Marcia Sharp, Millennium Communications Group

Outreach 2010 is a program that takes foundation CEOs and other leaders through a structured day, to rethink and ramp up their communications in the economic downturn. It’s focused on reaching community leaders.

We started it because we thought the stakes were very high for foundations in this recession. There would be not enough money to go around in communities. Too many foundations, if they followed the usual pattern of saying little and engaging less, would come off looking like the hoarders who sat out the recession. And they would add less value to their communities in a time of trouble than they could or should.

What are the big ideas?

One is closing the “experience gap.” 62% of engaged leaders in communities can’t even name a foundation on the first try. 89% can’t give an instance where a foundation made a difference on an issue they care about, according to the PAI survey of engaged Americans. That’s a very weak platform for engaging allies. So Outreach 2010 is equipping foundations to add significantly to the number of leaders in communities who have some direct personal experience with foundations. We’re building a catalogue of ways to do this.

Another is working at the level of the individual foundation, instead of relying mostly on infrastructure groups to carry the ball on behalf of groups of foundations. This is where the capacity for foundations to reach very large numbers of potential allies and partners lies.

A third one is offering a structure that connects data to action. There is plenty of good data on how community leaders and policy influencers view foundations, including the PAI survey. But most data presentations fail to spark real action. Outreach 2010 starts with the data. It then takes CEO-led teams through a series of discussions that explore some new communications frameworks, and then move to the real work of mapping out targets, messaging, strategies and action steps, for each foundation.

What have we learned?

One key thing: CEOs will come, and stay all day.

Another: When we started, we thought it would be the “political” concerns – the downside threat of greater scrutiny and regulation, magnified by economic woe – that would make CEOs want to do a better job engaging with community leaders in this recession. What’s been interesting is that it is the upside opportunity – to build new program partnerships with others, especially with the public sector – that has emerged as an equal or more powerful incentive.

Marcia Sharp from Millennium Communications Group is leading Outreach 2010. The pilot phase of the project was a partnership of Millennium, the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, the Maine Philanthropy Center, the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, and PAI. Learn more about this collaborative project here.