Navigating organizational change for impactful scientific communications

In 1999, a group of scientists, communications experts, and conservationists banded together to create a new partnership to raise the public profile of marine science and draw the attention of policymakers to the needs of our oceans. Named COMPASS, the partnership was staffed jointly by the participating organizations, who gave staff time and other resources to the effort. Through communications trainings and support, scientists learned how to use their research and findings to inspire action with broader audiences. This type of strategic communications was in demand and proved effective: COMPASS scored early media and policy successes on the issue of marine reserves.

A grantee of the Packard Foundation’s Science Program, which supports projects that use science to further the conservation priorities of the Foundation, COMPASS made significant, strategic contributions to the marine conservation and fisheries subprograms. But, following their initial success, COMPASS realized they were outgrowing the informal, ad hoc structure of their early partnership. Starting in 2007, COMPASS partnered with the Organizational Effectiveness (OE) program on a series of four projects to develop the organization’s operational fundamentals and strategic direction.

First, the structure. COMPASS worked with a consultant to assess the right operational model for the partnership’s work. The results of this assessment led COMPASS to become an independent project under a fiscal sponsor, which provided the autonomy and agility desired without the administrative burden of a standalone nonprofit. The consultant’s perspective also proved crucial to this sensitive transition. COMPASS Executive Director Brooke Smith said, “An outside perspective was really important. It provided us with a fresh perspective and allowed us to look past what needs to happen in the next couple months. It created motivation and alignment internally. People are naturally adverse to change, and a great outside perspective can support these types of changes.”

As its own entity, COMPASS grew and thrived. The organization experienced increased program success as the geographic reach extended. Two additional operational OE projects followed, including support for developing communications/evaluative capacity and sound funding models. “The collective impact of these grants was a strong structural base. Having a sound foundation allowed our program people to do what they do best. These OE projects elevated our game,” said Brooke Smith.

The investments in the organizational platform prepared the growing staff to address imminent strategic questions. In 2012, COMPASS carried out a strategic planning and branding project to address their next steps as an organization. The project created internal alignment among program teams and built agreement on who COMPASS was and who they wanted to be. The organization moved from operating primarily as a behind-the-scenes player to taking a more active, front and center role among their key partners in the scientific and policy communities.

When strategic planning work concluded, COMPASS had a focused mission and an expanded scope: after almost a decade concentrated on marine issues, the organization would work on broader environmental sustainability issues – including land, air, and water. Brooke Smith said, “Organizational effectiveness support has helped us manage the risk of these big decisions. We felt very informed. Each one of those projects felt risky and involved a lot of change.” With this broader scope, COMPASS entered a more crowded space and had to define the organization’s differentiation and value add. However, the strategic pivot proved fruitful when COMPASS gained a role with the White House, serving as the facilitator of scientific briefings for the Office of Management and Budget. COMPASS has gained recognition as a national leader in science communications.

Since COMPASS began their organizational transformation, the nonprofit has grown by about 50%, operates as its own entity (under a fiscal sponsor), has new fund development tools, and developed an expanded programmatic scope. But at its core, the organization remains dedicated to the same strategy that proved successful over a decade ago: ensuring that science is better understood and used by giving scientists the communication tools they need. “COMPASS remains the class act in their field,” said Packard Foundation Science Program Officer Kai Lee. “They are well positioned for the growth they are striving for.”

The experience of COMPASS demonstrates not only that compelling scientific communications can change the conversation around conservation, but an investment in an organization’s structure and strategy can unlock new organizational potential. Brooke Smith said, “What I love about these projects is that they are positioning our organization to thrive. This is one of the rare and wonderful things about Organizational Effectiveness support.”