Foundations reap what they sow

While corporate foundations improve people's lives, enabling grantees to tell their own story provides great ROI.

While corporate foundations improve people's lives, enabling grantees to tell their own story provides great ROI.

Sometimes a little boasting about charitable work is OK, especially when that bragging may spur other people to get involved, too. For US foundations, which give away billions of dollars in grants every year, effective PR can be a key factor in achieving their goals, whether it be improving education, eradicating disease, or any other worthy cause.

For example, the Princeton, NJ-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a $9 billion philanthropy focused on improving the health and healthcare of Americans, sees the media training it provides many of its grantees as a means for the beneficiaries to become more self-supporting. By improving their communications skills, the grantees can better draw the attention of other funding sources besides the RWJF - not to mention better spread awareness of the cause they represent.

"We have a lot of national programs, and we will encourage [the program team] to have a director of communications, and we'll do media training and presentation training," says RWJF director of media relations Adam Coyne. "We might fund evidence that secondhand smoke is harmful, but if we don't effectively disseminate that evidence, it's not very useful."

Coyne's recent efforts include a kickoff at Phoenix's Diamondback Stadium for a campaign called Covering Kids & Families, which aims get more kids covered by insurance. Families don't often realize they are eligible for Medicaid or KidsCare, so RWJF drafted the help of Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Miguel Batista.

The overall campaign includes extensive media, enrollment, and outreach activities, and grantees feature prominently in much of the communications output.

The same goes for Menlo Park, CA-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, whose programs cover areas from improving education to protecting the environment to supporting the performing arts, media training is also increasingly being provided to grantees, notes Eric Brown, communications director. San Francisco-based PR firm Spin Project recently helped train about 45 grantees in the finer points of communications strategy and marketing presentations.

But even if grantees don't get extensive media training, a little promotional help can help push their causes further. At the Alabama Power Foundation, senior leaders have recently warmed to the concept of promoting grants and particular causes, says Carrie Kurlander, corporate communications director. More important than creating exposure for the foundation itself is the exposure that promoting individual projects brings to the communities they affect.

"A lot of communities need some good news, some positive news," says Bill Johnson, Alabama Power Foundation president. "A little news release from us can really help the whole feeling of a community [in terms of] what's going on and get them behind projects."

Often, it's not the biggest grants that the foundation may decide to promote, Kurlander says. What counts is the impact a grant could have on a particular community, as in the case of $4,300 the foundation provided to a medical clinic for uninsured patients in Jasper, AL. After reading about the clinic in the newspaper, thanks to a promotional effort by the foundation, one person decided to donate some 10 times the original grant.

Clarifying affiliations

Besides the importance of promoting particular causes, some foundations simply need to make sure people understand what they do. Brown says the Hewlett Foundation needs to make sure potential grantees, other foundations, lawmakers, or others understand what the foundation is and what it isn't. For example, the foundation is separate from Hewlett-Packard.

"With Hewlett, we're in the atmosphere of brand confusion with the corporation, whose money helped start the foundation," says Brown. "My counterpart at Packard goes through the same thing."

The confusion is understandable, given that corporate foundations such as the Alcoa Foundation or the Lilly Foundation are, in fact, controlled by the corporations whose names they share, in contrast to private foundations, such as the RWJF, Hewlett Foundation, or Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which were created from the money of corporations or corporate founders, but are now completely separate from them.

For corporate foundations, although they are nonprofit and devoted to charitable work, the communications pros that help promote them readily concede that their foundations' good works help advertise that the corporations to which they are tied do good business and sometimes even help them win new business.

At the Iselin, NJ-based Siemens Foundation, for example, which sponsors math and science scholarships and academic competitions, president Jim Whaley says grants and other activities do help promote Siemens Corp. A recent multimillion-dollar deal Siemens signed with MGM was won, in part, Whaley says, because the work of the Siemens Foundation showed the company to be socially responsible, which was among MGM's criteria in choosing a telecom network equipment provider.

"I have a clear charter and clear rules that I can't generate business for the Siemens Corp. through the foundation," says Whaley, who is also public affairs director for Siemens Corp. "That said, there are benefits to being a good corporate citizen that are recognized by individuals and other corporations."

In the end, foundation publicity is intended to promote not just the foundation itself, but also the foundation's grantees, which ultimately are expected to be able to stand on their own. This focus on practical, sustainable results can be seen at a growing number of foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which recently received a $30 billion-plus pledge from Warren Buffett, the ultimate investor.

How well is a foundation project working? Can other organizations contribute? Answering such questions depends on effective communications among foundations, other corporations, government officials, and the public at large.

"More and more foundations are looking at whether they are actually achieving the things they set out to achieve," says the Hewlett Foundation's Brown. "They want to know if the money is being used effectively and how well can they evaluate if their programs are succeeding at the things they hope to succeed at."

Top 10 US Foundations

Organization                                 Assets              Focus
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation      $28.8 billion   Global health and learning
Ford Foundation                               $11.6 billion    Democratic values, poverty
J. Paul Getty Trust                            $9.6 billion     Preservation of the visual arts
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation       $8.9 billion     US health and healthcare
Lilly Endowment                               $8.6 billion     Community development, education, religion 
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation  $7.3 billion     Social and environmental problems  
W.K. Kellogg Foundation                    $7.3 billion     Health, food systems, education
David and Lucile Packard Foundation  $5.3 billion     Conservation and science
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation             $5.3 billion     Education and the arts
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation   $5.0 billion     Environment and science
Sources: The Foundation Center; foundations' Web sites

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