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Communications Institute

Are you a mid-career communications professional in philanthropy, eager to build professional knowledge, skills, and networks? Are you looking to foster peer support, share best practices, and create a long-lasting peer community? Are you hoping to advance racial equity in your organization and more widely through your work? If you answered yes to these questions, the 2021 Communications Institute offers you in-depth professional development and an opportunity to engage with your peers. 

In a survey of mid-career communications staff and their supervisors, we discovered that many feel isolation inside their organizations and in philanthropy. In response, we are offering a first-of-its-kind, intensive training for a small cohort of applicants.


About the Curriculum

The Communications Institute sessions are made up of Modules led by Institute Faculty and Vent Sessions led by an Alum Peer Advisor. Read below to find out about the pillars we used to create the curriculum and more about what's in store. 

Institute Pillars:
  • Racial and Social Equity: Identifying and navigating obstacles in bringing your full and authentic self to work, addressing equity from a communications perspective
  • Goal-driven Communications Skills: strategic communications planning, crisis communications
  • Interpersonal Skills: Emotional intelligence and leadership development, managing yourself and navigating difference in the workplace





Module Descriptions

Module 1 | Developing Self-Awareness and Agency

Goal: Gain awareness of the needs, values, and emotions you bring to work, resulting in increased competence and confidence.  

As we grow in our communications careers, we increase our knowledge and experience but remain at our edge as we take on greater and broader responsibilities and face increasing complexity. Being at that edge is the place where we can so easily lose our footing. This module is about equipping you with the resources to grow and meet those challenges with greater ease and confidence.  

Growing professionally is enhanced by awareness of our emotions, our values and the ability to resource ourselves. This includes developing an ability to notice more, increase self-awareness, and help ourselves and others thrive. In this module of the program, we will continue to get to know each other but will move quickly into self-investigation and reflection, inner resourcing and Karla McLaren’s work on the Language of Emotions. We will explore the more vulnerable territory of judgements, assumptions, needs, values, and the various aspects of our identity.  All of this exploration will help build our self-awareness and elevate our consciousness, confidence and competence.  

  • Greater skill in expressing your authenticity and a vision of your “future self”. 
  • Ability to explain how a racial justice framework connects to your work
  • Knowledge of Language of Emotions framework. 
  • Enhanced skills in self-resourcing– noticing and managing blocks, and incorporating practices to calm your nervous system.  
  • Ability to self-resource a shift into greater consciousness and agency. 
  • Increased awareness of judgements and blocks to self-awareness. 
  • The ability to understand, articulate, express and love your needs and values. 
Module 2 | Strategic Social Sector Communications

Goal: Learn effective but uncomplicated goal-driven strategic communications planning and messaging anchored in your foundation or organizational values and develop confidence in “selling” it to your colleagues. 

  • Session 1: Get Your GAME On: Strategic communications planning that centers goals, audience, messages and execution/tactics. Break your comms planning down into manageable steps that you can then create work plans and timelines around. 
  • Session 2: Values-forward messaging: The VPSA model. 

The cornerstone of strategic communications is aligning organizational goals with communications planning through campaigns, messages, framing and communications tactics.  Mid-career communications staff need strong knowledge of core strategies and tactics to help their foundations and non-profits attain programmatic and institutional goals. A strong grasp of how values-based messaging shapes your organization’s narrative is essential.  

This session, divided into two parts, focuses on honing and deepening core strategic communications practices to support the projects, initiatives and grantee work of both foundations and non-profit organizations. Included will be a focus on integrating DEII (Diversity/Equity/Inclusion/Intersectionality) into your strategic communications planning.   

We will workshop tested-templates and integrate emotional intelligence lessons from the previous session. We will also explore how to engage colleagues as “collaborators” in your communications planning, secure “buy-in,” and navigate within your organization as communications practitioners and thought-leaders. This module offers tools that strengthen your communications professionalism through strategic thinking and planning. 

  • Working knowledge of strategic communications framework. 
  • Tools for campaigns, initiative roll-outs, messaging and framing. 
  • Customized strategic communications template. 
  • Communicating values and message you believe in and that are mission-aligned. 
  • Integration of emotional intelligence into communications planning. 
Module 3 | Expanding Presence and Influence in the Workplace 

Goal: Develop your empathy and relationship-management skills to manage conflict, grow your influence and have greater impact. 

Have you ever walked out of a meeting and wondered what just happened? The dynamics of a team can sometimes be mysterious with observable behaviors, but with much more going on beneath the surface. Your ability to notice and respond to your environment increases your ability to have agency and impact at work. In this module we will explore the complexity of relationships so that you can elevate your awareness of your own emotions, the emotions of your team members and build skills to influence relationships and have greater impact in your organization.
  • Understand and explain the connection between your emotional awareness and the content you develop for your key audiences. 
  • Deepened connection with cohort peers and greater appreciation for differences. 
  • Understand and own your power and ability to notice and influence your environment. 
  • Ability to use compassionate communication when entering into important conversations 
  • Practice skills in social awareness – noticing and recognizing triggers in interpersonal relationships, listening and inquiry, and working through conflict 
  • Apply a racial justice framework to developing your organization’s content 
Module 4 | Equity, Power, and Communications, OH MY!

