MCF Welcomes Chris Oien, New Web Communications Associate

August 8, 2011

Chris Oien We are pleased to welcome aboard Chris Oien, who just joined MCF as our Web Communications Associate. Chris has five-plus years of experience in website management, email marketing, and using social media and other online tools to communicate with an organization’s members and other key stakeholders.

Chris holds a Masters of Library and Information Science degree from St. Catherine University, and a B.A. in Mathematics from Macalester College. Most recently, he was the Communications & Accounts Manager for the Lake Street Council in south Minneapolis. Chris also serves on the board of the Twin Cities chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, whose mission is to provide and promote opportunities for the development of young nonprofit professionals.

MCF Welcomes Communications Intern!

July 18, 2011

The Minnesota Council on Foundations welcomes McKenzie Mackintosh as its new communications intern for the summer.

McKenzie is a senior at the University of Iowa, where she is majoring in communication studies, minoring in fine arts and earning a certificate in entrepreneurship.

During her time at Iowa, McKenzie has volunteered at the Johnson County Crisis Center Food Bank, helped coordinate various fundraising events for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Iowa, served on the executive board of the only student-run advertising group on campus, and is an active member of the Chi Omega fraternity. McKenzie will graduate in May 2012 with the hope of working in the nonprofit sector in Minnesota.

At MCF, McKenzie will:

  • Develop and update a comprehensive media contact database for the dissemination of news on MCF research and programming.
  • Conduct research on the Twin Cities, outstate and national media, in order to update and include new media contacts in MCF’s database.
  • Put her writing skills to use on the Philanthropy Potluck blog, Giving Forum, online program descriptions and follow-up articles on MCF-coordinated programs.

Thanks to McKenzie for lending us her skills for the summer!

Using Communications Strategies to Increase Foundations’ Public Policy Impact

August 23, 2010

The desire to achieve impact is taking yet another step. First, there was great talk about foundations moving beyond writing checks to figuring out how to change the systems that may have created the need for the check-writing in the first place.

This has led to more and more foundations putting their resources – money, knowledge and connections – toward public policy engagement and impacting public policy. We highlighted the work of several Minnesota foundations in this arena in our Summer issue of Giving Forum.

Now, a first-of-its-kind report from the Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy at the University of Southern California focuses on the question of how foundations that wish to engage in public policy are using communications to expand the reach and impact of their work even more.

The study, released in May and aptly titled “How Foundations Use Communications to Advance Their Public Policy Work,” compiles interviews with senior communications officers at 18 of the country’s largest foundations, including MCF member W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Three structural models for communications staff at these foundations emerged:

  • The advisory model, in which the communications team advises program staff both formally and informally.
  • The embedded model, where communications staff are embedded in the foundation’s major program teams.
  • The communications department model, an approach where a separate communications department produces independent products and programs, in addition to serving as advisers.

While the communications staff sizes are small, communications work extends beyond core staff and encompasses what consultants, partners and grantees do as well.

Study authors James M. Ferris, Marcia Sharp and Hilary J. Harmssen identified 10 distinct strategies foundations use to boost their public policy engagement through communications. Five are within a foundation’s grantmaking work, and five go beyond it:

Five Strategies Within the Grants Program

  1. Build communications support into the budget for a larger program – includes funding communications components of larger project grants related to public policy engagement.
  2. Give grants or contracts specifically for communications – includes stand-alone communications grants for strategy development, implementation, or messaging, as well as companion grants to projects or research studies with significant policy implications.
  3. Provide expert consulting support to grantees – includes expertise provided by consultants or networks or directly by foundation staff to further an organization’s skills and expertise in strategy development, messaging, social media, polling, and other general communications tools.
  4. Offer communications capacity building to grantees  – includes programs to build grantee skills and knowledge in organizational development, advocacy, strategy, and social media.
  5. Train program officers – includes programs on funding advocacy and communications, the role of communications in policy engagement, basic communications strategies and tactics, and legal issues related to advocacy and policy engagement.

