Between the TED-like musical interludes, celebrity panels and creative spaces, this year’s Council on Foundations (COF) meeting in Los Angeles, Calif., felt more like a retreat for Fortune 100 companies than another networking event for foundation executives and staff. At the plenaries, in the hallways, and during late-night bar talk, the conversations focused on topics that wouldn’t be out of place in a business school curriculum or at an impact investment conference: crafting grantmaking strategies, launching communications initiatives, experimenting with new tools and technologies (in particular, gaming), targeting your investments, adopting data-driven decision-making, and embracing risk.

While there were standard panels on effective grantmaking, this year’s COF conference seemed to signal that foundations of all types are poised to start describing the billions of dollars they send to local communities around the world as strategic investments, not just charitable gifts. That shift from an insular and closed industry to a networked, public-facing force for social change isn’t going to happen overnight, but COF offered foundation leaders solid advice for how to embrace it now, achieve success, and have greater impact:

Be smart, have a plan. This may seem as an obvious point, but while most foundations have theories of change, many still lack integrated grantmaking strategies that drive larger organizational goals and objectives. Experts at the conference urged the audience to look at the larger problems they were trying to solve, develop cohesive strategies designed for maximum impact, and incorporate communications into their plans from the start. Marta Tellado, a COF board member and vice president at the Ford Foundation, pointed out that Ford’s true audience is social change makers and that it has sought to prioritize communications to deliver what its audiences wanted—primarily knowledge about issues, and ways to expand networks and deepen relationships. This helps Ford ensure its communications are strategic and aligned with its audience’s interests—a powerful example, whether you’re a start up, or a century-old foundation.

Start the conversation. There were six major panels on communications and how foundations can keep up with and even drive public debate in an increasingly digital and fragmented environment. For me, as a former public affairs director at a foundation, this is one of the most exciting developments; a real signal that foundations are starting to put communications at the center of their strategies. There were panels on the role of gaming and game theory in tackling urgent issues; the diverse role of foundations in engaging the public in debate and conversation; and how best to decide what communications tools and tactics work best. A group of executives from the Ford, Skoll, Rauch, and Knight foundations encouraged their colleagues to start engaging with their audiences now, to experiment with the different technologies, and to embrace the possibility of failure.

Remember to take some risks. Historically, philanthropy takes risks and funds innovation, but there is some concern that as foundations step into the spotlight, many start to play it safe and not fund new or potentially controversial ideas. Bob Ross, CEO of the California Endowment, told the crowd at Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (in partnership with COF), “I shudder to think what would have happened if Martin Luther King or Ghandi or Cesar Chavez submitted a grant application to us today.” Funders need to remember that it is still OK to make risky investments—they often pay off.

Reinvest in what’s working. On the last day of the conference, Policy Link CEO Angela Glover Blackwell demanded that philanthropy do more to help reverse the disappearance of America’s middle class. This was a clear reminder that while funders have made significant investments in organizations helping low-income communities of color find job opportunity, more needs to be done. Calling on governments, foundations, companies, and individuals to reinvest in projects, organizations, and people, Blackwell reminded the audience, “We are not a poor country. We need to apply resources to deal with these challenges … The future is not bright if we don't invest in people who are the future."

Data is important, but it’s not the whole story. Echoing a theme heard earlier this year at SXSW Interactive, relevant data is important, but without the accompanying human stories—which explain what the data actually means—it can do more harm than good. Andy Goodman, a consultant to the world’s leading foundations, told the audience at the closing plenary, “Your data doesn't matter if your audience has the wrong story in their heads.” Together, data and stories make up a complete, clear, and compelling narrative that fully informs decisions about where and when to invest resources, and even how to influence public opinion.

As foundations become more communications-oriented, it is clear that they will have to evolve and make changes to the way they operate to make sure the public understands they do more than just write checks. In fact, foundations— through their work and the work of their grantees—are influencing public debate and are important forces for social change.

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