By Vince Stehle |Originally posted on the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog
Foundations are in the business of making the world a better place.
Preserving the environment, reducing violence, and improving education are a few examples among the many philanthropic objectives that foundations may pursue. But are we applying ourselves as effectively as we might?
In every case, popular debate shapes the public policies that will determine whether or not we make progress in the big issues of our time. Certainly, foundation-funded basic research, direct service, and demonstration projects can be building blocks in making the case for policies that improve communities and advance the public interest.
But ultimately, success in the policy arena depends to some degree on media and communications. And while it’s true that foundations already support a broad array of media activities, grantmakers could be — and should be — investing far more resources into strategies that inform and persuade.
Take two prominent issues of recent years: gun violence and climate change. In each case, there have been shocking events, such as the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado, or the rapid and dramatic loss of arctic ice and receding glaciers, massive droughts, and a decade of record-breaking global warming.
But what has happened in public opinion in the face of these troubling events? As Charles Blow recently pointed out in the New York Times, gun violence prevention advocates have tried to catalyze public action around sensible gun restrictions, but gun ownership has spiked. And in recent years, attitudes around guns have shifted dramatically — and perhaps surprisingly. In 2000, 51 % of Americans believed that having a gun in the house made it more dangerous, versus 35 % who felt it was safer. By 2014 that had flipped — only 30 % felt it was more dangerous to have a gun, while 63 % believed it made them safer.
Likewise, over the past decade, while scientists have been sounding increasingly frantic alarms that we are nearing a point of no return in climate change, public opinion support for those views has actually declined. Put another way, according to the Pew Research Center, there’s a big gap between what scientists believe and what the general public believes —  87 % of scientists say that climate change is occurring because of human activity, while only 50 % of the general population believes that humans are causing climate change.
There may be many reasons for shifts in public opinion. But one major factor is the aggressive effort by American industry to shape public opinion through the public relations investments of their trade associations. A recent examination of 144 trade organizations by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a leading nonprofit news organization, found that advertising, public relations, and marketing services made up 37 % of the $3.4 billion in contracts reported by the groups from 2008 to 2012.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, industry and wealthy individuals have come to dominate the political process as never before. And it’s a serious problem, for sure.
But as this CPI report shows, spending on lobbying the general public dwarfs the amount industry spends lobbying in Washington. Just one trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, spent more than $85 million in 2012 on public relations and advertising, compared with $7 million lobbying federal officials.
And you don’t have to take the word of the Center for Public Integrity. Just turn on your television. You can’t escape the warm and comforting message that America’s energy industry is environmentally safe and an engine of economic security for the nation. Their messages are filled with amber waves of grain and happy school children skipping and running in the playground. And they repeat incessantly.
For some environmental activists, the assumption was that we already won the debate over climate change nearly a decade ago, when Al Gore won the Academy Award for documentary film for An Inconvenient Truth. But a debate like the fight over global warming is not won or lost around a single project. A better title for Gore’s film might have been An Insufficient Truth.
As frustrating as it may be to watch complex and serious policy debates reduced to frat boy pranks like having a United States Senator (and Chairman of the Senate Environmental Committee, at that) poke fun at global warming by throwing a snowball on the floor of the Senate, foundations have invested in some successful media strategies.
Responding to the sharp decline in environmental reporting that resulted from the collapse of the newspaper industry, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund helped to establish a new independent journalism initiative called InsideClimate News, to ensure that there would be a watchdog keeping tabs on the extractive industries. And quickly InsideClimate News has had a huge impact on the energy industry, winning a coveted Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of a massive oil spill into the Kalamazoo River.
In many other areas media makers and the foundations that support them are seeing breakthroughs on important issues where there is competent and sustained media attention. The California Endowment commissioned a recent report examining the various ways funders can support Communications Strategies that Fast Track Policy Change. And we’ll be hearing about some of the most effective projects in a session under the same name on Wednesday, May 20 at the 2015 CEP Conference, Leading Effective Foundations.
In case studies covering documentary film, journalism initiatives, and strategic communications projects, the Fast Track report lays out 10 key elements of success.
Among them:

  • Solutions: The majority of these initiatives contained messages not just about the problem, but about a range of potential solutions.
  • Policymakers: Identifying policymakers explicitly as a target audience and devoting appropriate resources to outreach is key. One of the remarkable examples of this approach is the documentary film The Invisible War, which depicts the epidemic of rape in the military. At the conference session, filmmaker Amy Ziering will discuss how she was able to reach high-ranking American military leaders and persuade them to make dramatic policy changes in reaction to the powerful film. Ziering’s most recent film, The Hunting Ground, which investigates sexual assault and a prevailing rape culture on college campuses, will also be screened at the conference.
  • Repetition: The continuity of coverage that comes from a journalistic series on a topic or a paid advertising campaign results in a multiplier effect on awareness building.
  • Humanity: Engaging community voices can be a powerful way to give an issue a human face. Session attendees will also hear how California advocates for youth and their foundation supporters worked closely together to craft a communications campaign that recast the problem of school discipline in a way that presented kids who were suffering from excessive and abusive discipline in a much more sympathetic light.

One of the most prominent voices for social change in today’s mass media is Van Jones, a commentator for CNN, who got his start in the Bay Area working successfully on the issue of youth incarceration before he went on to lead initiatives in green jobs and environmental protection — and work at the White House in the early days of the Obama Administration.
In recent months, Jones — who will also speak at the CEP conference — has been a regular presence on CNN, appearing all-too-frequently in the wake of the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray, offering expert commentary on events, but also reflecting the elements of effective communications: stressing solutions, focusing on policy, and always elevating the humanity of the situation.
Even in the face of the bitter and polarizing debate over police tactics in minority communities, Jones has been able to advocate, along with his CNN colleague and former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, for a drastic reduction in the nation’s prison population. Under the heading #Cut50, Jones and Gingrich have championed an end to our dubious distinction in leading the world in mass incarceration.
Together, and with the facilitation of Jones’s social change incubator Dream Corps, Jones and Gingrich convened in March a remarkable Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, spanning the political spectrum from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Charles Koch Institute on one side to the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance on the other. At the event, diverse speakers on the program ranging from then-Attorney General Eric Holder to Republican Georgia Governor Nathan Deal came together around the shared goal of decreasing our prison population.
The unlikely partnership has led some to believe that the effects of climate change have extended all the way to Hell, which has apparently frozen over.
Throughout the upcoming CEP conference, participants will be able to explore and observe effective communications practices. And it’s a good thing, too. The marketplace of ideas is a competitive bazaar. Foundations need to do more to compete there.
If we don’t, then we won’t stand a snowball’s chance on the Senate floor.

Vince Stehle is the executive director of Media Impact Funders and a member of CEP’s Board of Directors. You can find him on Twitter at @VinceDaily.
The Hunting Ground will be screened at the 2015 CEP Conference on Tuesday, May 19 at 8:00 pm PDT. Stehle, Ziering, and Mary Lou Fulton, senior program manager at The California Endowment, will lead the breakout session, “Communication Strategies that Fast Track Policy Change,” at the conference on Wednesday, May 20 at 3:00 pm PDT.

About the Author
Vincent Stehle

Vincent Stehle

Executive Director

Before joining Media Impact Funders in 2011 as executive director, Vince was program director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City. Prior to joining Surdna, Stehle worked for 10 years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered a broad range of issues about the nonprofit sector. Stehle has served as chairperson of Philanthropy New York and on the governing boards of VolunteerMatch, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy.