for dirt. Why would we willingly subject ourselves to that?"

  3. "We don't have the capacity to handle the inevitable increase in grant requests."
In truth, these hurdles are the result of misinformation and an outmoded culture of privacy. Below, I take a brief look at each and offer my thoughts on why these should no longer be grounds for discounting a public relations program.

Culture Shift

The first hurdle has to do with changing the culture of a foundation from one that is inherently tight-lipped to one that values external communications. Before undertaking this effort, there are two fundamental questions to ask:
  1. In a society where people associate integrity with transparency, is it in the best interest of our foundation to remain compartmented from the community and silent about our impact?

  2. Will positive press for our grantees and/or the causes we support yield a greater return on our investment and therefore allow us to achieve greater impact?
For growing numbers of foundations, the answer to the first question is "no" and to the second question "yes." A 2006 report by the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, titled Making American Foundations Relevant: Conversations with 21st Century Leaders in Philanthropy, offers this:

"Good works do not speak for themselves. Sharing stories about successes and lessons learned contributes to your effectiveness by creating awareness and understanding for what you do…Behavior that is insular, fragmented, and reactionary is perceived to be both widespread and problematic among foundations. A culture shift is needed in order to convey that foundations are benevolent, honest, collaborative, and instructive and that they act with integrity and work for the public good."

The Witch-Hunt Myth

It is a tremendous misperception that the media is looking to bring down people and organizations. Yes, the media does like a good scandal because it sells papers, but that is not what drives reporters and editors on a day-to-day basis. It would be more accurate to say that the media likes a story with two sides: controversy and discourse. But these are also not prerequisites for coverage. Interestingly, stories that are inspirational by nature (i.e., overcoming the odds, making a difference) are getting more attention than ever before.

A separate 2006 report by the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative looked at 38,000 news stories on philanthropy from 1990 to 2004. They found that "[c]ontrary to common perception of coverage about the sector, only 1% of stories analyzed were negative."

What happens is that we tend to remember the scathing exposes more so than other stories because we're thinking, "Thank goodness that wasn't me." Also, consider the content of these negative exposes. They are likely the result of something that was going to receive coverage independent of a foundation's PR activities (i.e., no foundation ever issued a press release heralding fiscal abuses). When all is said and done, the vast majority of media coverage I'm seeing about foundations is positive in nature.

More Grant Requests

Increased visibility will lead to a greater influx of grant requests. I won't tell you otherwise. However, if a public relations program is grounded by solid messaging that clearly defines the foundation's mission and outlines the kinds of grants it makes, the benefits should be twofold: a stronger pool of grant requests and, in the long run, a healthier philanthropic investment portfolio for the foundation.

I was recently speaking with Jeff Martin, director of communications at the Council on Foundations, about this topic. He made the analogy to American Idol. When the show first started, they had a finite talent pool from which to draw. As the program grew in popularity, they developed systems to vet greater numbers of candidates, which resulted in a much stronger talent pool. By vigorously articulating grant-making criteria and clearly communicating this information to prospective grantees, the influx that comes as a result of public relations efforts can be effectively managed.

A Final Word

All of this is academic, of course, if you do not believe that PR will ultimately help grow the impact and efficacy of your foundation. If PR is something that you are considering, but you are not certain where to begin, I recommend dipping your toe in the water first. For relatively low cost and a minimal investment of time/resources, foundations can outline short-term PR projects with clear and definable objectives. These initial projects will serve as the litmus tests for continued, and perhaps even greater, integration of a communications strategy into your foundation's operations and culture.

About the Author:

Rich Polt is the founder and president of Louder Than Words, a Boston-based public relations agency serving foundations, nonprofits, and businesses that are philanthropically minded, community-driven, and socially responsible. The agency's mission is to communicate the inspirational stories of organizations and individuals to the world. A seasoned communicator and media relations specialist, Polt has worked extensively with all forms of media on the local, regional, and national fronts and has represented a wide range of clients from both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.
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