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The Missing Conversation: Why Communications Advocacy Should Remain #1 on Your To Do List

I was confronted (yet again) recently with a pointed reminder of one of philanthropy’s biggest Achilles’ heels – the often overlooked or misunderstood importance of integrating innovative communications strategies into every program.

It happened during a very interesting presentation at the Philanthropy’s Sweet Spot Forum, co-sponsored by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Stanford Social Innovation review. The speaker was Peter Goldmark, now Director of the Climate and Air program at Environmental Defense(ED) (one of the best organizational communicators I know), formerly presiding over the International Herald Tribune and the Rockefeller Foundation. Obviously, Goldmark is one smart guy who knows how to engage his audience.

He told the story of his program’s proposal to FedEx to help transition their fleet to hybrid trucks. ED’s condition? That every FedEx employee receive the opportunity to learn about this change, and its benefits for the climate.

The partnership took off and the transition is in progress. The new hybrid trucks will signal this change in their blue and green color scheme, and for the ubiquitous FedEx truck, that color change is a high-impact communications signal.

This is a win-win partnership. ED’s Climate and Air program derives these benefits:

  • Acclaim for driving a high-visibility conversion to hybrid.
  • Lasting impact – fuel savings build every day.
  • A powerful new corporate ally.

And FedEx also benefits, gaining:

  • High visibility as a socially-conscious corporation
  • Energized, engaged and more aware work force
  • Cost savings in its bottom line

All in all, a great example of innovative social/private sector partnerships. But something interesting happened during the Q&A period. When a forum participant asked for Goldmark’s advice on how to get the word out on the questioner’s paralympic program, commenting that program is nothing without awareness and action, Goldmark bemoaned the fact that it’s almost impossible to communicate effectively in this age of information and advertising overload. He advised that “you can’t push messages anymore” (not quite true, as I see it) and suggested that participants “look to youth, that’s where viral marketing happens.”

To hear this optimistic and visionary leader, and excellent communicator, express a defeatist view of the role of communications caused me no small amount of agita. During his excellent presentation, Goldmark repeatedly encouraged the audience to challenge the points he made. So I took him up on his invitation to challenge, making these points:

  • Program has no impact without communications. The two strategies are halves of a whole.
  • There are innovative ways to ensure program goals are reached, but broad impact is possible only when strategic communications are integrated in the agenda from program planning forward.As a matter of fact, integrating communications in program IS an innovation.

Goldmark graciously thanked me for my comments and perspective, as did many of the other participants. I hope he takes them to heart.

EVENT POST SCRIPT
On further reflection, I emailed Goldmark with these communications recommendations for the ED/FedEx program:

  • Put the FedEx delivery force into action as viral marketers, arming them with a couple of punchy talking points about their hybrid trucks. Viral marketing isn’t captive in the realm of “youth.” It’s as old as whisper down the lane. ED strategically ensured that FedEx employees were schooled on the transition to hybrid trucks. Why not now ask these folks to carry the message forward? I know my FedEx woman well, and we chat several times weekly. We already have a relationship, so hearing the hybrid story from her would be meaningful. This strategy will amplify the program’s goals by:
    • Building understanding of the value of hybrid vehicles among FedEx senders and recipients.
    • Improving FedEx’s profile as a good corporate citizen.
    • Reinforcing the program’s environmental values among FedEx employees.
  • Add a few lines to the back of hybrid FedEx trucks right below the “1.800.Go.FedEx” number. The audience (drivers behind the truck, whether moving or parked) is captive. Great opportunity. Here’s what I suggest.
    • Ask me about my hybrid truck.
    • Less gas.
    • Cleaner air.
    • Here’s how www.FedExGoesHybrid.com (or some other memorable URL)

    This strategy delivers the same benefits mentioned above, but to a broader audience, and at minimal risk or cost.

Do Whatever You Can to Showcase Communications Successes, Relevant Models, and Return on Investment(ROI)

If communications is missing from Peter Goldmark’s perspective, then I’m certain that it’s missing from the lens and conversation of most nonprofit and foundation staff members. That means nothing is more important for those of you charged with communications than to become persistent advocates for communications as the strategy necessary for maximizing program impact. Make, and keep, that #1 on your To Do list.

I’m interested in your thoughts. Do your colleagues get it? Or do they view communications as a support mechanism, much like the accounting and HR departments?

Any suggestions on how to effect change here? Let me know with a comment below.

 

Nancy Schwartz in Leadership and Board Members, Planning and Budgets | 0 comments


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