Is what we do at foundations any different from marketing consumer products? I certainly had hoped so when I left my 20-year career in journalism, MBA in hand. I was ready to help change the world through philanthropy, and I felt like I had the tools to do it.
At my first ComNet conference nearly 13 years ago in Miami, I was drawn to a creatively titled session: “Selling Soap or Selling Social Change: What’s the Difference?” The speakers were a comms team lead and Network board member from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in New Jersey, Minna Jung, and one of her smart and funny outside consultants, Patrick McCabe.
Minna opened the breakout session by telling us about frequent debates between she and her husband, who worked in marketing and communications in the private sector. Over the dinner table, they would compare and contrast how their organizations approached communications.
Minna then introduced Patrick, who has his own comms agency in Washington, D.C., and was then helping Robert Wood Johnson with two major health coverage campaigns.
Patrick was so excited by this opportunity he started developing ideas about new ways to deploy the company’s vehicular mascot. One day, Patrick went in and laid his plan out for his boss, who listened patiently before saying anything. Finally, when Patrick finished and was feeling pretty proud of himself, his boss told him, “Patrick, the Weinermobile is not broken.”
Amid his disappointment, Patrick said, he had to admit his boss was right.
Now you may ask, how does that relate to philanthropy? And that’s a fair question. During the health coverage initiatives aimed at securing health coverage for uninsured Americans, Patrick told us, communications priorities had frequently shifted. One year, the foundation would want a celebrity spokesperson. The next year, the foundation wanted all of the former surgeons general on board. And so on.
But, like the Weinermobile, the initiatives were not broken. There was simply self-imposed pressure to keep coming up with new angles and approaches.
It’s something I’ve never forgotten. I had gone from an under-resourced newsroom to helping to spend the interest each year on a $1.2 billion endowment. I figured that in philanthropy we just hired the best and the brightest and turned them loose.
Today, I often find myself advising my colleagues to stay the course. Have the patience to give things an opportunity to play out. It’s a luxury we have in philanthropy that our communications colleagues in most sectors do not enjoy. Whenever we’re tempted to jump on the latest fad, I think of Patrick and the Weinermobile.
Kevin Corcoran is in charge of communication strategy at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.