MD. Delwar hossain/shutterstock

MD. Delwar hossain/shutterstock

Before everyone else in your foundation started talking about the imperative to engage in “storytelling,” communications professionals were showing up a decade or more ago to Communications Network annual conferences—learning how it’s done, taking it back to their organizations, and making the case for a better way to communicate. The Communications Network is where the foundation leaders who shape philanthropy’s public voice are themselves shaped by new ideas and peer learning.  

The Communications Network’s membership and attendance at its annual conference have grown enormously over the past decade, along with its influence on how philanthropic communications professionals approach their work. Five years ago, the 2014 conference drew 400 people. ComNet19 capped registrations at 950 and had a waitlist over 300. It’s a hot ticket.

This year’s conference took place October 1-4 in Austin, Texas. With major stars like Janet Mock and Stacey Abrams as keynote speakers, the conference attracted a wide range of communications professionals, including high-profile communications consultants, communications associates and foundation presidents.

Here are some of the core communications trends (admittedly a highly subjective hot take from a middle-aged queer white guy who has been going to ComNet annual conferences for about a decade-and-a-half) that might take root in your foundation in 2020:  

1. Communicator, Bring Your True Self

Communications Network CEO Sean Gibbons welcomed attendees with an injunction that would be a running theme throughout the conference programming: In order to be effective, communicators must bring their whole, authentic, moral selves to their organizations. They must not get lost in obfuscating jargon or the propensity to smooth the byzantine processes of their foundation hierarchies, but instead must bring to their work an honest and openly stated set of beliefs that guide organizational choices on communications. This makes one vulnerable, but without individuals who take risks, he said, we cannot move closer to social justice (which is a clearly stated central element of the Communications Network mission).  

This dictum calls upon foundation professionals to be bold in stating their beliefs in a politically charged, confrontational era. Gibbons spoke specifically of the imperative for communications professionals to continue leading on racial equity, not just in hiring for diversity across all dimensions of human experience, but in celebrating that humanity in the communications that foundations and their supported nonprofits produce.  

Gibbons passed the mic to Communications Network Board Chair Stefan Lanfer, director of communications for the Barr Foundation, who spoke of a recent experience in which he made himself vulnerable. He asked a fellow network member, Arcus Foundation Communications Vice President Bryan Simmons, to help him tell the story of how they had each shared, over a get-to-know-you lunch, a love for performing music. As they told the story, their words became more poetic as they spoke the opening lines “Are you happy in this modern world? Or do you need more…” and then crooning Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s hit song “Shallow.” It was a stirring manifestation of Gibbon’s appeal to risk vulnerability, one that was wildly applauded in a standing ovation by the packed hall. With the lines “Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us, we’re far from the shallows now,” ComNet19 had its theme song.  

Opening keynote speaker Janet Mock, the author of the memoirs “Redefining Realness” and “Surpassing Certainty” and Emmy-nominated writer, director and producer for the TV series “Pose,” took the stage in revealing conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart. She reinforced “the personal is the political” mantra of late 1960s second-wave feminism and made it her own. She says: “I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act. It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence and community.” 

2. Pursue Abundance Messaging Over Scarcity Paradigms

One of the standout (and standing-room-only) breakout sessions of the conference focused on the concept of “abundance messaging,” and why messages that present issues and communities as competing for scarce attention and resources are counterproductive. The presenters—Amanda Cooper of LightBox Collaborative, Zaineb Mohammed of Borealis Philanthropy and Meena Hussain of Climate Nexus—made the case that social change communicators should not feed into the “fixed pie fallacy” that there are only limited resources. Rather, messages should lead with how well-deployed resources can exponentially increase our nation’s capacity and grow communities’ dignity, safety and respect. This kind of abundance messaging works across many issues at once. 

Mohammed emphasized that abundance messaging does not mean that foundations should downplay peoples’ individual scarcities and personal deprivations, but rather focus on the resources that have been extracted from the communities, and to tell the stories of those communities’ capacities to be full participants in creating a world where resources are equitably directed to expand the power and tap into intersectional identities across many issues. Radical Communications Network, the group begun in 2016 to advocate for values-aligned political messaging, skills-building and cross-movement collaboration, received a strong endorsement from the presenters as a resource for communicators who want to adopt abundance messaging strategies. 

The imperative to make abundance messaging more prevalent and eliminate scarcity paradigms in communications was applied enthusiastically in several examples during the break-out, and was also a recurring theme over the course of the rest of the conference programming.  

3. Think Like a Policy Maker

For at least the past decade of gridlock in Washington, foundations have recognized that some of the most important reforms and policy advances take root in states and cities. Lesser discussed, however, is the fact that a great deal of change can happen when government officials one or two steps down from the high-profile elected offices listen to your messages and make administrative changes or budget allocations that support social change objectives.  

In a breakout session led by Apolitical’s Lisa Witter and the Kendeda Fund’s David Brotherton, communications professionals participated in a practical session that helped them understand how those important but often overlooked policymakers think, how they want to learn, and what kinds of information appeal to them most. The content is drawn from a combination of behavioral science, data science and survey results from Apolitical’s public servant members from more than 160 countries. 

Witter emphasized the needs policymakers have to understand how specific policy solutions will save money and simplify processes. Policymakers also gravitate to examples from similar government initiatives —carried out by people in similar positions or by similar levels of government—that have demonstrated success. While these ideas aren’t necessarily revelatory, Witter involved participants in concrete messaging exercises that helped them apply their own policy objectives to messages that would appeal to their own target audiences. Witter’s framework was not explicitly restated in ComNet sessions outside of her own, but her breakout was well-attended and may have an impact among communicators working on policy strategies at the state and local level. 

