Three Pieces of Good News for Foundations

HighExpectations-thumb.pngIf you want to help foundations better connect with engaged Americans—the 12% of U.S. adults who serve as staff, committee or board leaders for organizations working on community or social issues—we’ve got good news and bad news for you. The bad news you might already know: philanthropy faces a sizeable awareness deficit among these citizens. Most simply aren’t aware of foundations, their work, or their impact.

The good news is captured in PAI’s latest report, High Expectations, High Opportunity, based on a Harris Interactive survey of these engaged Americans. The survey suggests three communications opportunities to make better connections with these citizens.

The big one is represented in the headline finding: that engaged Americans have high expectations for foundations. In a time of crisis, they’re looking to foundations to find solutions, speak up and stand apart. We think the opportunity here comes from seeing these expectations as politicians see voter views—as malleable building blocks of a mandate. Show how their work meets the expectations that are realistic, reshape those that are not, and foundations can build support and credibility.

The second piece of good news, also discussed in the new report, is that engaged Americans bring a lot of positive associations and feelings of support for foundations. For example, eight out every ten think it would be a loss to their community if foundations no longer existed. But here’s where things get a little fuzzy. Only two out of every ten can name an example of a foundation’s impact on their community. Engaged Americans seem to value foundations but not know exactly why they do. It’s as if, when you mention the word “foundation,” the right side of their brain wakes up, but the left side stays fast asleep.

The feelings might be willing but the thoughts are weak. It’s not ideal, but it might be the kind of tradeoff most corporate brand managers would take. For philanthropy leaders who want to build a solid constituency of support for the work of foundations among these citizens, the communications opportunity seems clear: tap into this good faith, work to turn passive supporters into active champions, and arm and activate their support with concrete foundation knowledge and experiences.

Which brings us to Opportunity #3. Maybe the most intriguing—probably the most encouraging—finding from the survey was a comparison of two groups of engaged Americans. One group had some kind of direct experience with foundations—engaged as a partner, given a grant, convened in a meeting. The other group had no contact whatsoever with foundations. We wondered: was there a difference in the way the two groups perceived foundations?

You bet there was. If an engaged Americans had some kind of experience, they were about half as likely to feel uninformed about foundations. And while a minority of the “no contact” engaged Americans feel foundations are effective and accountable, a majority of the ones with experience do. On both the effective and accountable measures, experience accounts for a 20-point swing, the kind any political pollster would envy. In short, the more they get involved with foundations, the more they tend to like what they see. The lesson, of course, is to get more of them involved with foundations.

Check out these and other survey findings in High Expectations, High Opportunity. If you’re like us and found PAI’s report on the first two waves of the survey—Philanthropy’s Awareness Deficit—pretty sobering, we think the second report will leave you, if not doing cartwheels, at least feeling more encouraged about what can be done.

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