The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jun 05, 2013

4 ways funders can better communicate what they learn

Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller

New Arts Grantmaking Strategy from The James Irvine Foundation on Vimeo.

As a funder, you’ve worked with your grantees to collect data and form insights about the effectiveness of the work. Now that you're ready to share the insights, you may wonder: What is the best way to deliver these findings to audiences that can use them?

Leading funders gathered in Miami yesterday to share how foundations are using audience-centered strategies to communicate key findings. The conversation was part of the annual Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference.

Jon Sotsky, director/strategy and assessment at Knight Foundation, kicked off the session by citing four tips on getting a foundation’s insights and evaluations in the right hands:

  1. Prioritize the audience: Know specifically whom you’re trying to reach with your findings so that what you’re learning is shared in the right circles. As an example, Sotsky shared a bit about Knight’s evaluation of a social impact game, Macon Money. While the report was widely distributed and received positive pick-up and press within the foundation and non-profit world, it’s possible it missed an audience in the billion dollar tech and gaming industry, where the learnings could have been distributed more broadly.
  2. Market determines method: Understanding who will benefit from of these insights may determine the best ways to deliver them. Different platforms or social media outlets may be your “friends” in distinct cases. For example, an evaluation focused on the Knight News Challenge performed particularly well on Slideshare, which wasn’t surprising given the intended audience was young, tech-friendly and interested in media innovation.
  3. Enlist the evaluated. Work with grantees to help distribute the findings. For example, Knight Foundation’s O, Miami report - which detailed the rise of a local poetry festival - made waves beyond the poetry community with a blog post written by the festival’s co- founder. The post was shared widely because it featured in-depth knowledge from the grantee and provided useful tips for others interested in launching festivals and other funders who want to support artistic and cultural events.
  4. Reflect and refine: Take time to measure the success of your efforts. It’s as important as the planning process in terms of understanding what works. Use specific analytics to determine whether distribution methods were effective, whether you targeted the right audiences and how you could improve on the overall strategy for next time.

Following these insights, several foundation leaders shared their own thoughts about the importance of communicating impact, and what they’re learning from recent experiments:

  • Kevin Rafter, manager of research and evaluation at The James Irvine Foundation, shared the effectiveness of an infographic on its Arts Innovation Fund, a $20 million, eight-year initiative. It was viewed 10 more times than the report’s PDF, accounted for nearly 50 percent of traffic to Irvine’s website when it was released and had a high average time on site. Although a rewarding moment for the foundation, it wasn’t without challenges. Rafter shared that it was expensive to create and required a lot of coordination between the foundation’s communication and evaluation teams. The foundation is also experimenting with more infographics and other methods, like this animation.
  • At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Evaluation Officer Kimberly James shared how the foundation designed a scorecard tool to measure the impact of its grantmaking and how achieving buy-in from leadership was critical. The process helped spur further conversations on determining what the best measures of success are, and what tactics the foundations should use.
  • Developing targeted program results was helpful for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said its assistant vice president Debra Joy Perez. The foundation spends over $20 million per year evaluating its major initiatives. Perez said that by developing target goals for programming, it helped increased transparency for the foundation, was easier to highlight results and document lessons learned. A recent website redesign also helped the foundation make its evaluations more accessible and web-friendly.
  • The President of the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, Josie Heath, shared how the foundation’s annual TRENDS report and the data it compiled has driven better discussions about education, health and economic issues. The foundation’s dissemination plan was comprehensive: it not only featured the report online, but also put physical copies throughout the community (even in dentist offices!) where they knew they’d get in the hands of residents.

Funders shared other tactics, like how an organizational blog can be a useful tool to share real-time learnings ahead of releasing final evaluation reports. Participants also mentioned video as an engaging way to access and share content. Better internal communication among staff members from program, communications and evaluation teams was also listed as a critical piece of the puzzle.

Some shared they’re going “digital-only,” and no longer printing hard-copy publications for distribution because it saves money and the audiences they’re trying to reach are all online. Funders interested in going that route need to ensure that reports are accessible and readable across different platforms and devices. For example, Rafter shared that policy makers whom the foundation may be targeting are likely to access content on their phones or tablets between legislative meetings, so making sure reports are available in multiple formats is important.

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation

Related: “Three tips on learning from failure” by Jenna Buehler on

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