4. Find Your Professional Circles

On the final day of the conference, after keynote speaker Stacey Abrams’ big announcement that #ComNet20 would take place in Atlanta, Gibbons talked a bit more about Communications Network’s priorities for the coming year and the ways in which the learning could continue for members. In 2020, he announced, Communications Network will launch the Circles initiative. Building on what ComNet has learned from nurturing local groups of communicators, the organization is developing a new set of mechanisms for communicators focusing on the same issues or working in similar professional capacities to connect and learn from each other throughout the year.

According to promotional materials sent to members shortly after the conference ended, “Circles will be intimate, peer-led, facilitated groups connecting network members working on similar issues or serving in similar roles to share ideas, learn together and support one another… You, a trusted group of colleagues, and a facilitator just an internet connection away—gathering online, over video, and on occasion, in person.”

Is this going to be yet another listserv for communicators to join? Hard to say, but having groups of communicators who work on the same issues across the nation connecting regularly in facilitated online discussions could be game-changing. 

5. Utilize Asset Framing to Avoid Stigmatizing Narratives

In the closing keynote presentation, BMe Community founder Trabian Shorters presented examples of social change persuasion from Left, Right and Center that misrepresents various groups, especially people of color, by focusing on deficits rather than strengths of the community also borne out by facts. He cited the extraordinarily high rate of entrepreneurship in the African-American community as one example of an important fact of community life that should receive more attention over the relentless stories of poverty common in the media, and also in foundation communications.

Shorters introduced the key ideas associated with asset framing, similar to information presented on the BMe website: “From the boardroom to the newsroom, foundations and nonprofits have historically used tales of deficit and despair to incite action from stakeholders and gain the sympathetic ear of the public—unaware of the stigmatizing effects. Asset-framing is the shift to narratives that define people by their aspirations and contributions.”

“My takeaway was that, if you are going to use data in your communications, don’t be negative data-driven,” said Claire Callahan, Director of Communications, Stupski Foundation. “Think of asset-based data to collect and highlight. This will push back against negative stereotypes even foundations can fall into all too often. We typically collect deficit-based data and don’t think of collecting as much data to show how much the people we seek to serve are actually serving our community.”

The asset-framing model is gaining traction among foundation communicators. Shorters presented this idea in a breakout session of the 2018 Communications Network conference that was so popular, members demanded that he share this thinking on the main stage in 2019.  Giving the programmatic “last word” at the conference, Shorters provided those who stayed to the end a set of practical methods for shaping communications to tap into the strengths of a wide variety of people.  

6. Don’t Disguise Disengagement with Over-Representation

Shorters’s talk on asset-framing was thought-provoking on many levels, but there was one moment that produced an audible reaction of surprise (a combination of small gasps and “oh snap!”-type of reactions) from attendees.  He quipped that well-intentioned white people sometimes go overboard. In a brief aside, he observed that, in the marketing materials for the conference he stood before, Communications Network had put forward “so many images of Black folks, you might have thought it was a conference for Black communications professionals.” 

After Shorters’s talk, several communications professionals said his observation landed with such heft because, one, it was humorously delivered, and, two, because over-representation of people of color to the point of misrepresentation of truth has become a recognizable phenomenon in the sector. 

In an email exchange following the conference, Shorters clarified:

“I want my comments properly understood as a common occurrence in fields that deficit-frame people of color, not ComNet specifically. I had two colleagues who attended the conference and before I arrived, they each commented to me on how exciting the conference is, how energized the participants are and how oversampled and sometimes arranged the photos of people of color are.  

“When organizations hold major gatherings, be it Republican National Convention next year (Right), the Shared Value Summit (Moderate) I attended this year, or ComNet19 (Left); they each tend to fail to engage a proportionate share of people of color in their networks. There is a host of reasons for this so I suspend judgment on that part. However, this often leads to a self-consciousness when they have public-facing images of their gathered tribe. So, like clock-work, they each tend to put a disproportionate number of photos containing brown folks in those public-facing shots the way that balding men comb-over large bald spots—and to the same effect if you are a person of color present.

“So, I used the moment to point out a pattern in predominantly white networks that are self-conscious of the degree to which they disengage people of color. Whether left, right or middle, we often call it ‘underrepresentation’ or ‘lack of engagement from people of color’ which implies that the onus is on the brown folks whom their field deficit-frames and subsequently ‘others.’ I think it is more accurate to just acknowledge that those networks are as inclusive as their attendance.”

Taking the Ideas Home

“The conference was a reminder that stories shape our reality,” said Meredith Bird, Communications Coordinator for the Democracy Fund. “That is why having powerful narratives are vital for achieving social impact, but also why it is so necessary to listen to the communities being discussed, and to let them tell their own story. It is not enough just to hear another’s perspective. You have to learn history and understand the present context, review existing narratives for implicit biases, and analyze how a story may create unintended assumptions about the subjects.”

While Communications Network leaders don’t claim to have an outsized impact on how foundation professionals do their jobs, there is a historical pattern of ideas that are the focus of conversation at its annual conference taking hold across the sector. These six big ideas are certainly bubbling in the imaginations of the professionals who tell the sector’s stories. 

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