It’s hard to imagine, but after nearly eleven years as communications director at the Hewlett Foundation, I’m stepping down to stop and smell the roses, as they say. Why would anyone leave such a great job? Good question. The simple answer is that our daughter is heading off to college, so my wife and I are free to take some time off to travel and consider what’s next.
It’s my farewell week here at the Hewlett Foundation. In addition to making sure that I don’t leave any metaphoric dishes in the sink, this is a time given over to reflection, and—dare I say it—introspection. Having just attended my daughter’s high school graduation, I recognize the pitfalls of attempting to impart wisdom about, well, anything, but I’m going to do it anyway.
Here’s what I’ve learned about foundation communications in ten years, nine months, and four days:
1. Tactics without strategy are pretty much a waste of time.
I’m about to give away the secret to the nonprofit communications strategy kingdom—start your communications plan with a goal, and make it a good one. There, I said it. Organizations are pretty good about designing strategic plans that have reasonably good goals. They want the utility to remove a dam by 2015, or they want to provide reproductive health services for 25% more women in a particular district in Tanzania by the end of the year. Things like that. When the communications plans come in, though, often the goal is do some kind of tactic. Write an op-ed. Get people to like you on Facebook. If pressed, grantees might say that the goal is to “raise awareness” about an issue. Well, I have high awareness that kale is better for me than bacon, but that doesn’t stop me from eating BLTs. You get my point. Good strategies start with good goals, not good tactics. It seems so obvious, but we all know that it doesn’t always go that way.
2. That said, the tactics have changed a lot, and they’re going to keep changing.
I started at the Hewlett Foundation during the first term of the George W. Bush administration. (Some days, but not many, it feels like it was the first term of the George Washington administration.) When I began, most of the popular tools we use today didn’t even exist. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube, none of that stuff. We basically had email. (I’m starting to sound like my grandfather.) Who knows what we’ll have tomorrow? Nobody. Things keep changing, and it’s important to keep up with the kids. So you should do that.
3.I love our communications training program—and I learned that training is hard work and it takes a lot of diligence.
One of my favorite times of the year is when we bring grantees together for communications strategy training. We pick grantees from across the foundation’s programs and learn how to create a communications plan, how to do better presentations, how to improve our storytelling, and other fun things. Grantees are excited, our program staff who attend the training are excited, and everyone goes home energized, at least for a moment. The really important thing we’ve learned is to make sure we follow up with participants about what they learned, and provide as many resources as possible to make sure that what they learned sticks. As it turns out, this is true for just about any training. Many of us have been through speech training, or presentation training, or who knows what other kinds of training, and it’s really easy to go back to the old pre-training ways. So I try to find a buddy who went through the training with me who can keep me honest, and remind me what I’ve learned and help me get back on track if I’ve strayed. So if you conduct or attend a training, spend at least as much time on follow up as you spent on the training.
4. Evaluating the effectiveness of communications is no more or less difficult than evaluating the effectiveness of anything else, which is to say that it’s often more art than science. Nevertheless, you have to try.
Many people have heard the old line attributed to John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Regardless of whether he actually said this, it rings true today. It’s hard to know whether your communications work was the thing that made the difference, but that’s no reason not to try. At my going away party on Monday, after a bunch of speeches, my eighteen-year-old daughter said that she still doesn’t know what her dad, the communications director, does. My colleague Fay Twersky said that the field of evaluation is similarly misunderstood. To this, I propose a new partnership for the twenty-first century—that of the communications and evaluations people. There is much to recommend this marriage. For starters, both evaluations and communications people should be alongside the program folks at the very beginning of a strategy, helping set achievable goals and the best ways to measure them. If you are a communications person, make friends with the evaluators and vice versa. I know you will each learn from each other.
5. The people in this business are really, really nice.
When I started at my job, there was no shortage of people who took me to lunch, took me under their wings, and who shared every bit of communications advice freely and incredibly generously. Chris DeCardy at Packard; Matt James, then at the Kaiser Family Foundation; and David Morse, then at Robert Wood Johnson, were among the first, but there are way too many to count. As they say at the Oscars, you know who you are. To the extent that I have been successful at the Hewlett Foundation, it is because I have been able to bounce most ideas (the good, the bad, and the oh-so-ugly) off my colleagues, and I have always gotten loving but candid feedback. If you are interested in communications (even if you are a program person, an evaluator, or anything else), the Communications Network is a good place to find your brethren and sistren. If you have other interests, there is most certainly a professional support group for you. I urge you to take advantage of the true generosity that our field offers.
With that, I will gallop off into the sunset for a time. I hope to come back next year and reenter the field in one way or the other. It has been an utter privilege to work at the Hewlett Foundation, and I wish my colleagues all the best.
Last week, I learned a great deal about lobsters. At a conference. During the process, I learned not just about lobsters and conferences, but about how we can and must do a better job of teaching our children.
Let me explain: the conference was (full disclosure) funded by our education program in collaboration with the Raikes Foundation, and it was organized by one of our grantees, a public charter school in San Diego called High Tech High. It brought together teachers, administrators, and students from around the U.S. and elsewhere to exchange ideas about “deeper learning”—which is an entirely different way to educate our kids. Rather than list the various characteristics of deeper learning, let me explain how I spent my day at this deeper learning conference, in a session devoted almost entirely to learning about lobsters, and why that was a great thing. Then you’ll know what deeper learning is and why it’s so important that every child receives this kind of education.
