Have an Appetite for Change? Feed it with Communications

This article is cross-posted from The Communications Network‘s Change Agent.

By Debra Silimeo

Transforming communities for the better—whether it’s rallying citizens and policy-makers behind actions to prevent cancer, motivating youth to help seniors, or mobilizing neighborhoods around community water fluoridation—requires a healthy appetite for change.

And while “change” as a mantra is much beloved, in reality it can be either painful or painfully nonexistent.

Foundations that identify and invest in organizations using communications  as their most powerful agent of change are more likely to see high returns on their investments. Why? First, they give communications a seat at the strategic planning table. Too often, communications is seen or treated as simply a department or a shop through which to take big ideas for packaging into simple tactics like small pieces of collateral— think brochures or social media posts.

The nonprofit organizations that see communications as a vehicle for change are characterized by people who understand the complexity of situations, but are not intimidated by them. These are organizations where everyone has a role in the organization’s communications, rather than just using their communica- tions shop as a service provider. Second, they think beyond “target audiences” and focus on building engagement with partners and co-creators of change.  They are people who use all of the best practices of communications and social marketing—including research, creative, audience-centricity, compassion-driven strategies, and evaluation—to truly make a difference.

AARP Foundation’s Mentor Up is a program built around a variety of communications and outreach strategies to transform a community very much in need—older adults who feel isolated and disconnected from the world around them. By communicating to millennials and helping them recognize the value in community service to help older people, Mentor Up has used communications  not just as a strategy, but also as a change agent. The results—the return on investment—are powerful: younger adults working toward a common good with older adults, more struggling seniors are being connected to their community and needed resources.

At its basic level, communications sees the end goal as reaching audiences. Great communications sees the end goal as getting audiences to take action steps—whether it’s adopting cancer prevention actions, attending a volunteer event with seniors, or writing in support of community water fluoridation—that work in conjunction with other actions steps to result in measurable change.

Given these realities, what do you need to know in order to invest your philanthropic dollars in communications as a change agent? As you’re identifying the most effective nonprofits through which to channel grants, consider the following questions. They can help you identify organizations that will bring you the integrated communications strategy you deserve and the change agents you need:

  1. Is communications a driver in the basic design of the nonprofit’s programs and services? Too often, organizations allow programs and services to drive communications, rather than recognizing that programs and services should be designed with engagement and communications in mind—and that all of these work in unity. Even the relatively small step of bringing a partner to the table before the program is finalized, so that they can have a say in how it will work best for them, and feel ownership, can make a huge difference in their level of engagement andhow they communicate it.
  1. Is communications success defined as engagement and conversion rather than simply impressions? The days of valuing only impressions and website hits are dead. Work with organizations that understand audiences as partners, but recognize that the end goal is getting them to do something—to take some sort of defined action.
  1. Are the organization’s leaders chosen because they “get it”? Does their role reflect this approach? Leaders used to be able to get by simply on the power of their fundraising prowess. No more. Consumer audiences are frighteningly savvy, but their attention is incredibly divided. An effective nonprofit leader’s ability to communicate effectively across multiple channels is quickly becoming as or more important than the ability to ask the right people for money.

For you and the grantees in which you invest, a critical distinction is that of being an “organization with a communications department” vs. an “organization that communicates.”  And the most important question for your organization: Are you leading to inspire change?

Choosing the latter helps ensure your investment goes toward an organization that is leading to transform communities—and ultimately inspire change.