A Take on Survey of Engaged Americans

Dave Clayton, Neimand Collaborative

It’s interesting for me to step back and consider the take-aways from this PAI survey of engaged Americans. I can’t do it without reflecting on my early experiences researching public perceptions of foundations. While the political and economic contexts have varied tremendously in the past 15 years, I think we’ve made steady progress in understanding how to communicate our contributions and in actually doing it. I see the next five to ten years as a time of great success for foundations in building relationships, working as partners and having their value understood and appreciated by civically minded citizens, business leaders and public officials.

Some of my predecessors had looked closely at a national strategy for communicating the value of foundations in the mid-1990s when there was backlash in Washington, D.C. about the “advocacy” roles of foundations. The research at the time showed that most foundation leaders (largely CEOs) spoke about foundations from a financial process perspective and most external audiences were interested in how people were helped by foundations.

The next field-level investment I was directly involved in spanned a few years, from 2002 – 2006, with various surveys and projects by the Council on Foundations and Independent Sector. Just as in the mid-90s, the communications climate was defensive with a focus on transparence and accountability – even though we were looking for broader positive messages with which to defend and promote the field.

Thinking about these earlier experiences and what the PAI results mean to me, there are three things that stand out:

•    There has always been a tremendously strong commitment to the existence of foundations as a means by which private citizens can take the initiative to give back to people and causes that are otherwise neglected.

•    Even though people are not always precise about what a foundation is or able to identify one, they are consistently positive in their esteem of foundations in general. Even better, the more understanding and direct experience people have with foundations, the more positive their esteem. Interesting to note that community foundations are the most resonant points of contact for individuals and the experiences are very positive.

•    The more detailed and nuanced the “message” the weaker the impact. People don’t readily grasp the ecology of philanthropy in the abstract and have such strong and intuitive responses to the founding principles that we’re better off to start there.

Putting these pieces together in the current political and economic climate leads to my optimism about the next several years. The economic and social pressures for resources, solutions and change are stronger than ever and foundations are increasingly looked to as part of the answer. The greatest opportunity for individual philanthropies and for the broader field lies in what I call “experiential marketing”.

The best bridge from conceptual enthusiasm to pragmatic support shows up in these PAI findings. There is a relatively small group of engaged Americans that are actively involved with social issues and over half of them interact with foundations. The lost opportunity, where experiential marketing comes into play, is that among this same pool of engaged Americans only 10-15% can share an example of how a foundation has benefited their community or had an impact on an issue they care about. By clearly communicating their roles, strategic visions and choices regarding specific programs and initiatives, foundations will help engaged Americans make the link between the experiences they already share with foundations and what they care about the most. The communications are marginal investments within the fabric of current interactions – it’s the extra slide, paragraph or phrase that reminds people about why you are there with them.

The persistent aggregation of voices in daily experiences with community partners, on the issues they care about, is the ultimate communications force that will elevate the field as a whole. We’ve made great progress in understanding the audience, the forums and the message. I see many individual foundations doing great communications as they integrate it throughout their programs and grantee support. With the social and political need for resources and answers, we have a great opportunity to communicate why we want to be a part of solutions as we work with these engaged citizens.

Dave Clayton from Neimand Collaborative is working on a project with PAI on how foundations can effectively communicate their value. Learn more about this collaborative project here.

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