If I had to choose one conference to attend every year, it would have to be the Communications Network, the annual gathering of communications professionals working in philanthropy and the nonprofit world. The panels and speakers are usually top-notch and, more importantly, it feels like a reunion. Every year, I make new friends and have a chance to catch up with familiar faces. This year in Philadelphia was no exception. However, this time I was fortunate to be included on a panel discussing the promise and perils of communicating in times of change with Meredith Klein of the MacArthur Foundation and Stefan Lanfer of the Barr Foundation, and behind-the-scenes support from Sean Gibbons, Executive Director of the Communications Network.
The common thread among our narratives was the theme of organizational change, whether a change in leadership or a major change in program direction. At some point, every organization is going to face a serious change and, with the evolving role of philanthropy, change is fast becoming the new normal. How we adapt and respond to these threats and opportunities will sometimes determine the very future of our organizations, so the topic is not to be taken lightly.
While we prepared for the discussion in the months and weeks ahead of the conference, it became clear that change presents unique challenges for all organizations, but there are certain guiding principles that can guide us through the process. We carried out a survey of Network members and interviewed leaders in the field to bring into focus some of the findings. In the live session, we had a great conversation about some of the actual challenges facing our organizations and tackled two case studies. By the end of the discussion, we were in agreement on key guiding principles:
1. Tailor your messages, timing, and channel to each audience
2. Be as transparent as possible and manage expectations
3. Craft clear, consistent and compelling messages explaining your reasoning
4. Invest in media outreach and public relations
5. Identify the best messengers
6. Plan every step carefully and in detail
7. Listen to your stakeholders and integrate their feedback when possible
8. Get the message out and make sure it reaches those directly affected first
9. Respond to all questions and requests for information
10. Make sure your plan represents the whole institution
The last key finding from our survey, interviews and discussions, was that we are not alone in facing these challenges. The Communications Network is a wonderful resource for communication professionals of all levels and experience, because its members have a wealth of experience and knowledge. In times of change, good or bad, we can turn to each other and tap into the wisdom of the Network. If you haven’t already, start to build a brain trust and turn to these trusted friends when you need advice or simply want to share ideas. And then, one day, pay it forward.