Policy change can’t happen without constructive public discourse and influence. Getting to that influence involves persuasive conversations and well-framed messages. Policy organizations must reach and effectively communicate to diverse audiences, and continually deliver compelling data and narratives in order to achieve their desired outcomes. At its very core, policy advocacy is an exercise in strategic communications.
In 2012, the foundation-commissioned learning report, Sustaining State Policy Infrastructure for Impact on Poverty, provided the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation with clear and instructive recommendations for an investment strategy to strengthen existing organizations and expand statewide policy infrastructure. Among the report’s final recommendations was one that called for a deeper look at grantee communications needs and increased investing in the strategic capacities of infrastructure organizations. We acted on this recommendation with a study of the communications capacity, challenges and needs of 38 grantee partners working on policy efforts.
Our report, Supporting the Messengers of Change, details the findings. The research led us to the conclusion that in order to maximize the efforts of policy change organizations in the South, MRBF must be open to supporting the strategic communications capacity of our grantee policy organizations more intentionally. MRBF is implementing the following recommendations in its practice to move us toward that intentional support. They constitute our investment strategy in strategic communications to strengthen the effectiveness of existing organizations. While specific to MRBF, these recommendations may be useful for other funders’ consideration.
Recommendations for Supporting Grantee Communications Capacity
Simply providing more dollars for staff positions, trainings or polling data might be appreciated by grantee partners, but interviewees told us in all candor that while general operating support is crucial, they have no way to guarantee its use for expanding strategic communications. So, how can foundations be of assistance? We identified four areas where MRBF could better support grantee communications capacity for sustained impact:
1. Update the Foundation’s Organizational Development Materials
In terms of delivering immediate value, MRBF will update and expand its existing organizational development materials to include best practices and guides for communications and communications technology.
2. Exploration and Expansion of National Networks
Given MRBF’s focus on building network capacity, coupled with the absence of existing networks for policy communications in the South, MRBF will explore partnerships to expand or deepen the reach of organizations that are successfully enhancing the capacity of policy groups in the region.
3. Organizational Development Grants for Communications
We found that due to issues of limited resources, policy grantees are not likely to use general operating support for communications without some sort of specific incentive to do so. Therefore, MRBF will consider making specific organizational development grants for enhancing communications effectiveness. The Foundation is also open to supporting new collaborative ways of working among grantee partners that builds communications capacity in a region for greater collective impact.
4. Deepen the Role of the Communications Officer
Deepen the support for Network Officers: The Communications Officer will work more closely with Network Officers to conduct more thorough evaluations of grantee communications capacity, enhance due diligence to be inclusive of communications questions and ensure communications outcomes are made explicit in grant organizational development outcomes..
Amplify successful communications strategies: The Communications Officer already collects communications success stories from grantees in our policy network and distributes them as a means of sharing best practices in real-world, compelling ways to our grantee community and the field. However, we are open to developing a range of new resources based on proven grantee models for strategic communications.
A very special thank you to our partners who participated in this study. We are grateful for your insight and look forward to our ongoing learning and work together.
And to our present and potential funding partners, we are always eager to engage in conversations and partnerships that build a stronger state policy infrastructure in the Southeastern U.S.