ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: CA Wellness Foundation stays out of the spotlight

The California Wellness Foundation doles out millions to nonprofit organizations. But rather than tout its own efforts, the organization's PR team helps the grantees tell their stories.

The California Wellness Foundation doles out millions to nonprofit organizations. But rather than tout its own efforts, the organization's PR team helps the grantees tell their stories.

Unlike most nonprofits, the mission of the communications department at the California Wellness Foundation (CWF) is to keep its name out of the press, and instead draw attention to the recipients of the millions of dollars the organization gives away each year. The philanthropic institute, whose mission is to improve the health of California by funding health-promotion, wellness-education, and disease-prevention projects, focuses its time on gaining notoriety for the broad spectrum of programs that receive its generous funding - from one-person fledglings to well-established nonprofit organizations. While the CWF doesn't mind getting a bit of ink for itself on occasion, the real goal is to influence policy changes by highlighting the progress made by grantees. Since its inception in 1992, the private foundation has awarded 3,133 grants totaling more than $399.9 million. One of California's largest foundations, it makes about $40 million in grants each year. The CWF's unique perspective doesn't stop with its out-of-the-spotlight attitude, however. Along with helping nonprofits learn about how to apply for funding, and even connecting them to each other so they can pool their resources, the organization differentiates itself from other nonprofits with its down-to-earth communications style and commitment to a journalistic approach when speaking to its various audiences. Using the right language "A lot of people in philanthropy speak a very elevated, complex language," laments VP of communications Magdalena Beltran-del Olmo. "They talk about multi-synergistic funding strategies that are quantitatively evaluated to ensure that data is...blah blah blah. I really wanted to stay true to the simplicity and elegance of journalistic material. The language that we use - the headlines, the stories, and the wording - must appeal to the most sophisticated organizations, as well as those that might not have the wherewithal to have a development director." Beltran-del Olmo joined the CWF seven years ago, and founded the organization's communications department. Because of her background as a reporter with publications like The Orange County Register, and her experience working in PR agencies, she was determined to use her skill set as a concise communicator, and apply it to the world of nonprofits. To perfect that approach, Beltran-del Olmo has built a communications team that not only handles a variety of PR roles, but also turns out newspaper-quality stories. "I purposely cross-train them," she says. "Everybody in my department has really solid strategic-communications skills. They all know how to write and edit like journalists." Beltran-del Olmo uses that highly trained team to target a variety of constituents, from those who need the foundation's assistance to the general media, and even politicians who may be able to address larger public-policy issues. But regardless of the target audience, the CWF team starts each project with enough research to clearly understand who it is targeting, and what the most effective means of communication will be. "First and foremost, we are devotees of strategic communications," Beltran-del Olmo explains. "We try to know who the audience is we are trying to reach before we even think about communication." Much of the time, that target is an organization in need of financing. The CWF makes it a priority to let worthwhile programs know how easy it is to apply for funding. "Foundations can be intimidating. We are trying to speak to grantees and prospective grantees. We need to let organizations that might not otherwise approach us for funding approach us," says Beltran-del Olmo. Getting grantees in touch The California Wellness Foundation also works to help grantees learn about each other and network together to share strategies and resources. "Many people who work for the nonprofit sector spend so much time keeping the doors open that they often don't have time to network with each other," explains Beltran-del Olmo. To facilitate that goal, the organization puts together workshops and seminars throughout the year in the hopes that different groups can not only learn from each other, but also collaborate on larger projects of interest to more than one grantee. "They sometimes see that there are many bigger policy issues that they can work on jointly. For example, issues related to the uninsured," says Beltran-del Olmo. The CWF also publishes a series of communications publications called Reflections, which outline the organization's goals and highlight stories from certain grantees. And the CWF's comprehensive website shares information in both English and Spanish. When it comes to reaching the mainstream audience, the CWF focuses on finding the story within each of its grantees' work, and pitches it to the right media outlet. Beltran-del Olmo's team rarely uses blanket press releases, instead preferring to tailor pitches for each publication. Beltran-del Olmo uses a recent example from an award the foundation gives out to violence-prevention leaders in California. One of the previous recipients was a Cambodian immigrant living in Southern California who worked to prevent gang violence in his neighborhood after he had escaped the violence of his home country. "We thought that was one hell of a story," says Beltran-del Olmo. "Not only did we pitch it to The Orange Country Register and the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times, we also targeted the Cambodian-American news media." Because the CWF's communications department is fairly small (only nine people), it often relies on outside agencies for help, especially when it comes to ethnic communications. "They are the best of the best," says Kim Hunter of LA-based LaGrant Communications, an African-American market specialist who considers the CWF "one of the jewels in our portfolio. They respect what my firm brings to the table," he says of the foundation's relationship with his agency. "[Beltran-del Olmo] understands the needs of the marketplace." Going beyond basic translation Many of the foundation's grantees run programs that target non-English speakers, and Beltran-del Olmo points out that it is important for the foundation's grantees to be represented in the media that these communities are most conformable with, and to reach out in nontraditional ways that resonate. To ensure that those constituents are not only getting the information, but are also getting the right perspective, the CWF works with a variety of ethnic PR specialists, including LA-based IW Group, LaGrant Communications, and Valencia, Perez & Echeveste. For the story on the Cambodian activist, the CWF enlisted the help of The IW Group to target the Cambodian press. "You try translating that violence is a public-health issue into Cambodian," Beltran-del Olmo explains of the need for market specialists. "We needed the help of someone like the IW Group to come up with culturally and linguistically appropriate messages." Beltran-del Olmo's approach to PR has given the foundation a national reputation as a communications model to emulate. The organization is consistently cited for its innovative tactics -an accomplishment that Beltran-del Olmo points to with pride, and which makes agencies eager to work with the organization and her team. "They are atypical in every sense," says IW Group's Bill Imada. "They are a fun client. The nice thing about [the CWF] is that they deal with the real issues of today - real issues, real solutions, real people." ----- PR contacts VP of communications Magdalena Beltran-del Olmo Communications officers Julio Marcial Cecilia Laiche David Littlefield Communications associate Charles Padow Communications assistant Dollie Utter

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