Boosting Nonprofit Communication Capacity

Betsey Russell

When you get right to the heart of it, communications is about creating conversations. We learn from them, we share in them, and ideally, everyone benefits when they happen. It's why Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation Communications Officer Lora Smith, and I went to the Communications Network conference in New Orleans last week.

 It only makes sense that foundation grantees should reap the same benefits of learning and sharing, but for too many of them - especially in the rural areas where Lora and I often work - there is no established professional communications network to learn from. And having a conversation with yourself gets old pretty darn quickly.

Therefore, it was refreshing to hear a panel of communications experts talk about ways to increase communications capacity building through a number of methods, all of which involve - at their hearts - conversation. The Networked Nonprofit communications guru Beth Kanter; Michael Hoffman, CEO of See3; Eva Penar, director of marketing and communications at The Chicago Community Trust; and Farra Trompeter, vice president of Big Duck discussed all kinds of ways to deliver communications training to grantees via multiple channels.

One example was a master class, a hands-on workshop that brings several participants together for an intensive, multi-day experience that includes homework, lots of peer interaction, and even specific project assignments. At the end of it all, participants can return to their homes armed with new skills and ready to use them.

Networking groups were another example, in which communications folks from different organizations — many of whom wear multiple hats — get together on a regular basis to hear from presenters. They also spend plenty of time talking with and learning from one another.

The best examples of both of the above also include some kind of follow up, whether an ongoing, online discussion group or a more formal coaching arrangement.

Blended models were also presented. One in particular brought a specific group of similar grantees together to focus on social media use. They met in person for a kick-off session, then immersed themselves in a series of monthly webinars with homework in-between, created individual social media “experiments,” and undertook a social media fundraising campaign. Multiple people from each grantee organization participated. Teams shared their activities and experiences with one another via a Facebook group, and each team received regular, personalized coaching and consulting from a social media expert.

Of course, as Lora and I considered all this with our rural lens, we wondered together: What would be most helpful and effective for Babcock Foundation grantees in rural areas? What kinds of conversations do they want to have with peers or pros? How do we overcome the challenge of distance in creating conversations, especially when broadband-based solutions aren’t always viable?

We’re still pondering, and we’ll continue to do so — but we’d love to hear your thoughts as well. What kind of communications conversations, training or networking would be most helpful to your rural nonprofit?

Please share your ideas, thoughts, or frustrations with me at

Betsey Russell of Last Word, LLC is a strategic communications consultant focused on helping nonprofits and foundations better communicate.  Betsey is currently assisting MRBF with a grantee communications learning project.





Betsey, thanks so much for covering the session. I'm so happy to hear that you and Lora found it helpful--and refreshing.

Here are the slides:

Let's keep the conversation going...

Thank you, Farra! We look forward to continuing this conversation and learning how to best support our grantee partners.  Best, Lora

Betsy, thanks so much for your thoughtful reflections. I love your question at the end ... don't forget that conference calls and using online private groups like Facebook can be highly effective for those in rural areas that have to travel long distances (which is expensive) for face-to-face and where bandwidth is challenged. I facilitated a peer learning exchange with grantees that were in Pakistan. I did an intensive on-site, but we did the follow up by phone and FB - plus we worked with identifying an "a student" in each of the locations who could be a resource to other participants once the program finished!

Thank you, Beth! Your work with rural communities is inspiring.

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