The session, which lasted seven hours (yes, you read that right), took place in a classroom at High Tech High. There were thirty or so participants in the session, called A Deep Dive into the World of Lobsters. Other sessions included, among many others, Parkitecture: Using Design and Technology to Support Deeper Learning, and Thinking BIG With Kids Who Are Small: A Deep Dive into Engineering and Literacy for All Ages. Our session was led by Ron Berger and Steven Levy of Expeditionary Learning, an organization that partners with public district and charter schools across the country. Seven hours may seem like a rather long time for a conference session. In fact, I have been in many one-hour conference sessions that felt like seven, but this session flew by.
If you watched theexcerpts we posted from our interview with Larry Kramer you probably noticed that he is not shy about offering opinions on a wide variety of topics. In the full interview, you’ll learn even more:
That foundations might be better at starting things than finishing them.
What Larry thinks about the Foundation’s approach to “strategic philanthropy.”
That a workplace where people are “extremely nice” to each other can be both a good and a bad thing.
That we might have the only foundation president who can claim expert knowledge of both the underground rock band Pere Ubu (Larry suggests you look them up) and the Talmud.
When Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer started his job, he thought it would be relatively easy to get foundations to collaborate on grantmaking. It turns out that it's more difficult than he anticipated. Here is a brief video of Larry discussing with his customary candor what he has learned about foundation collaboration since becoming president.
People who read Larry Kramer’s kick-off blog post probably got the sense from his lively prose that he’s an interesting fellow. They’re right. In order to give you a better idea of what the Hewlett Foundation’s (relatively) new president is really like, I sat down with him for an interview. It ended up revealing how he has approached the challenge of taking over a successful foundation while adding his own creativity and intellect. Thankfully, it also proved to be a pretty lively and freewheeling discussion.
We’ve broken the interview up into a couple short pieces organized by subjects, and we'll share the full interview in the new year. The reason is twofold – 1) who has time to watch a long video with the holidays upon us? and 2) it gives us more opportunities for blog posts (NB: Here the author inserted a smiley-face emoticon. It has been removed. -ed.)!
In this first installment, Larry talks about his initial thoughts on the Foundation’s exploration into grantmaking designed to reduce political polarization.
Last month, Larry Kramer kicked off the Hewlett Foundation’s new blog by explaining that the blog is one element of the Foundation’s evolving approach to transparency and openness. Larry explained that we will try to share as much information as we can about what we do and why we do it. Sometimes we just share items of interest. (By the way, if you’re not following Ruth Levine’s Friday Notes, you should. They’re really interesting and fun.)
It’s not enough to make information merely available, though. We are also going to try to make that information easy to find and easy to use. We are going to talk more about it in the future, but we are just getting started on a project that we think will help deliver on our commitment to transparency. We’re conducting research into the kind of information about the Foundation that people are most interested in and we’re going to figure out how to make that information easy to find and easy to use. We are already discovering that it’s harder than it looks. People have wildly different interests and different ways of seeking out information. We will spend the next several months conducting research on this question, and we will have much more to say about it as the project develops.
There are a few things we are doing right away. For example, we are beginning to make more information about our grants available on the website. We are now publishing the summaries of grants that we provide to our Board so that grantees, grant seekers, other funders, and interested observers have a better sense of the purpose of the grants. We began by publishing new Global Development and Population Program grants from our most recent Board meeting (those listed as awarded on November 10, 2013 in our Grants Database), but we will expand to the rest of the programs after our next Board meeting in March. We’d be very interested in knowing how people use this information, if in fact they do.
For the last several years, when we published our annual report, we included the annual memos that programs submit to our Board. This was a pretty good example of potentially useful information that we made public, but I have to confess that we didn’t do a good enough job of publicizing this information. You can read these memos in our most recent annual report. In them, each program reports on the past year and gives the Board a sense of what to expect in the coming year. It’s a way of holding ourselves accountable to our Board and to our own strategies. If you are interested in learning about a program’s strategy, this ought to be pretty useful information. Is it? Let us know.
We are by no means the only foundation to make this kind of information available, by the way. As we were refining our approach to transparency, we learned a great deal from a number of foundations that we think do a great job of sharing information. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Gates Foundation are just two examples. Are there exemplars of openness that you can cite? Please share them. We need as many models as we can find.
As I said, we are by no means pioneers, but my guess is that our announcement has stirred some interest in this topic. In fact, in the time since Larry’s blog post, I’ve gotten a number of messages from colleagues at other foundations who explained that they are now reexamining their own approach to transparency and openness. I imagine that those are not always easy internal conversations. I would be very interested in learning (to the extent you feel comfortable) how those conversations are going. What do you think the value of increased transparency might be? What might the drawbacks be? If you don’t feel comfortable sharing in the comments field, send me an email (you know where to find me) and I’ll summarize the responses.
As you can tell, like the title of this blog, our work on transparency is very much a work in progress. We are learning as we go, but it feels like we have made a decent start (if the spirited comments to the blog are any indication). Nevertheless, we also know that we have a lot of work ahead of us. Onward!