Far too many nonprofits view communications as a secondary function to the main work of the organization. In the eyes of the CEOs who lead these organizations, communications involve little more than issuing press releases, answering media queries, and putting together an annual report. Some foundations even go out of their way to not communicate, preferring to operate in stealth mode.

Other nonprofits, however, view communications as a strategic function integral to the organization’s overall work. These organizations, I believe, will ultimately be more successful. I had the privilege several weeks ago of moderating a panel of five nonprofit CEOs who not only believe in strategic communications, but also practice it. The panel was part of the ComNet15 conference held in San Diego by the Communications Network.

One of the CEOs on the panel was Judy Belk, CEO of the California Wellness Foundation. “For me, communications is as basic as the air you breathe, because I don’t think you can do squat without communicating.” She added, “My motto is 99 percent of the world’s problems can be solved by better communications.” One of the reasons Belk feels so strongly about communications is that “I was a communications professional before I was a philanthropic professional.”

Another member of the panel was Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, who started at Heinz as the director of communications. “There are only three things that foundations do when we’re using our power well … bear witness … awaken empathy … and evoke action.” He went on to say, “I’ve never been able to figure out how we can successfully do what we do without it being about communications.”

At the California HealthCare Foundation communications professionals have long been an integral part of the programmatic team, said CEO Dr. Sandra Hernandez. “It was really a strategic partnership … How communication media, infographics, video distribution, community meetings, webinars, how all of those tools could be used in furtherance of the programmatic goals.”

When most people think about a foundation’s assets they think about its money, its people, and its network, but as Matt James, president and cofounder of Next Generation, pointed out, foundations also have a voice.  “This is one of the things that is I think hardest for a lot of foundations to figure out, what is their voice? How much are they out there talking for the issues that they care about? How much are they putting their brand out there?”

Foundations also have an obligation to help give voice to those who have less power. “It’s an important job for foundations to provide and hold the microphone for folks who are not usually heard from,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of The Annie E. Casey Foundation. “It is both our responsibility to be clear about what we have to say, and it’s also, from my point of view, our responsibility to think about whose voices are not being heard.”

To hear more from these five CEOs about the importance of strategic communications watch the video below. You can also listen to the podcast, read the transcript, or review the illustrated notes.


ComNet15: CEO Roundtable from The Communications Network on Vimeo.

Read more stories by Eric Nee.