The Hewlett Foundation recently commissioned a study of the communications they’ve conducted for their grantees over the past six years to find out whether it was effective. I won’t keep you in suspense: it was. Beyond this top-line finding, there are some more interesting ideas about how to improve communications training for nonprofits. Even more interesting than that– at least for me– is why this kind of training is judged so positively by the grantees who benefit from it.
The study, called What Nonprofits Say, was conducted by Williams Group, and asked participants in Hewlett-sponsored trainings going back to 2005 to rate their experience in different ways, from the topics they found most useful to the improvements in their personal skills or their organizations’ communications work. Full disclosure: I helped organize two of the training conferences included in it when I was the Director of the SPIN Project, and also served as a presenter and coach at them.
So it was gratifying to see that the training was regarded so highly, with participants rating the topics covered and the quality of the presenters as among the most useful aspects of the training for them. For those of you familiar with Spitfire Strategies’ Smart Chart and the training lineups they put together, this finding will come as no surprise to you.
The study also finds that training by itself isn’t enough to transform the communications work of an organization– leadership that buys into the idea of communications and the resources to get the work done are also critically important. Certainly these are things that most people who have organized this kind of communications training have suspected, but it’s nice to have some empirical support for those hunches. Likewise, the study found that organizations experiencing a period of positive transition– new leaders, new funding or starting a new project– got the most out of the training.
The study’s third key finding, about ways to improve training outcomes, contains some important confirmation of ideas that have informed the design of these training: participants need to be ready for the trainings, and have the resources to use what they learn; inviting teams rather than individuals allows for deeper thinking about how to apply the lessons of the training; follow-up, in the form of coaching and follow-on training, is key to cementing the gains from the training; and integrating communications with program work is vital to the long-term effectiveness of the work. For more on this, see Communications Network Executive Director Bruce Trachtenberg’s guest post at Donor’s Forum, as well as the webinar about the study that the Network sponsored. The study itself also contains some very useful pre- and post-training questionnaires for Foundation staff to use in evaluating the readiness of their grantees for training and how well they are applying what they learned.
The entire study does a great job of codifying best practices in designing a communications skills-building course, and should be required reading for anyone thinking about doing this kind of training for nonprofits. As to the question of why this kind of training is so well regarded by participants, I think the study only starts to hint at a key reason. In addition to the quality of the workshops and the engaging presenters, I believe the format of these trainings lend themselves particularly well to creating transformative experiences for the participants.
These trainings bring together a diverse group of nonprofit professionals to think and talk about the deep strategy that guides their work, and the values that undergird it. Away from the minute-to-minute pressure of the office for a few days, they have the space to think broadly about why they do the work in the first place, and how to convince others why it’s so important. It doesn’t hurt that many of the trainings studied took place in a retreat setting in Northern California. In short, when done right, these trainings are relaxing, fun, and intellectually stimulating. What’s not to like?
It’s no coincidence that those are some of the same words our participants use over and over to describe the annual SPIN Academy, which takes place each summer in Marin, and which I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of for almost a decade now. We’re currently planning the thirteenth (!) annual event for this August. We’ll be opening applications in the next month or so. Please drop me a line if you’d like to be notified when they go live.