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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Ten Years, Nine Months, Four Days, and Five Lessons in Communications 

June 5, 2014 — By Eric Brown

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.