Communications Furthering the Mission: How Does it Work in Practice?
[Strategic Communications: A Blog for the Perplexed is a Jewish Funders Network blog series in which communications experts answer questions from Jewish funders on how to use strategic communications to further their philanthropic missions.
Submit your questions for this blog series by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put “Blog for the Perplexed Question” in the subject line.
This installment’s question is answered by Lisa Colton, Michael Hoffman, and Bridgett Colling of See3 Communications, a digital agency for do-gooders that works extensively in the Jewish community to create digital strategies, and advises foundations and associations on their own strategies and how to support grantees and affiliates.]
Q: I’ve heard communications people say that I shouldn’t think of communications as just “getting the word out,” but as a tool to further my mission. It sounds great in theory. But I’m really not clear about exactly how that’s supposed to work in practice. How can communications help me achieve a specific goal – say, increasing enrollment in Jewish day schools, or engaging more Millennials in Jewish life?
A: This is the essential question that drives communication strategy today. You’re right – communications is no longer a bullhorn to blast your own message, but rather a lever for change. What kind of change you want to make will drive your communications, which is one of multiple strategies to achieve that goal. In this post, we’ll offer you three ways to put that idea into practice with examples from foundations and organizations that are doing it well.
1. Target the Right Audience.
In today’s attention economy, we are no longer designing a “one size fits all” message. In fact, we have to be incredibly insightful about each audience segment, and take their needs and mindset into account as we design.
The Samis Foundation in Seattle, for example, is working to increase the number of families who consider (and thus also increasing the number who enroll) in Jewish day schools. They started with an initial focus on incoming kindergarten families which felt fairly specific. However, they have learned that there’s a big difference between those families considering independent schools (expecting to pay) vs. those who assumed they would send their kids to public school (not expecting to pay) and the difference in messaging for each is significant. They are in the process of developing specific content marketing strategies for each audience segment to provide them with valuable information that speaks to their unique needs and goals.
So think about this: Who are your audience segments? How specific can you be, and what attributes important to consider in detail? How can you get insightful (and honest) about what they are thinking and feeling as you develop your communications?
2. Work Your Network.
Peer influence is powerful. Consumers today (members, participants, donors, etc.) are more trusting of their peers (or even other individuals they don’t know) than a brand. Why? Because companies and organizations always have some kind of agenda, whether they are trying to sell you something, get a donation or ask for your time. Because of this, sometimes you need to take an indirect route to reach your goal: activating influencers to share their decisions and passions with their own networks. You architect the general message, and then benefit from the peer-to-peer influence. You design for the network effect.
To illustrate the point, let’s look an example from the Alliance for Jewish Education in Detroit. The Alliance brought together a number of local Jewish early childhood programs help increase enrollment across the city. Working together, the coalition of schools launched a “Why I love my Jewish early childhood program” campaign with … paper and pens! They printed out large format paper with the prompt, included the hashtag, and provided thick pens as they invited parents and kids to create personal, positive messages about their experience with Jewish early childhood education, and to take photos holding their signs. They were encouraged to post these photos on Facebook and Instagram. The campaign provided just enough scaffolding to catalyze people to act, and plenty of creative freedom to make the messages (and photographs) their own so they’d be comfortable and inspired to share it with their own networks.
What is the message you need to propagate through networks to help achieve your goals? Does it need to be designed so that your strong influencers will share it (high resonance) or that thousands of people will share it (high volume)? How can you get your internal team on board to help get your message out?
3. Shift Organizational Culture.
A communications strategy that sits on your shelf is useless. Communications is like the nervous system of your organization, coordinating functions internally, picking up on influences from outside the organization to respond to, and intentionally crafting how you engage with others. Communications is just as important for getting your internal team in alignment as it is for activating your supporters and constituents.
After 35 years of growth, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America was struggling to reach new donors through their familiar messaging of the impact of a wish on a child with a life-threatening illness. The organization invested in research and a new audience-centric (and specific) communications and content marketing strategy. One major “aha” was to pivot from Make-A-Wish being the “hero” of their stories, to the donors being the heroes. This insight was great at a national level, but getting their 65 chapters on board with the new strategy was a bigger challenge. Many development and communications staff were hesitant to shift from their status quo to digital marketing tactics intended to cultivate donors outside their traditional reach. It wasn’t enough to share a report or a new communications blueprint with the chapters – they needed to shift the organizational culture and narrative to embody the new strategy.
Make-A-Wish invited chapters to a communications “boot camp” that provided training chapters were hungry for, and embedded the lessons and narrative of the communications strategy within these trainings. By offering dedicated support to these chapters, the organization has been able to adapt its national strategy to fit each chapter’s needs. Through cross-chapter project-based learning, communications is actually shifting the entire fabric of Make-A-Wish, and building teams that have the tactical skills and strategic expertise to grow the organization over the long term.
What’s the bottom line? Communications isn’t about the work, it is the work. It’s a part of everything your organization does, and effective outreach is critical to mission fulfillment in the ways described above and so many others. Just like your own nervous system, it’s not a side-dish. It’s the underlying system that animates everything else. We hope that these small insights and examples can help you envision and enact more impactful, effective communications to help your foundation achieve its goals.