Organizational Development

The Case for Communications

How smart, strategic communications can help nonprofits and foundations win.

The Case for Communications The Case for Communications In this multipart series, presented in partnership with The Communications Network, nonprofit and foundation leaders will share case studies showcasing strategic communications efforts that delivered impact, drove change, and advanced their missions. #case4comm

Strategy. It’s the white whale of the social sector. It’s what we’re all seeking. Chances are, the word is hovering in a document on your desk right now.

We hear it so often, it’s easy to lose sight of, or overlook, where the word came from and what it really means. It’s a military term. Strategy was born out of a Greek word meaning “office or command of a general.”

In plain English, strategy means “how to win.” In practice, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Napoleon, Eisenhower, and more recently, Beyoncé (when she dropped her last album online without notice) have perfected it.

But how to win is changing—quickly and dramatically. We live in a new era of information. More precisely, we live in a new era of communication, where new tools emerge at a dizzying pace and empower all of us to see and do more. As a result, we’ve witnessed power dynamics shift on a seismic scale. In a Harvard Business Review cover story, Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans insist organizations need to understand that the rules for success aren’t what they used to be. They write: “Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures. New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes.”

Organizations that recognize these changes realize communications isn’t an adjunct to “the work.” As Andrew Sherry of the Knight Foundation observed in Making Ideas Move, “Communications is no longer an appendage to the work, but an integral part.” In other words, it is the work.

And what important work it is.

Halting climate change. Eradicating disease. Lifting up the arts. Ending poverty. At their core, foundations and nonprofits are in the business of developing and advancing big, bold ideas. If you want your ideas to take hold and win, you need to communicate and communicate well. It’s not an option anymore—it’s a necessity.

About a year ago, The Communications Network and our partners at Brotherton Strategies unveiled a research project called Communication Matters. We found organizations that excel at communications are stronger, smarter, and vastly more effective. They typically have four things working in their favor: a distinct and strong brand; an organizational culture of communication; the decisiveness, agility, and capacity to take action; and, of course, strategy—a clear vision of how to make their ideas win.

As it happens, the “how” of “how to win” matters—a lot. Strategic communications can revolutionize your organization and exponentially expand your impact.

What constitutes modern communications is much broader than many suppose. Practiced at its highest level, communications is so much more than PR or marketing. Smart, strategic communications defines, cultivates, and understands important audiences. It listens. It crafts and shares clear, compelling stories. It builds relationships and deploys influence. It convenes. It designs. It analyzes data and gathers intelligence. It creates conversations. It understands and directs the best of old and new power.

In this article series, The Case for Communications, we will share a variety of case studies that illustrate how smart, strategic communications helped organizations win.

Over the coming weeks, you’ll discover the uproar that followed the killing of Cecil the lion didn’t just happen. The World Wildlife Fund proactively put a communications strategy into action that increased media coverage of illegal poaching by 270 percent. You’ll learn about Professor Aaron Belkin and the Palm Center’s heroic work to remake the debate around “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which led to the policy’s successful repeal. Skoll Foundation will detail how the power of convening helped it transform a small gathering of academics into the center of gravity for social entrepreneurs. You’ll also hear stories, lessons, and advice from, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, California HealthCare Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, Natural Resources Defense Council, Surfrider Foundation, and others.

Simply suggesting that somehow communications is “the answer” to creating social change is wrong. But strategic communications—when approached thoughtfully, informed by data, and delivered with precision—can be transformative.

We aim to offer up an unvarnished look at the strategic choices organizations have made, including how they’ve worked and some lessons learned. We hope this series prompts leaders across the social sector to rethink the role and potential of communications at their organizations, opening new avenues to deliver impact and achieve success.

A great communications team is, in fact, a strategy team. This series will show you why. 

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  • BY Ted Aquino

    ON February 25, 2016 01:24 PM

    Excited and anticipating the case studies! I’m especially interested in the lessons learned.

  • BY Hayford Siaw

    ON February 25, 2016 05:44 PM

    Quite intriguing and thought provoking. I look forward to read more

  • The four factors that assist in exceling in communication sound deceptively simple but require considerable investment and development to attain and master. I am looking forward to the series and seeing some examples of strong story-telling in the new networked age.

  • BY Diane Rheos

    ON February 26, 2016 10:15 AM

    “If you want to use conversation as a core business process, then you have to be intentional about designing the infrastructures that will evoke people’s capacity for thinking together in new ways. It’s one thing to have the personal leadership skills to host a great conversation. It’s another to create an organizational architecture that channels how people collaborate to discover their mutual intelligence. I’ve found that ordinary people in good infrastructure will create better results than their more brilliant counterparts operating in a poorly designed system.” Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter.
    I have been working to transform communication within faith communities the last few years. It’s most powerful to see this as a structural shift to ‘designing infrastructures’. I use the term communication system, which is applying systems thinking to the disciple of communication. To me this goes beyond the traditional meaning of strategic communication. I think it also includes the work primarily done when community building.
    As we have moved to using participatory, from hierarchical systems, there are thinking, patterns and beliefs that need to change so that deep and meaningful conversations happen. It matters that we are in-relationship with each other and able to be more vulnerable. That’s the place where we are creative and adaptive. As you say here, it’s a lot more work, but it is also the only thing that will work. At this point we need the wisdom and intelligence of everyone to transform our world.

  • BY Sean Gibbons

    ON February 28, 2016 09:40 AM

    Thanks Ted, Helen, Diane & Hayford - more to. come!

  • BY Marcia Gray

    ON February 29, 2016 07:36 AM

    I really love your article. Can’t wait to read upcoming post from you and to learn something new.

  • BY Erica Mills

    ON March 1, 2016 08:22 AM

    Love so many things about this piece! So. Many. The plain English definition of strategy—how to win—is now my favorite definition of strategy. Awaiting the rest of the articles in this series with great anticipation and enthusiasm!

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