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Volume VII, Number 1, Winter 2001
Issue Topic: Strategic Communications
Jacqueline Dugery of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change offers some innovative ways to build on organizational learning to engage in strategic communications campaigns.
We live in an information age that is set to transform the prospects of communities. Inboxes, both real and virtual, overflow with research from think tanks, foundations, national organizations and university research centers about “what works” to build strong communities. Packaged in various shapes and sizes—reports, newsletters, issue briefs, how-to guides—such information creates knowledge and builds the capacity of nonprofit practitioners to develop and strengthen their organizations and programs. On any given day, the following may cross a nonprofit practitioner's desk: a report on evaluation findings that suggests a new program design or intervention; a Web site featuring current information on a specific field to keep practitioners abreast of new developments, trends and possible grant opportunities; and issue briefs that synthesize recent research in a particular area. The link between knowledge and practice is clear.
Perhaps less obvious is the potential of fusing information and knowledge gathering with an organization's strategic communications work. In fact, both are essential precursors to any communications effort. Deliberately integrating knowledge with fundraising, marketing, community awareness campaigns and membership recruitment efforts will yield significant dividends for an organization's communications efforts. However, simply increasing quantity and accessibility of information is no guarantee that those seeking knowledge can find it and find it useful. Accessing, absorbing and applying information require considerable investments of time—something that is often in short supply in the nonprofit practitioner community.
To understand the process of knowledge creation, the Pew Partnership for Civic Change launched a series of focus groups with nonprofit practitioners from San Antonio, Texas, St. Louis, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland to sharpen our understanding of how this group accesses the information they need to enhance their programs. Specifically, we wanted to know:
Nonprofit practitioners are struggling, often in isolation, against a dizzying glut of information. They are surrounded by masses of useful information but day-to-day activities preclude them from tapping into it. Stacks of unread reports, articles, and listserv messages stimulate a nagging sense of inadequacy about their work. Frustration builds when practitioners know that the information that they need is out there but do not know how to get to it quickly.
Most nonprofits have not integrated a systematic learning process into their organizations' culture to deal with information. Instead, they rely on “periodic learning”—a hybrid of continuous and just-in-time learning. Periodic learning rarely targets long-term issues or challenges facing the organization.
For most nonprofits, direct one-on-one contact with someone they trust—usually other nonprofit practitioners and parent organizations—is the preferred method of accessing needed information. Low on the list were conferences and workshop training, except for networking “hallway conversations.”
Learning is often equated exclusively with organizational development and basic program evaluation issues. Nonprofits focus their scarce learning time on issues such as strategic planning, board development and fundraising and struggle in their efforts to develop better data collection processes and measurement tools. Rarely did practitioners find time to invest in learning how to develop new programs and strategies so that their organization could continue to fulfill its mission.
For those who create and disseminate information for the nonprofit sector, these findings may suggest a dismal picture—practitioners overwhelmed by day-to-day work and often unable to ferret out and apply the information they need to deliver services. However, the focus group participants were eager to both acknowledge the inefficiencies in their learning processes and suggest solutions. Two potential solutions—a knowledge broker and a learning collaborative—were developed by focus group participants.
High on the wish list for practitioners is a trustworthy local source who can open doors to the best-known and most current information—a knowledge broker. The knowledge broker's role would be similar to that of an agricultural extension agent. As the client, the practitioner would set the learning agenda, identify how the agenda fits into the organization's short- and long-term goals, articulate the organization's strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis learning and identify viable strategies for disseminating information within the organization once received. The broker's role would be to sort through, synthesize and translate information tailored to the interests and needs of the organization. Success would rely on the ability of the practitioner and broker to develop a process that supports continual—rather than piecemeal and erratic—learning. By reacting specifically to the interests identified by the organization, the knowledge broker ensures that the information is relevant to the organization.
Who would these knowledge brokers be and where would they come from? For starters, they would be experts in a particular issue such as youth development or media communications, adept at accessing and delivering a range of research on a particular topic in a timely manner. On the soft-skills side, they would also be trained to develop long-term relationships with nonprofit practitioners. Frequent visits and regular phone contact would ensure that the brokers develop sensitivity to organizations' operating environment, taking into account their time constraints, budget issues and community contexts. An organization interested in amplifying their message to constituents might, for example, consider a knowledge broker with media relations skills. Depending on the organization's needs, the broker might suggest specific vehicles for a message, develop a framework for researching key audiences and identify possible tools for tracking the impact of selected communication strategies. The value of the broker rests on his or her ability to synthesize and translate information for the practitioner in a way that efficiently captures and transfers knowledge.
In all likelihood, every community already has formal or informal knowledge brokers. Possible sources for knowledge brokers might include local universities or colleges, retired nonprofit practitioners, independent consultants or foundations. Practitioners could also be encouraged to consider the “unusual suspects”- those not traditionally tapped by their community. Our focus group participants indicated that the private sector and local government agencies are often underutilized resources.
The second suggestion raised by the focus group participants was a learning collaborative or learning team. The collaborative would consist of individuals from within the same organization or a cross-section of individuals from different organizations. In contrast to the knowledge broker, the responsibility for learning would be shared by each member. This strategy is hardly revolutionary. In the medical profession, for example, residents often convene regularly to discuss recent research findings. Members take responsibility for synthesizing and presenting one professional journal article to the group, obviating the need for each individual to read every article that crosses his or her desk. For instance, a collaborative may develop a learning agenda that focuses on effective media campaigns. One member might be responsible for identifying several examples of successful public awareness campaigns while another may focus on how to identify the most appropriate vehicle for the message and yet another may be charged with summarizing methodologies for evaluating a media campaign.
There are several components that point to the viability of a successful learning collaborative. First, there is a built-in incentive for members to participate. Second, meetings are regularly scheduled and are considered “part of doing business.” Third, the collaborative is doing more than updating colleagues on recent activities—it aims at specific and longer-term learning.
The potential for introducing knowledge brokers and learning collaboratives would address several of the challenges raised by nonprofit practitioners by introducing a regular, methodical learning process and focus to the nonprofit organization. Through synthesis and sharing, practitioners would be able to maximize their learning time and both meet their desire for personal contact and receive tailored support from a trusted source. Collaborations and knowledge brokers would help break the isolation that nonprofit practitioners often operate in, particularly when it comes to learning, and both hold promise for decreasing the frustration that comes from not being able to access needed information. A final added benefit is a likely increase in practitioners' sense of efficacy and control.
Introducing these concepts would be neither quick nor simple. Both money and time would be required, as would a change in practitioners' mindset. We know that organizations, when faced with the choice, opt for doing rather than analyzing. However, with support from their stakeholders—board members, funders, and other practitioners in their communities—nonprofit organizations are poised to do more than just harness the information age. They are willing and enthusiastic learners ready to come of age.
This article is based on a report, Coming of Age in the Information Age. It is available to download from the Pew Partnership for Civic Change website, www.pew-partnership.org. Copies may be requested from firstname.lastname@example.org or 804-971-2073.
Director of Program Research
The Pew Partnership for Civic Change
5 Boar's Head Lane, suite 100
Charlottesville, VA 22903