New Resource for Mid-Career Communications Foundation Staff in Northern California

NEO Philanthropy prioritizes building strong capacity, including communications capacity, among social sector organizations.  We engage with philanthropic partners to provide resources, tools and trainings that strengthen the ability of organizations and deepen the professional skills of staff to tell stories, advance messages and shape narratives.  Read about one recently launched project with NEO Philanthropy’s Robert Bray and Northern California Grantmakers aimed at mid-career foundation communications staff.

This post originally appeared on North California Grantmakers 

At our best, communications staff at Northern California Grantmakers’ member foundations tell the stories that advance social progress while making philanthropy’s work understandable and accessible to the people who rely on it. To reach our highest aspirations, practitioners need support overcoming professional barriers unique to their work.

In a survey of mid-career communications staff and their supervisors, we discovered that many feel isolated in their roles and eager to build their professional knowledge, skills and networks. In response, we are piloting a first-of-its-kind, six-month training program in 2019 to a small cohort of applicants.

We received input from 18 communications professionals, representing mid-career staff and supervisors from nine foundations, in our needs assessment and training feasibility study completed earlier this year.  This input has shaped our thinking for this cohort. Findings include:

Peer connection ranked high.

  • The idea that all cohort members would share a geographic location and be at a similar career point resonated.
  • Participants are interested in addressing communications challenges unique to the Bay Area-Northern California with their peers.
  • “There is very little space in philanthropy for communications people like me to talk to each other, especially with shared geography, in the same media market, facing similar cultural, political and professional challenges at this point in our careers and associated with the issues our foundations work on,” said one respondent.
  • “I have not found my peer cohort yet, and Bay Area philanthropy can feel closed and siloed,” said another respondent.
  • “I want the networking opportunity and space to bounce ideas off each other.”  One supervisor said, “Not all staff at foundations have the same wealth of experience to draw on, but peers at other foundations can offer insights and experience that benefit each other.”

Respondents identified three types of communications practice in philanthropy and want to increase their capacity in each realm during the NCG learning experience:

  • Institutional (organizational communication);
  • Programmatic (related to grantmaking issues) and;
  • Grantee communications (building capacity and lifting voices on an issue).
  • Overall, learning how to build a more effective and responsive “culture of communications” within their foundations was cited as a desired outcome.

Specific learning topics, workplace and communications skills and desired benefits were ranked:

  • A combination of peer connection, skills development aimed at increasing confidence in the workplace, and strategic communications scored the highest.
  • Day-to-day tactical skills such as using social media scored lowest.
  • Communication staff know how to tweet, they want to be more self-assured, trained up and connected in their jobs.
  • Workplace skills aimed at making respondents more confident professionals were a priority for most of the respondents.
    • Leading without authority, working with program staff, navigating workplace diplomacy, launching new ideas persuasively to colleagues who are experts on issues, securing buy-in, finding and using an authentic confident voice and owning leadership.
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues factored high for many respondents, especially staff of color, as both organizational culture and communications issues.
    • Communications staff of color expressed challenges in navigating predominantly white-led organizations.
      • “As a minority woman I want to be who I am and bring my full self to my work at our foundation,” said one respondent.
      • “How do I blend my authentic self into a workplace that looks very different?”
      • Another respondent of color said, “Networks help overcome feelings of isolation. I believe in the value of networking in a peer group that looks like me.”
  • Probing deeper into the networking aspect of the cohort, almost all respondents emphasized the sharing of knowledge and experience across Bay Area foundations especially as more foundations collaborate on programmatic issues.
    • “I want to tap the experience and knowledge of peers at other foundations who have deeper programmatic knowledge on the issues and bring that into my foundation,” said one respondent.
    • Some respondents, particularly supervisors, took that intention even further and suggested that the cohort align the learning experience with the goals of the participants’ foundations as well as the career goals of the participants.

All respondents commented on the unique aspects of the NCG idea – a well-selected cohort with a well-curated learning experience — compared to other learning opportunities in philanthropy.

  • “I was thinking of applying for the Council on Foundations’ Career Pathways program, but this is more comms specific and with people closer to my work and place in my career path,” said a respondent.
  • “I can download training webinars and I can attend workshops at the Communications Network but being part of a small group with shared challenges could be a terrific experience for me.”

With this feedback in mind, we have created the NCG Communications Training Cohort.  We hope the skills training and peer networking help northern California foundation communications professionals reach their highest aspirations, and the foundations they work at take their communications to the next level of excellence.



Channeling the Power of Collaborative Funding for Good

Introducing NEO’s New Strategic Plan

State Infrastructure Fund Receives $10 Million from Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott to Support Critical Voting Rights Amid Continued Attacks