By Courtney M. McSwain on behalf of Exponent Philanthropy
Foundations wrestling with the decision to speak publicly about their work received advice last month during Exponent Philanthropy’s 2014 National Conference. Attendees gathered for a roundtable discussion on why and how to speak out, facilitated by Evan Mendelson of the David & Lura Lovell Foundation and Alexandra Toma of the Peace and Security Funders Group.
Participants came to the table with a variety of questions, ranging from how to address transparency to which social media tools to use: Do we need a website, and when? How much do you publicize? How do you convince a board that going public is the right thing to do?
The dominant question was simply, Why go public?
The desire for privacy or a long-held belief that philanthropists should operate without drawing attention motivates more than a few funders to shy away from operating a website, using social media, or engaging the press. But it is important to think about what can be accomplished beyond writing checks, and going public can offer benefits without compromising a foundation’s core values.
Here are four reasons to consider speaking out. Ultimately, philanthropists have to decide individually, based on their goals, if speaking out is right for them.
1. To Find Partners and Leverage Your Resources
There’s a reason organizations rejoice when their websites receive top billing from a Google keyword search—it means they are easy to find. The value of being searchable many not seem apparent at first, but consider what might happen if a like-minded partner (corporate, government, philanthropic, or otherwise) knew of the great work you support and wanted to help. That’s the example Toma shared about a Peace and Security Funders Group member that, after deciding to go public, caught the attention of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The organization was able to forge a $7 million partnership with USAID, greatly multiplying the impact of its philanthropy.
Even smaller opportunities can help to deepen your work. To attract new board members, for example, it is important for the community to know what you’re doing.
2. To Lend an Expert Voice
As Exponent Philanthropy has emphasized, philanthropists aren’t simply check writers—they are experts in a variety of issue areas and bring a host of resources to the table beyond (or in addition to) money. For example, the direct contact you have with nonprofits offers a unique perspective other public leaders, like policymakers or analysts, do not have. Funders have the ear of those working to solve social problems and can use that point of view to inform public debate. Op-eds are a great way for philanthropists to bring attention to causes they care about and add a new voice to the conversation.
3. To Help Grantees Tell Their Stories
Funders can avoid appearing self-promoting by focusing their storytelling on grantees. As Mendelson shared, when the David & Lura Lovell Foundation build its new website, the organization decided to use storytelling to bring attention to the organizations it supports. The foundation even used the occasion of its 20th anniversary to sponsor radio spots for five of its grantees to help elevate their messages to the public. Others emphasized the value to grantees when funders retweet or otherwise share their messages—for example, adding your respected voice to their fundraising campaigns.
4. To Streamline Operations
Funders with websites find they receive fewer calls and more relevant proposals, because websites answer grant applicants’ basic questions and make funding priorities clear. “The first thing people do is look you up,” said one participant. “If you want to be transparent about what you do and how you do it, you need to have an online presence.” You don’t want online systems to replace real conversations in all cases, but they can help to save valuable time, in the right instances, for you and for grantseekers. See more from Project Streamline
Exactly how do funders go public? Attendees discussed a range of options, including websites, press releases, storytelling on websites or in other ways, blogs, social media, and befriending the media (including local media who may relate to the local component of your story or your grantee’s story). See Going Public With Your Giving for specific examples of big and small ways to make your philanthropic interests known.
Also follow the #OutsizedImpact buzz on Twitter now through Giving Tuesday (December 2) as Exponent Philanthropy goes public with stories of 35 philanthropic initiatives that leveraged dollar and non-dollar resources to achieve unanticipated impact.
Courtney McSwain is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer consulting with nonprofits and mission-based organizations to tell the stories of their work.