Monday, November 15, 2010

A Communications Associate Speaks Out Against His Profession

I love my job. I really do. I love working in communications, promoting my organization's work, talking to people about it and trying to raise our profile within the sector. I've loved doing that at other organizations I've worked for. But there is a by-product of my profession that makes me uncomfortable.

As communications professionals, we try to make everyone else see why our organization is the best thing out there. I do genuinely believe that my employer is doing some of the most important work in the field and doing it in an innovative way; that's why I work for them. But not every organization can be the most important thing to every individual, or doing the most important work in every field and sub-field. The image that is created when looking at the sum of communications from all nonprofits--foundations, community organizations, research institutions, etc.--would make it seem like each alone has the all answers to social problems. The contributions of others is recognized in person, through presentations or informal contributions, but rarely do I see the prominent display of another organization's work on websites or promotional materials.

Now, this isn't the worst thing in the world. Most people accept messaging with a certain level of skepticism, just like they do not believe everything a corporation's advertisement tells them. But what makes me uncomfortable is the level of competition and isolation it creates amongst nonprofits. (In management speak, this is called "building silos.") We want to prove that our work is better than our peers, which limits how much credit we can give them in their work. Because communications is always linked to fundraising, a constrained and restrained capital market intensifies this competition.

I think this phenomena is most pronounced, and most problematic, between grantmakers and the nonprofits they support. This relationship is inherently collaborative, but I feel like neither parties typically tend to acknowledge the contribution of the other as much as they should. At conferences for grantmakers, the focus is almost always on the strategies of the foundations, not the innovations on the ground coming the community organizations.  At meetings of nonprofit community organizations, funders are seen as bureaucratic overseers, rather than partners. Looking over grantmakers' websites, there is always some sort of mention of "partnership" or "collaboration," but you have to dig to get into any specifics. This is the nature of communications to have a broad focus on the organization up front, and only get into specifics of the work later.

I attended a talk by Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation a few months ago about the new federal innovation programs coming from the Obama administration. He discussed how the requirement for match funding on the Investing in Innovation, Race to the Top and Social Innovation Fund awards actively increases collaboration among grantmakers, and between grantmakers and their sub-grantee nonprofits. He said that this collaboration has many benefits for the nonprofit sector and can cut down on a lot of inefficiencies. I think communications professionals need to find a way to tell the story of their organizations that includes the acknowledgment of these collaborative efforts going on around them. Collaboration is key, and the messaging should reflect that.

I also don't feel like acknowledgment of collaboration--stating that some result couldn't get done without the insights and connections of a funder, or that a community organization's sensitivity to local issues was essential to completing an initiative--always reflects poorly on the organization who did not come up with that solution. The players in the nonprofit sector should recognize that everyone has different roles to play in accomplishing the end goal of social change, and we should find where we fit in and celebrate those different roles. This can also help us focus our energy on our strengths and let our weaknesses be supplemented by others' work. (I think this is also pretty good personal advice, too.)

As the sector shifts towards a more collaborative effort to solve social problems, those of us telling that story need to include the efforts of all the organizations working around us and with us. This more accurate portrayal of the work being done can only help the nonprofit sector as a whole.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

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