Guest Post + Link to a Free Webinar: What the Hewlett Foundation Learned About Communications Training for Grantees

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blognew3.17.11The way Eric Brown, communications director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, tells it in a recent Communications Network webinar, it wasn't a sudden "Eureka moment" that sparked his desire to assess the effectiveness of the training programs his foundation had been offering for years to help grantees develop effective communications skills.

Instead, he was just simply itching to know if these programs were doing any good.  "It was bugging me because I didn't know," says Brown.

"For years," he says, "the foundation has sponsored communications training for our grantees.  In the last five or six years we've sent more than 300 grantees from more than 200 organizations to communications training programs.  I've attended them.  I think they're terrific. Grantees seem to like them. But every so often a colleague would ask 'but do they work?' And I'd say, I don't really know." Adds Brown, "I thought it would really be interesting to go back to interview grantees and observe their work and see if these trainings made a difference. So we decided to embark on that kind of project."

That project, for which the foundation commissioned independent communications design firm the Williams Group, involved surveys of grantees who received Hewlett-sponsored training, interviews with select participants, some ten case studies, and direct observation of a three-day training program.

What did the survey reveal?

The training programs get high marks for quality.  In fact, Hewlett grantees say the training programs -- which covered topics such as the basics of developing a strategic communications plan and how to craft clear and compelling messages to leveraging social media -- were judged by participants as "among the most interactive and useful" they'd ever experienced.

But as good as the training is, it's not enough to make those who aren't professional communicators into experts. As the study found, "For most organizations, a single training experience may build individual awareness, appreciation, and skill — but those gains are not likely to increase over time, spread to others, or transform the organization as a whole without additional, ongoing support."

More so, even an already highly-rated training program can be made even better.  Specifically, the study found four ways it could be strengthened:

  • Make sure participants, and the organizations they're from, are ready for training and can "put adequate human and financial resources into place to support communications."
  • Invite teams, not individuals, to take part in training. As the study notes, when joined by team members, "participants felt better able to apply training lessons to their actual work while in training and to bring lessons back to the office. Those who attended alone wished they had been joined by at least one partner. Ideal training teams included a decision maker vested with authority (e.g., executive director) and an implementer (e.g., communications or program officer)."
  • Robust follow-up is key.  What people learn in class won't stick if the lessons aren't reinforced.  For instance, participants told researchers that they felt they'd benefit from additional courses to "refresh or deepen skills."
  • Support efforts to integrate communications with program strategy.  If foundations really wan to see their grantees make communications a key element of their overall work, they can help by similarly incorporating "communications into the development, management, and evaluation of grants/programs. This may involve financial support for communications and ongoing dialogue initiated by Foundation program officers."

Clearly, as the study results show, everyone likes the training they receive and they're more capable as a result, but training is most effective if it's reinforced.

For more on the study as well as the elements of the training itself, view a replay of our webinar and then visit whatnonprofitssay.org, a special Web site where you can download an executive summary of the study, review all the data from the grantees surveys, and read case studies, interview text, and verbatim responses.

~Bruce Trachtenberg, Executive Director, Communications Network