Goal: Deepen dialogue and understanding of how identity intersects with your role as a communicator, building and refining your own authentic equity lens.  

As communicators at social justice-oriented organizations, we have a unique opportunity to shape an organizational presence that fosters belonging and advances equity. With this huge opportunity comes incredible responsibility. In addition to creating effective comms strategies, we have to navigate a whole host of identities and lived experiences that impact how we feel, what we believe, and how we approach our work.  

This module aims to demystify and dismantle the concepts that have become common language in our organizations and communications, like equity, inclusion, access, race, power, intersectionality, and white supremacy. Through defining and unpacking these concepts, we will begin to better understand our relationship to them, to prepare us to be stronger, more aware communicators.  

After building foundational knowledge, we will move from theory to practice, discussing the ways these concepts manifest in our day-to-day. We will contextualize this all by surfacing the tensions that often impede equitable processes and products--time, budget, and buy-in.  We won’t solve every challenge that we may face on our journey toward becoming truly equitable communicators, but we will build a strong foundation that will allow participants to evolve their skills beyond the cohort.  

  • Build foundational knowledge of diversity, inclusion, equity, justice, intersectionality, race, and power. 
  • Increase comfortability navigating the nuances of race equity in our roles and our communications. 
  • Exercise vulnerability and practice it as a tool for developing more authentic communications. 
  • Learn equity-rooted communications frameworks and strategies, including asset-based framing, ethical storytelling, radical style guides, and more.  
  • Build an understanding of how to adapt tools to continue developing strategies that work for your organization.  
Module 5 | Moving from Crisis to Opportunity: Planning and Communicating in a Time of Crisis

Goals: Learn reactive and proactive strategies and tactics for responding to crisis, ranging from organizational to media, and how to reframe with your values. Understand how crises affect more than our strategies, discuss tactics to stay grounded when the world feels chaotic. 

  • Session 1: Crisis Communications: Crisis protocols and planning, managing crisis, risk assessment, crisis threat determination
  • Session 2: Communicators in Crisis: Navigating trauma in our roles, emotional intelligence, self-care, managing stress, and leaning into vulnerability as communicators

Communications staff are central to managing internal and external crises, which may threaten the reputation, grantees, boards or programmatic goals of their foundations or non-profit organizations. This two-part module session is devoted to anticipating, preparing for and managing crises with heightened risks in the current political and cultural environment, as well as investigating how we communicate in a time of trauma and crisis.  

In the first half of the module, particular attention will go to the creation of protocols and applications to different types of crisis (reputational, (c)3-(c)4 non-partisanship, personnel-related, political attacks, external/environmental, other), and identifying when it’s a crisis. While the second half of the module will focus on how we often experience trauma as an unnamed reality of being a communicator, discussing strategies for prioritizing care and joy, setting and protecting boundaries, and tapping into vulnerability as a tool. 

  • Framework for crisis communications planning and response. 
  • Hands-on practice creating protocols, statements, and talking points. 
  • Knowledge of contemporary risk-management calibrated to the current political environment. 
  • Integration of relationship management skills into crisis response planning and organizational buy-in. 
  • Develop tools for self-care, including identifying needs and building boundaries. 
  • Integration of emotional intelligence as well as mindfulness in communicating in a time of crisis. 
Module 6 | Peer-to-Peer Sessions and Closing 


Vent Session Descriptions

Vent Session 1: When you feel like an imposter 

Goal: By releasing these tensions together early in the cohort, we will find community without each other. 

Did you ever envision yourself as a nonprofit communicator? Did you even study communications? The truth is that most of us never saw ourselves in this line of work. At best, we feel a little lost; at worst, we feel like frauds. This first vent session will serve as a safe space to air our insecurities. Imposter syndrome—the feeling that one is not cut out for the work one is doing—prevents us from realizing our own worth and value.  

Vent Session 2: When you feel anxious 

Goal: By practicing together, we can shake off the nerves together. 

How many of us immediately recoil at the thought of bringing our full selves to our work? How many of us code switch? The truth is that the norms in philanthropy prevent us from bringing our authentic selves into the office. This vent session will provide a safe space for us to practice (and keep practicing!) the art of expanding our presence and bringing our full selves to our work.

Vent Session 3: When you feel powerless

Goal: By being vulnerable together, we can release our frustrations in a supportive environment.

