January 16, 2013
Last spring, in preparation for a Council on Foundations panel discussion, I spent a lot of time thinking about how foundations along with universities, journalists and other keepers of expertise are seeing their social status and influence erode. I asked myself, what changes do we need to put into place lest we become historic road-kill?
I also spoke with leaders in philanthropy. What emerged was a confirmation that foundations are vital and influential in American society and that we need to get fearless with our responsibility to be communicators on behalf of the organizations we serve.
James Ferris, Director, Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, recently shared that one of the most salient trends in philanthropy is this concept of strategic communications in the executive chamber. Like finance and administration, communications is essential for what organizations want to achieve, and the philanthropic sector is just beginning to embrace this concept. The place to start being fearless is, therefore, understanding our sphere of influence both externally and internally. Sure, most organizations readily understand the external aspect but shy away from the internal side. Communications should educate the board on the role and value of strategic communications.
Fearlessly Facing Failure
As a working culture, you could say that we are ‘failure averse’. We set achievable goals and then plod along from one ‘success’ to another. But what happens when the wheels fall off the wagon? At Liberty Hill we have what I call Flop Day. Each department is encouraged to share a failure or flop. I shared, for example, that having three Twitter feeds (one for each issue area) just wasn’t sustainable or effective. There is a fearlessness to be found in a process where everyone is encouraged to plan, execute, evaluate, pull the plug on the flops and then celebrate the learning.
Our foundations are all 501c3’s, but this does not preclude us from using our bully pulpit to raise issues that may be viewed as political or sensitive. Every organization should have a good lawyer on hand who can help map out the territory that is legally theirs to speak about. There is vast power and influence that is not being mobilizing every time we try to work around what we think we can’t speak about.
Fearlessness means thinking BIG
When I recently sat with our outgoing board chair and reflected on the issue of how to bring a better understanding of communications to the board, the conversation went something like this;
He: Do you have a plan?
Me: Of course I do! I have daily, weekly, monthly and yearly plans! I have plans up to here!
He: Do you have a plan to get the organization where it needs to go?
Me: Oh, well I don’t have the resources for that!
He: How can you get the resources if you don’t have a plan?
I quickly understood that I needed to think BIG and create that ‘impossible plan’ that takes a larger view than our current capacity dictates and that gives us something to put in front of our CEO.
Thinking about such a plan made me realize that there will be things that I will be able to actualize and there are things that won’t work. I will have to get comfortable with and accept the possibility of failure. Most of us are in the roles we are in because we have been able to achieve goals, so thinking about working towards failure doesn’t seem ideal. But it is becoming increasing clear to me that failure is one of the keys to success and getting comfortable with that notion is the very cornerstone of true fearlessness.
Barbara Osborn is Director of Strategic Communications at Liberty Hill Foundation
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