Why a Foundation’s Digital Strategy is So Important

Foundations face important communications challenges. From navigating the complexities of leadership transitions, to aligning projects with the priorities of a Board of Directors and ensuring that funding represents the most critical needs facing its focus area, foundations turn more deliberately to digital communications solutions to help them solve big policy issues.



Forum One has worked with many of the largest foundations in the United States, including the Gates Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, Joyce Foundation, California HealthCare Foundation, and many others. In doing so, we have seen common threads and challenges emerge in analyzing how digital communications strategies impact their profile and work.

Five Strategic Areas for Digital Communication

The following areas are important focal points that successful foundations address when tackling communications goals.

  1. Profile: To what extent should we profile our foundation as a forward-facing resource on our key priority issues? Do grantees “do the talking” or do we?
  2. Content Strategy: How do we ensure that our content and messaging not only attracts prospective grantees, but also other target audiences? What channels do we use?
  3. Storytelling: How do we humanize the work we do to help solve complicated policy issues? How do we convey that these topics matter and that the public should care?
  4. Partnerships: How can we form effective partnerships with the media and other policy influencers? Do they use us as an effective resource and thought leader?
  5. Data & Measuring Success: How do we create goals and performance indicators that we can measure and track over time?  

Tactics on How to Tackle Digital Strategy

Below we’ve called out some effective tactics many successful foundations use to address these main digital strategy areas.

1. Profile

Crafting a consistent brand is critical to ensure that users think about your foundation they way you want them to. Do you want to position your foundation as a thought leader and resource on your key issues? Or do you want to serve as a megaphone, allowing grantees to take the spotlight promoting your profile through their work?

Foundations that elevate their grantees are often able to increase their own influence. For those who seek to elevate their leadership and programmatic experts, this strategy can also give the foundation a louder voice; however, doing so requires more internal content creation resources (either through blogging, op-eds, other externally-facing communications).

Quick tip: Questions about profile and positioning should not be limited to your communications staff, but also to your leadership, Board of Directors, and end users. It  requires a clear understanding of how much time you have to internally invest in content creation, production, and dissemination.

2. Content Strategy

Most foundations struggle with communicating in-depth research, while still offering high-level content for the general public. Stakeholders include policy makers (local and federal), other policy influencers, current and future grantees, the media, and some segment of the general public. Know your audiences, and have a firm grasp on which are most important to you to determine what information will be the most beneficial. For example, members of the media will likely need high-level stats, quick quotes, while policy staffers, on the other hand, may need in-depth research and guidance that they can download and physically bring to relevant meetings.

Keep your internal content governance in the forefront. If you need new content, you must be able to *write* that content, and maintain it. Are you archiving or deleting outdated or poor quality content? Do you know (roughly) how many hours per week your staff can dedicate to maintaining content? Do you have, or will you need, a digital content style guide to ensure newly-created content is consistent, regardless of who authors it?

Quick tip: Talk directly to your users! Not just your internal staff, but also your end users. You will learn so much from hearing about the information they need and how you can support them. Also, take a look similar foundations. What sets you apart from them, and how can you take advantage of unique qualifiers to provide novel content offerings that are distinctly yours?

3. Storytelling

Typically, foundations have the easiest time attracting prospective and current users, as they are most often looking for support funds. The challenge is instead understanding how to ensure other critical players are cross-promoting your content in effective ways. To reach this broader class of content seekers, you should think about how to humanize the issue areas you’re tackling. One obvious approach is to showcase grantee success stories and their impact on everyday issues and people. It also means serving as a convener, connecting your stakeholders to other important players.

Quick Tip: Set up an online form for your grantees to provide success stories. Encourage them to create videos, take photos, and offer statistics and other important information about their work. This in turn allows you to focus on editing, polishing, and publishing their content on your site and social media channels.

4. Effective Media Partnerships

Establishing a trustworthy, solid relationship with the media is perhaps the best way to ensure your profile is widely promoted as people look to them for distilled information on complicated topics. Frequent dialogue with the media will put your foundation at the forefront when covering a story within your issue areas. Help them understand that you are an expert source. Media quotes will open up more opportunities for you to reach your users.

Quick tip: Think about how you can balance proactive communications (i.e., putting out content to inform policy debates around your issue areas) with reactive/opportunistic communications (i.e., reacting to real-world events). Repurpose content in reaction to big news events around an issue area you cover. Pull together recent videos, event recordings, blog posts, and other resources, and share it across social media channels and media contacts. It keeps content fresh without having to invest a lot of new work.

5. Data & Measuring Success

Obtaining consensus around a foundation’s digital strategy can be complicated enough for leadership, board members, and internal staff who are intimately involved in driving the day-to-day programs that make up that strategy. Often left as an afterthought is ensuring there are clear processes and tools in place to track user behavior against the foundation’s goals. A website’s analytics are the best way to see a detailed story about what’s working well, and where there are opportunities for improvement.

Quick Tip: We know; analytics can be daunting. Start with some key questions around site goals and visitor engagement within your site to familiarize yourself with them. If you are using Google Analytics, perhaps it’s time to upgrade to Universal Analytics to take full advantage of the new collection and reporting features available.

Remember: It is only when we challenge our own assumptions that we can really figure out what is working well and what isn’t.

What do you think? Have we captured the questions you commonly think about? Are there others you’re currently exploring?