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Creating a Communications Culture

Highlights from an ongoing Stanford Social Innovation Review blog series on strategic communications, including a new contribution from Barr.

Last week, Jim Canales and I had the opportunity to contribute to “Making Ideas Move.” The blog series, co-sponsored by the Stanford Social Innovation Review and The Communications Network, explores how effective communications has helped foundations, nonprofits, and other organizations drive change.

Drawing on recent research commissioned by The Communications Network, Sean Gibbons, the Network’s executive director, opened the series in January with the hypothesis that communication makes the greatest contribution “when an organization’s brand, culture, strategy, and action are aligned.” Each week since then, new posts from a diverse group of leaders of foundations, nonprofits, and research institutions have explored what that looks like in practice—and how communications has enabled them to “make their ideas move.” Here is a recap of the series thus far:

  • In “Bold but Flexible: How to Effectively Share Your Vision,” Risa Lavizzo-Mourey and Fred Mann discuss how the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation communicates about its vision in ways that draw in both allies and unusual suspects.
  • In “Meeting People Where They Are,” Daniella Gibbs Leger, senior vice president for communications at The Center for American Progress, reflects on how dedicating more than fifty percent of the organization’s operating budget to communications and outreach—and fully integrating communications across the organization—has enabled the Center to reach the broadest possible audience.
  • In “The New Communications Imperative,” Andrew Sherry, vice president/communications of The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, makes the case that “communications is not just an opportunity for nonprofits; it’s a necessity.”
  • In “The Chief Engine of Change: Conversation,” Evan Wolfson and Kevin Nix of Freedom to Marry explore the power of conversation to make what once seemed impossible now seem inevitable.
  • Making Things Catch On” is a conversation between Sean Gibbons and Jonah Berger, Wharton School professor and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. They explore the science behind why things become popular, and how to make word of mouth work for social change.
  • Drawing on lessons learned from several successful national campaigns, in “Big Communications for Small Nonprofits,” Next Generation President and CEO Matt James argues that strategic communications can deliver outsized impact even without huge budgets or headcount—so long as leaders “develop and constantly reinforce an internal culture that values effective communications.”

Our piece, “Creating a Communications Culture,” picks up where James leaves off on the topic of culture. In it we offer three guiding principles we have used at Barr—mission alignment, leadership buy-in, and outside wisdom—to foster a culture that embraces a more central and ambitious role for communications.

We look forward both to following and engaging in this continuing conversation and to future opportunities to share about what we are learning. And, as always, we welcome your feedback.

Hear from Jim Canales on opportunities for foundations to use their voice:

Making Ideas Move, presented in partnership with The Communications Network and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is a blog series on how effective communication has helped foundations, nonprofits, and other organizations drive social change.

Articles address the purpose and impact of strategic communications, what it takes to improve communications, how to foster a culture of communications, the power of a nonprofit brand, and other tools and approaches organizations use to maximize communications and make their ideas move.


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