04 December 2008

NYRAG Memo -- Emergency Measures: Foundation Communications in the Wake of a Disaster

In the November 2008 issue of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers Memo, Ms. Foundation Communications Vice President Ellen Braune answered questions about foundation communications responses to disasters. The following is reprinted from the NYRAG web site. NYRAG members (with login) are invited to post comments on the article on the NYRAG site.

Emergency Measures: Foundation Communications in the Wake of a Disaster

How can foundations effectively respond to and communicate about fires, floods, and tornados—as well as man-made disaster? Diana Crawford, a consultant for the NYRAG Gulf Coast Recovery Task Force, puts this question to Rev. John Vaughn, Program Director at The Twenty-First Century Foundation, and Ellen Braune, Vice President of Communications at the Ms. Foundation for Women. Both have helped spread grantees’ stories in the aftermath of catastrophe.

Diana Crawford: What sort of strategic plan does each of your foundations have for disaster communications?

Ellen Braune: This is a big learning for area for us. One plan we have in place is to have someone on the ground gather information and get it back to us as soon as possible. The other is to have different kinds of contacts for people who are down there. We need to be sure our database is really good in terms of email, cell phones, and even land lines. But sometimes none of these work, which is why you really need someone on the ground. During Katrina and Rita, we suspended the entire Request for Proposal process and just got the money out quickly. We hope to learn what our colleagues are doing so we can collaborate, and to have a long-term communications plan so the wheels are already in motion and we can give voice to people engaged in the struggle on a national level.

John Vaughn: I’m not sure I would call it a plan, but we have a communications strategy that’s very relationship-driven. We’ve responded to Hurricane Gustav through three main constituencies: grantees, local funding partners, and the Gulf Coast Funders for Equity. Outlets like the Funders Forum and NYRAG are good vehicles for talking with other funders. One of the things that has been really helpful has been having two people on the ground. There is a lot of email and cell phone conversation.

We don’t see ourselves being in the disaster-relief business. This all got started because of the federal government’s lack of response in the Gulf Coast, so we’re really just continuing to support the grantees with whom we’ve already been walking the road.

Ellen Braune: We aren’t in the disaster relief business either, but we are developing a long-term Southern strategy plan, focusing on the issues that existed before Hurricane Katrina and were amplified by it. Through communications, we lift up those issues and talk about race and class and poverty—and about the intersection of gender and how women of color are sometimes the most deeply impacted. We try to lift up their leadership and policy solutions, rather than framing them as victims. We’re supporting the Gulf Coast Funders for Equity and the United Houma Nation, where the principal chief has been writing a blog. We’ve been posting it to our blog and distributing it through various online links, and we’re hoping to pitch those stories to break through the media blackout.

Diana Crawford: Looking back over the past three years, what are some examples of successful communications in the wake of a natural or man-made disaster?

John Vaughn: On one hand, we’ve done well in developing some communications approaches and relationships. However, relationships alone aren’t what this will take over the long haul. When you look at communications, it’s not just communications with your primary constituency. As public foundations, we need to communicate to donors or potential donors and also share stories of what’s going down. That’s part of our role as catalysts for change. It’s one of those places where there is a continual need for capacity building.

Diana Crawford: And do you think that’s also true of your grantees? Do they need capacity building in their communications, too?

John Vaughn: The majority of our grantees have small staffs and need communications and media, straight-up organizational management, and development, program, and leadership capacity. Some of that need can be filled by volunteers, and some of it is filled by staff. The problem is that foundations still want to fund projects. These organizations need investments in their capacity—larger amounts of money over longer periods. We can do all the training and technical assistance we want. But if we aren’t, as a sector, moving out of project support and really investing in organizations, we will continue to have concerns about things like the ability of grantees to communicate.

Ellen Braune: We use the word “sustainable" and we often provide general operating support rather than project support. The groups we fund are so under-resourced that you can’t overlay an agenda and say that they need to be doing media outreach or other communications activities. Strategically, we try to see what kind of support we can give that will lead to something sustainable.

The most successful thing with communications was that we had someone on the ground try to reach all the grantees and gather their stories. We posted these on our website, and this was also a way to communicate to funders, grantees, our peers, and the media. The stories we collected were posted on websites everywhere. We were able to do media outreach on a national level. Later, we brought down materials—the digital recorders and the professional-level mics. Grantees’ stories were on the radio, and one or two were picked up by the BBC. We put these on our website and other websites. Funders found the stories compelling, and this helped with our fundraising. What we learned is that all of this needs to be guided by a broader strategic communications plan that is deeply integrated with programmatic work. If not, it’s hard to make it sustainable. Ideally, you have repeated trainings with grantees that cover integrated communications in their programmatic plan and find ways it can support their work. We’re looking at mobile technology, which can be a powerful form of organizing. On our website, we’re putting what we call “Voices from the Field” on every page so grantees can write commentaries, do Q&As, and use that space whenever they want.

Diana Crawford: You’re both saying that it’s important to get grantees to communicate with each other, and I know from my work with NYRAG that getting funders to communicate with each other has been incredibly powerful. Have you been involved in the work of facilitating collaborations?

John Vaughn: There is less patience now with the affinity groups of old, which were about coming together and talking and networking. Today, there are groups like the Gulf Coast Funders for Equity and the NYRAG Gulf Coast Recovery Task Force, where people are actually bringing their strategies with them. People are finding new ways to collaborate and leverage other folks, and these are places where funders can look at the question of long-term sustainability. People are coming together less to learn, and more to figure out how to get the money out.

Ellen Braune: One way to help grantee collaboration is to support coalition work across issues. A second is to create conditions where people can actually meet face-to-face. A third is to use technology to create ways for people to meet. We’re creating a grantee extranet, through which our grantees can be in constant communication. If two or three of them want to issue a joint statement, this website will allow all of them to edit the same document right there online instead of emailing it back and forth. This is a place to meet, but you have to support it with some real training, and that can prove to be a challenge.

NYRAG members (with login) are invited to post comments on the article on the NYRAG site.

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