Can Communications Training Work if You Don't Have a Proper Communications Strategy?

Ray Schultz
April 4, 2011

The question may sound rude, but it's a reasonable one for children's advocates to ask. Small groups in this field tend to lack a communications culture, and they don't get much help from grantmakers.

But they should, judging by new research on nonprofits in general by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. It found that grantees and grantors alike can gain enormous benefit from communications training.

"Fundraising and communications are not always in alignment," said Eric Brown, communications director for Hewlett during a Webinar last week. With training, though, groups can sharpen up their message, and foundations can "attach value to the work of grantees."

Backing this belief with resources, Hewlett has sent over 300 grantees from 200 organizations to training. "They're terrific," Brown said of the sessions. "But every so often, a colleague would ask, 'Do they work?'"

The foundation decided to find out. It surveyed 181 professionals who had attended training. And out of those, it identified 40 for "deeper-dive interviews," said Mary Command, principal of the Williams Group, the firm that conducted the research.

The research uncovered three major findings:

Finding No.1-The training experience was of excellent quality. Participants rated the following goals on a scale of 1 to 7:

  • Building my communications skills-5.73
  • Achieving goals that are important to my organization's mission-5.49
  • Making sure communications is a primary component of my organization's overall strategic plan-5.27
  • Developing my organization's communications capacity-5.24%

Respondents were also asked to list the most valuable topics. They cited:

  • Crafting clear compelling messages-53.8%
  • Strategic communications planning-43.3%
  • Developing effective presentations-40.4%

Finding No. 2-Training alone isn't enough to transform a communication culture, or allow them to go from average to excellent capability. Here are the factors deemed most important to success:

  • Capable leadership-6.79
  • Sustainable operations-6.71
  • Effective programs-6.69
  • Effective communications strategy & funding-6.48

Finding No. 3-Training can be strengthened through strategic participant selection and comprehensive reinforcement.

The Williams Group extracted three takeaways from this. Grantees should:

  1. Ensure readiness for training-"We have developed tools for that," Command said. "We can identify who was ready or not ready and may not be worth the investment."
  2. Invite participation of teams (only)-"It's about building a culture, so it's important to bring a team to training," Command explained..
  3. Conduct robust follow-up-Does the group have a communications plan? "Of the 40 individuals we asked to look at their plan, only 50% were able to find any kind of plan," Command added.


The Webinar speakers also answered these questions:

  • How do you know what's right for your group? "We do a pre-training assessment--of strengths, weaknesses, issues they're working on and skills they want to develop, said Gwyn Hicks, COO of Spitfire Strategies, a firm that conducts communications training. "Every participant has a different approach and need. "
  • Do small groups need to send people for three days? No. "We do anything from an hour to half-day sessions," Hicks answered.
  • Is training strictly theoretical? "Hardly. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation insists on specific deliverables, and sessions are hands-on. I don't think I've seen even one session where participants were just being talked at, " said moderator Andy Goodman, head of the Goodman Center.

The Webinar attendees didn't need convincing: Most have sponsored or participated in training. Only a few said they wouldn't even consider it.

This article was originally published on Child Advocacy 360's blog.  It is reprinted here with permission.