Funders: Your Obligation to Social Impact Goes Beyond Giving Money

Funders, you have more than a financial obligation to the causes you support. It's time to leverage your unique position with a digital media hub. Learn how.

Eric Ressler
October 7, 2020

It goes without saying that funders like you play an incredibly important role in the social impact space. But it may surprise you to consider that your maximum impact potential is far greater than the sum of the funds you grant nonprofit partners. As a philanthropic leader in the social impact ecosystem, you have a unique vantage point. Your network of connections and above-the-fray position allow you to see the bigger picture. Which means you have a mandate to leverage those insights in a way that builds bridges, raises awareness, and moves the needle on your issue.

In order to make that happen, you must adopt a digital media approach to your marketing and communications. What does that mean? It means you must intentionally hone your foundation’s brand and build a robust digital hub with which to share your thought leadership.

Here’s why you can and should join the conversation and democratize your insights.

Why Funders Should Adopt a Digital Media Approach

Funders have long operated according to a set of outdated principles — principles that must now be remedied with a digital-first approach.

Privacy First: The Old-School Approach to Philanthropy

Most funders enter into philanthropy because they are passionate about making the world a better place. No surprise there. Unlike nonprofits, however, they tend to see themselves as having a behind-the-scenes role in driving societal change. With the exception of major foundations, funders frequently choose to keep a low profile (in fact, some big funders don’t even have a website).

Why is that? Some funders simply don’t believe investing in their own brand is necessary. After all, they already have the connections and money necessary to fund initiatives. Why throw money toward marketing and communications? It’s not like funders need to attract new business.

Others play their cards close to their chests because they want to maintain their privacy. Often, this stems from a desire to avoid putting themselves in the crosshairs of public opinion. Philanthropists and foundations are sometimes held to task for their funding choices (just look at Jeff Bezos). By doing all their good “behind closed doors,” these funders reason that they won’t be held accountable if they make a “bad” (or controversial) investment.

But taking a private stance toward philanthropy is an old-school approach. And it's one that hampers funders as much as the organizations they support.

Philanthropy 2.0: The Modern, Digital Approach

Remember: You have a unique role in the social impact ecosystem. Unlike organizations dedicated to boots-on-the-ground program work, you are exposed to multiple approaches and results in the course of your work with multiple organizations. In addition, you have the resources to look at the system itself and all of the players and influences involved. In that sense, you can step back and take stock of the social impact ecosystem as a whole. This makes your perspective — or, more accurately, meta-perspective — uniquely valuable.

By raising your public profile and sharing your thought leadership freely, you can contribute meaningfully to the conversation in your space. Just as importantly, you can guide your organizations toward the most impactful approaches.

In that sense, laying low represents not just a wasted opportunity but a dereliction of duty. That may sound strong. But if you truly want to catalyze once-in-a-generation change, you must leverage your power to broaden the horizons of your influence and impact. And the best, most effective way to do that is with a strong brand and a robust digital platform chock-full of your learnings and insights.

What Does a Digital Media Approach Entail?

First and foremost, adopting a digital media approach means recognizing that in order to scale your impact, you must compete in the attention economy. That means embracing a digital-first culture and constructing a brawny digital media platform that includes a:

  • Robust brand
  • Well-defined theory of change
  • Storytelling website
  • Digital strategy, including which channels and content types you’ll engage
  • Thought leadership editorial plan
  • Content distribution and promotion plan

Functionally, this approach requires you to put yourself and your ideas out there with the goal of propelling your mission forward. Operationally, it means devoting yourself (and your team) to the ongoing task of documenting your insights, packaging them in a scroll-stopping format, and sharing them with the world.

The Benefits of Adopting a Digital Media Model

By incorporating a digital media model, you stand to benefit your foundation, the organizations you support, and your mission. You do so by:

  • Staking a leadership position in the conversation about systems-level change. By sharing your insights and learnings, you can contribute meaningfully to the current discourse about how best to address your issue on a national or even global scale.
  • Promoting your partner organizations and their work and impact to a wider audience. When you give the organizations you support greater visibility, you raise awareness about the work they do. And because your stamp of approval means they’ve already been vetted, you make your organizations more appealing to other funders.
  • Moving the conversation forward. By contributing your unique perspective and learnings to the larger conversation, you promote the cross-pollination of ideas. Doing so not only helps build consensus, but it also sharpens everyone in your niche of the social impact ecosystem. As a result, everyone grows in their ability to do better, more impactful work.
  • Attracting the best and brightest nonprofit organizations to support. Much like venture capitalists, you want to attract and support the very best organizations in your space. By raising your own foundation’s profile, you ensure that the most innovative organizations are the ones that seek you out.
  • Reporting on successes and failures. Many funders shy away from sharing about failed initiatives. But transparency in this area means that everyone can learn and make more thoughtful decisions moving forward.
  • Modeling best practices for the organizations you support. Like funders, social impact organizations must now adopt a digital media approach to scale their impact. By blazing a trail with your own foundation, you can model the most cutting-edge best practices — and support your organizations in doing the same.
  • Raise your cause’s national profile. As mainstream media breaks down into ever more siloed (and biased) marketplaces, there is room for progressive organizations to provide relevant, well-researched, and actionable content. The good news? Institutions like philanthropic foundations are perceived as neutral do-gooders. This means that it is possible to build trust as a reliable source of mainstream information about your social impact niche.

The digital media approach isn’t just for nonprofits and other boots-on-the-ground organizations. It’s for funders like you, too. And the time to embrace it is right now.

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