Understanding the Role and Value of Foundation Communications

The Packard Foundation’s Communications Director, Felicia Madsen, Reflects on New Grantee Research

Communications can support grantmaking in many different ways, and foundations vary widely in how they use communications to support grantees and advance their work. How loud a voice should foundations have? How should they use it? We wanted to know what our grantees had to say about this, and partnered with the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program to help answer these questions.

The results of this study, grounded in a survey and interviews with our grantees, indicate the unique role and value of foundation communications—beyond grantmaking or provision of communications technical assistance to grantees. Here, our Communications Director, Felicia Madsen, reflects on what we learned from this research and how these findings are informing the Foundation’s approach to communications.

Why did the Foundation decide to do this research?

One thing I admire about the Packard Foundation is our support of individuals and leaders who do the on-the-ground work, and the Foundation’s willingness to play a supporting role. For many years, the Packard Foundation was relatively quiet in using communications intentionally to elevate the issues we fund. However, over the last 10 to 15 years, the field of communications changed and continues to evolve rapidly.

Communications is no longer just public relations. It is a suite of powerful, accessible tools that can help the Foundation achieve the long lasting change we hope to see, whether that is to curb dangerous climate change or ensure all women and girls have access to quality reproductive health services. Recognizing an opportunity to more effectively leverage our communications resources to achieve program goals but not having specific data to inform our thinking, we partnered with the Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program to survey our grantees on what type of communications from the Packard Foundation has been helpful in the past, and what might be helpful in the future.

What did you learn from grantees?

Our grantees see value in the Foundation using communications to support their work, and overwhelmingly—though not unanimously—want the Foundation to do more. In addition, we learned that while the majority of grantees would like the Foundation to do more communications, how we do that varied by program area. This feedback makes sense. Our programs vary widely in what they are trying to achieve, the scale at which they are working, and the geographies they work in. This says to me that as we develop specific communications activities by program, we should take this specific feedback into consideration.

What was something that surprised you?

I was not so much surprised, as I was warmly reminded that our grantees are incredibly smart and passionate people who took the time to provide hundreds of insightful and thoughtful comments. We included a handful of representative comments in the final report, but the range of comments from “do more” to “be careful because your quiet brand is valuable” reinforced the strong partnership we have with our grantees and their willingness to provide us with valuable feedback.

How are you using the communications survey findings?

The survey findings were one set of inputs we used to inform how the Foundation will prioritize its communications time and resources over the next few years. We use communications in three ways to achieve program goals. First, we provide grants to support grantees’ communications activities. Second, the Foundation uses communications to share the Foundation’s funding priorities and approaches, and maintain open communication with grantees, potential grantees, partners, and other people interested in our work. Third, and directly supported by the survey findings, is the selective use of the Foundation’s voice and profile to augment grantees’ efforts.


The Packard Foundation’s communications framework

The Foundation has been mostly working in these three ways over the last decade, but we are now aiming to be more intentional in our communications activities to be as effective as we can in support of our program goals.

How are you sharing the findings?

At the outset of this project, we made it a priority to share as much as we could with others about the process and results while maintaining the confidentiality of our grantees’ feedback. We have had the opportunity to share these findings internally with our Trustees, senior leadership, and program staff. In addition, we have presented these findings at the Communications Network and American Evaluation Association annual conferences in the fall of 2016. Of course, we have shared the report on our website, which includes the survey questions for others to use.

What’s next in terms of listening?

As our approach to communications matures, we plan to check back in with our grantees. We aren’t exactly sure what that looks like yet, but we may build on existing feedback loops such as our Grantee Perception Report and ongoing monitoring and evaluation.

The full report can be viewed here: The Role and Value of the Foundation’s Communications: Key Insights from Grantees.