Experts seek new nonprofit message

The economic downturn has hit nonprofits hard and foundations are struggling. It's vital to showcase a foundation's value - beyond dollars.

The economic downturn has hit nonprofits hard and foundations are struggling. It's vital to showcase a foundation's value – beyond dollars. In this climate, foundations have a chance to seize the spotlight and state their missions to old audiences and new – both in new and traditional ways.

These issues were front-and-center during a panel discussion Edelman co-hosted with The Council on Foundations and The Bridgespan Group on the need for foundations to communicate their value and demonstrate leadership, “New Agenda/Harsh Realities: Opportunities for Foundations to Step Up in 2009.” Panelists from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Bridgespan Group, Carnegie Corporation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, moderated by Richard Tofel, general manager of ProPublica, offered critical insights.

Communicate what you stand for. “Foundations are perceived as philanthropic ATM machines,” said David Morse of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We need to communicate that foundations are more than their endowment,” added Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and chairman of The Council on Foundations.

Foundations must communicate better as to their mission rather than about their money. As pressure to give more to plug the philanthropy hole rises, foundations also achieve their missions by raising awareness of serious problems and possible solutions. Susan Robinson King of Carnegie Corporation said, “We can't fix problems with money alone. We're not in the needs business; we're in the long-term solutions business.”

Be transparent. Headlines about financial obfuscation make transparency about money and goals more important. As the nonprofit sector faces increased scrutiny, be open about how funding decisions are made, where funds are going, and who makes the decisions.

Partner to amplify your voice. Reduced budgets force you to look for resources elsewhere. Now is the time for collaborations that leverage resources and draw more attention to issues of common concern.

Defend the sector. With deep cuts from government and donors, we are seeing layoffs of nonprofit employees. Alan Tuck of The Bridgespan Group asked, “In this economy, who's going to protect the nonprofit worker?” He urged foundations to advocate on behalf of the nonprofit sector.

Take risks. Foundations can't hunker down and ride out the storm. Hard times demand creative, path-breaking responses. Foundations are well placed for these ideas.

Leverage the other 95% of your assets. Shift focus from the 5% that foundations spend on grants to the nearly $670 billion in assets. A group's investment strategy and its decisions send a powerful signal about its societal commitment.

Leadership shows when people know what you're doing. What is noticed is not how much you spend, but how you spend it. Much like grant making, communications is a strategic endeavor. Communications can be the catalyst to drive your organization forward.

Maria Schneider is a SVP in the corporate social responsibility practice at Edelman.

*Correction: This story originally listed Richard Tofel as managing director of ProPublica. Tofel's title is general manager of ProPublica.

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