Telling Your Story When Engaging in Philanthropy

by Jo-Ann Mort and Judith Wineman

eJewish Philanthropy featured an article recently by Dan Brown, eJP’s editor, about a donor organization that doesn’t promote its own fundraising through traditional communications outlets. This especially caught our eye because we believe that communications outreach is essential to good philanthropic practice.

Philanthropists need a targeted megaphone beyond the act of grant making or financial contributions. Indeed, a solid communications strategy offers a multiplier for the money a funder puts into the field. This is a critical step for a donor moving from checkbook philanthropy to strategic philanthropy.

Moreover, funders have an advantage that they don’t often employ. Donors have a unique perspective that their grantees don’t often share. That’s because funders can survey an entire field, rather than one piece of it. An executive director of a non-profit organization has to worry about his or her bottom line; they are concerned about their specific organizational mission and goals, and of necessity are less concerned with the field overall. But this isn’t the case for donors, especially those donors who maintain an interest in a field for a long period of time and whose funding assists in creating an eco-system for the field in its entirety.

Donors can see from on high what is going on in a range of non-profits that are working in a given field. For example, if the donor has an interest in advocacy, they can look at advocacy impact; they can chart the impact of policy initiatives and research and they can take the financial pulse of the field, too, regarding what needs to be seeded and what needs to be eliminated, as difficult as that latter decision may be. Many funders today have program staff or philanthropic advisors to do their “due diligence,” but too often, what is missing is the impact of their dollars and how that gets communicated.

Donors need to have a broad based communication strategy, both as individuals and as organizations; they need a narrative to augment their giving so that other donors can partner in their efforts and as a way to ensure that the work has an impact beyond an insular community.

Yet employing or funding a communications strategy is not akin to attaching a donor’s name to a project. Indeed, a solid communications effort can jive perfectly well even with Maimonides’ dictum of anonymous giving as a righteous act. That’s because what needs to be promoted and nuanced is twofold.

First, let’s consider the need for giving; in other words, why must this work be supported by philanthropic dollars rather than, say, government or business dollars? Why does it have to be third sector and not private sector?

Second, what are the desired inputs and outcomes of the funding that would entice other donors to come in as well? There needs to be a narrative created that runs parallel to the giving that tells the story of the need.

Sometimes, the communications work can be taken on as an extra product by the grantee or grantees, but in that case, the donor needs to stipulate it beforehand and provide funds necessary for top-level communications work, just as they would for high impact research or advocacy, among others. Too often, a great outcome by a grantee gets buried because the organization doesn’t have enough money to promote the work in a strategic, smart and layered fashion. Therefore, earmarking funds for communications throughout the grantmaking process is critical to a positive outcome.

Also, there is a convening role for the donor to play, especially if the donor has supported various aspects of a field, like advocacy and research and more. That means that the funder should consider threading the pieces of their philanthropy together to tell a holistic story. It can come from a convening where minutes are recorded, from videos that live on websites and YouTube, from publications, from use of all other sorts of social media, or from savvy use of the media and media outreach to tell a story that sets the various chapters of the work into place.

And, it can also come from something that many donors might even consider counter-intuitive, that is, briefings to their peers with carefully messaged talking points. The passionate donor understands what it feels like to create solid change; part of that positive feeling comes from sharing the experience with others. But whether on a site visit or in a conference room or over lunch, organizing a presentation that will engage other donors in the same passion takes the forethought that comes from a carefully orchestrated communications effort.

Jo-Ann Mort is CEO of ChangeCommunications, a strategic consulting firm based in New York City with clients in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere. Before starting her company 5 years ago, Jo-Ann directed communications for the Jewish Funders Network and also for the US Programs of the Soros foundations network, OSF.

Judith Wineman, of Resource Development Consultants, works with ChangeCommunications on behalf of clients.