Sharks. Birds. Scouts. Scientists. Games. Friends.
It's an odd mash-up of case studies—each more quirky than the last.
But looking across all six stories—whether it’s how a global superstar like Yao Ming confronted deeply held cultural norms in his native China, or how a pair of Midwest Girl Scouts helped transform the packaged food industry—a few notable themes emerge.
In today’s hyper-mediated culture, one size rarely fits all. Success in social change communication requires the willingness to experiment, a tolerance for risk, and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
In order to have impact, organizations need to get comfortable testing multiple strategies and adapting on the fly. They must be willing to embrace new, unexpected partners. And they need to stay engaged for the long haul.
In more than 50 years of grantmaking, the Packard Foundation has never positioned itself as a visible, public-facing grantmaker. In fact it explicitly strives to maintain a low and quiet profile, putting grantees at the forefront of the change it seeks in the world.
That’s why these six case studies hold such valuable lessons for other grantmakers, regardless of endowment size or communications staff capacity. Each story reflects what’s possible when a foundation embraces communications as a programmatic lever for change and decides to push the boundaries a little bit.
When we look across all six of these case studies, we see that some are more undeniably successful in advancing the Packard Foundation’s broad programmatic goals than others.
That’s the nature of experimenting and communications: Some experiments don’t yield the results you expect. Others exceed your wildest expectations. Could the Foundation have known that these two Girl Scouts would have as much global impact on palm oil? No—but strategic messaging and the American media’s love for a good story came together perfectly.
These ventures into communications taught this organization the value of experimenting, which resulted in a cultural shift in strategic thinking: the recognition that communications and experimentation can equal big success.
If you're going to do it, do it right.
Take chances—you'll be glad you did.
Get the most for your money.
Be prepared to put in time and labor.
Follow your common sense.
Making a communications campaign great requires the right people, the right messages, the right branding, the right placements, and the right product.
That’s a rather complex way of saying, “do everything right and you’ll be fine.”
The fact of the matter is, depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you may only need to focus on one or two of the elements above. But if you nail all five, magic will ensue.
If you want to achieve something that’s never been done before, you may have to do something you’ve never tried.
Whether it’s asking the community for ideas, coming at a supply chain from the other end, or venturing into an entirely new technological medium, experimenting with something new is likely to surprise you—in a good way.
Great experiments start with a hypothesis, which your experiment will hopefully prove true. But even if it doesn’t, you’ve learned something new that you can apply to your next campaign.
Think of communication initiatives not in terms of budget, but in terms of value. You don’t have to spend a lot to get a lot.
Some of the grants detailed in these stories were relatively small. For example, the Girl Scouts national media tour was a combined grant of $70,000, split between two funders. Others were sizable but yielded returns far beyond the investment: the shark fin campaign generated more than $160 million of pro-bono media placements in 2013 alone—decent ROI for a $2 million investment.
Other value is less tangible but still worth calculating. The Squawkathon not only produced some new ideas for solutions around the specific problem of marine bird bycatch, it also supported organizational learning about experimentation—lessons that can be applied across the Packard Foundation’s programs.
At a more basic level: if you’re going to invest in doing this great work in the world, why not extend your impact by telling people about it?
No one ever said that communicating well was easy. Or at least, if they did, they were wrong.
The good news: communications is more craft than art. This means it can be taught, learned, practiced and improved through repetition and hard work.
Friending the Finish Line, an effort to increase children health advocates’ social media capacity, has supported Packard Foundation grantees with technical assistance for more than five years. The training has gradually increased to include more advanced skill sets.
Games for Change, a social impact gaming organization, found that they could convince nonprofits of the power of games in a weekend workshop—but in order for those nonprofits to build effective games, they needed consistent and ongoing support from experts.
Whether you’re a funder or a grantee, you can’t expect results overnight or without any effort. It’s not where you start. It’s where you end up.
Simple isn’t stupid. The communications field has changed rapidly over the last 15 years. New technologies and channels of communications can leave you feeling dizzy and challenged to keep up.
But just because the means of communicating have changed, the hows and whys of doing so have not. Effective communications are rooted in classic principles that always apply.
Don’t trust your intuition? Here are five deceptively simple tips to keep in mind when you’re thinking about how to communicate.
Timing is everything.
Listen first. Talk later.
Speak plainly, please.
Be prepared and opportunistic.