Five Strategies Beyond the Grants Program

  1. Sponsor convenings – includes community forums and other forms of gatherings that bring together key actors and influences on an issue.
  2. Do direct media outreach – includes activities conducted in the name of the foundation, as well as on specific policy issues such as op eds, press releases, blogs, etc.
  3. Use the CEO’s bully pulpit – includes speaking, writing, or blogging on particular policy issues or topics, and calling meetings and conducting relationship building with important stakeholders.
  4. Establish communications departments within the foundation – includes publishing, creating news services, producing public education campaigns, creating media partnerships, and running awards programs.
  5. Build a cause brand – includes creating favorable/trusted name recognition for the foundation, as well as consciously developing a cause brand around a particular public problem or issue.

While communications can play a vital part in a foundation’s public policy work, interviewees stressed that the greatest challenges are: to manage the complexity of relationships involved for a core communications staff what works on daily basis with individual grantees, coalitions and collaborations, program officers, contractors and consultants; and content experts, and to integrate communications into the program work, especially at an early and strategic level.

– Chris Murakami Noonan, MCF communications associate

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High

July 30, 2010

Earlier this week, I attended a conference for the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.  The Forum is a network of associations from across the country, so I was glad to connect in-person with our colleagues. 

The conference planning committee did an excellent job providing relevant content.  For me, our most interesting plenary session was on Crucial Conversations, delivered by Ron McMillan from VitalSmarts. The stage was set for this session as we talked about how the field of philanthropy is changing.  Transitions like these often require staff and members of regional associations to engage in difficult conversations about future directions and the role associations play in supporting grantmakers on their journeys.

McMillan and his team call these discussions “crucial conversations” (which also happens to be the title of their best-selling book). Crucial conversations are those that have high stakes and opposing opinions, and that trigger strong emotions.  They are crucial because decisions about our future are often on the line.  In other words, these are conversations that matter.

Unfortunately, when it matters most, we often do our worst.  Others judge us by the way we handle these conversations.  While crucial conversations make up only about 10% of the conversations we have, they are the conversations that people remember us by.

When the stakes are high and there are disagreements on what to do and our emotions are coursing powerfully through us, people tend toward two reactions:

  • We go silent and cave in without effectively communicating our point of view, or
  • We go violent (sometimes physically, but most often vocally) and let our emotions get the better of us, so that the content of the discussion becomes clouded by the outburst.

There are consequences to both of these reactions.  When we “go silent” and shut down, the problem that we are trying to solve only gets worse, because we fail to be honest and open about our thoughts on the matter.  When this happens, organizations get stuck in old ways and old ideas.  When we “go violent,” other people react by getting defensive, or worse, getting even.  Problems don’t get solved because the conversations are so volatile that we lose sight of what we were arguing about in the first place.  

Master communicators neither “go silent” or “go violent”.  They remain calm.  They ask probing questions.  They encourage dialogue, or the free flow of meaning.  And they make it safe for others to join them in crucial conversations by creating mutual purpose (“You know that I care about your goals”) and mutual respect (“You know that I care about you”).

Crucial conversations are hard, but they happen every day in foundations and nonprofits.  Think about the conversations that take place in your organization: When do crucial conversations come up?  How are they handled?  What can you do to make your organization a safe place for these kinds of conversations?  Please comment on this post with your tips and tools for how you engage in crucial conversations.

-Stephanie Jacobs, MCF director of member services

A Video for the Social Media Doubters on Staff

May 24, 2010

Sometimes it can be challenging to communicate to higher-ups about the importance of experimenting with social media, especially if you are a communicator working in the philanthropic field. To be frank, with the exception of some brilliantly shining examples, the field has a reputation for being “behind the times” when it comes to online communications, a fact underscored by a recent Foundation Center survey that found only 29% of foundations reported having a website.

This is due in part to limitations of capacity (for example, there are a lot of no-staff family foundations out there). That being said, sometimes people are either not really aware of the sheer size and potential of social media, or may be thinking (or hoping) that social media is a fad and that they can safely wait this one out.

So, if you’re an internal change agent at a grantmaking organization or nonprofit, let me suggest the following video as a nice ice-breaker that vividly illustrates the scale of the social media sphere. Although it has a definite private sector flavor, it’s still a great conversation starter.

This video is by Erik Qualman of the Socialnomics Blog. To see the video in its original context, along with a full list of references for each statistic in the video, check out this post on his blog.

– Cary Lenore Walski, MCF web communications associate