Have you ever seen or heard someone in a position of power—your boss, a board member, a donor—do or say something crass? Treat someone as different because of their race, gender, sexuality or ability? That’s called a micro aggression and it is one of the most common ways that power dynamics manifest themselves in the workplace. This vent session will provide a safe space for us to acknowledge the truth: most of us lack the position power to actually do anything about these micro aggressions.

Vent Session 4: When you feel burned out

Goal: By sharing with and learning from each other, we can better identify signs of burnout and stress.

Do you feel burned out? How many times have we pushed aside our own mental health in order to craft a compelling communications strategy? During last summer’s racial reckoning, many Black and non Black communicators of color were faced with the reality of having to respond to crisis that hit too close to home. When do we take a step back and begin to prioritize ourselves? This vent session will provide a safe space for us to be real about the times we’ve pushed our bodies too far for the sake of our jobs as communicators.

Robert Bray, Director of Communications, NEO Philanthropy

Robert’s career spans more than two decades in the field of strategic communications and social justice. As Director of NEO Philanthropy’s Four Freedoms FundTM Strategic Communications Initiative, Robert helps create and fund strategies designed to shape the immigration debate locally and nationally. Prior to joining NEO Philanthropy, he was Director of Communications for the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund in San Francisco. In 1997, Robert founded the SPIN Project, a media training, coaching and strategizing non-profit for social change organizations. In the late 80s and 90s, he played a central role in increasing the media visibility of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, serving as the first Director of Communications for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, and later as Director of Communications for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Robert is the author of several publications on communications including “SPIN Works” and “Winning Wages: A Guide to Living Wage Communications Campaigns.” Prior to his social justice career, he was a public relations executive for the IBM Corporation. Robert graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism and public relations.

Headshot of Vanice DunnVanice Dunn, Vice President of Communications, PolicyLink

Vanice guides the evolution of the PolicyLink brand identity and communications strategy. She leads the organization into its critical responsibility and power as framers; framing issues expansively enough to illustrate the possibilities of a future where we all belong and thrive. True to the PolicyLink approach, Vanice brings a different type of sensibility to her communications work. An admirer of visionary fiction, illustration, and the types of creative that inspire dreams, she believes in the power of story to lift up what works. Leading a team of brilliant strategists, Vanice is honored to collaborate with the many assets of the organization — from platforms to partners — to craft strategies and campaigns that pave the way for a new narrative that dismantles the dominant narrative of the status quo. A new world is possible and Vanice is confident PolicyLink and its partners will lead the way. Raised in the South, Vanice brings her southern charm to Oakland where she’s in constant pursuit of joy, whether it’s in a new pair of kicks or a remix of a favorite song.

Emily Katz, Vice President of Public Affairs, Northern California Grantmakers

In her role as Vice President of Public Affairs, Emily directs communications and supervises policy advocacy and disaster resilience which means she’s one of those people who tries not to let a crisis go to waste. She believes in the power of people to do more together than they can do alone. In her bones, she craves collective action and builds it wherever she can. She’s a sucker for great stories, and isn’t shy about learning from failure.

Emily is energized by bringing people together to tackle tough problems, which makes Northern California Grantmakers’ network of 200 members with $3 billion in grants her happy place.

At NCG, Emily has built a cohort-based communications training program for mid-career professionals weaving emotional intelligence through strategic communications and racial equity. She takes satisfaction supporting the brilliance of others and her team has grown from two to five in her three years at the organization.

Emily landed her first job out of college at a non-profit start-up where she started as a telemarketer and, in six years, became a senior vice president. In her time there, she quintupled the organization’s budget and helped them grow from 20,000 to a half-million square feet of warehousing.

At the Women’s Funding Network, Emily developed and implemented a four-year, multimillion-dollar budget helping members get the right message to the right people on every continent.

Emily is also the lucky mother of overly intelligent twin teens, and enjoys the moments when she takes off her parenting hat and gets to be a real person with them.

Sande Smith, Director of Communications, California Wellness Foundation

Sande Smith is a communicator who combines words and images to tell stories and convey messages that move hearts and minds. During the day she leads communications for The California Wellness Foundation, and has held leadership roles at the Women’s Foundation of California and the Global Fund for Women. As communications director at the Women’s Foundation of California, she designed and led strategic communications efforts and cultivated advocates to take online actions on behalf of low-income women and families. Prior to that, Sande worked at the Global Fund for Women where she developed award-winning publications and generated coverage on issues such as the role of philanthropy in making social change and the disproportionate effect of natural disasters on women. A long-time writer, a few years ago Sande started learning to draw. She is now an avid draw-er who brings art, drawing and visual thinking to everything that she does. 

Sande became certified as a professional coach, and began offering coaching in April 2020. Sande is past president of the San Francisco chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and holds a bachelor’s degree in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies from Brown University.

Alum Peer Advisor

Carlos Aguilar, Chief Content Director, California Changelawyers Foundation

What should a leader look like? How can we restore power and wealth to our communities? These are the questions that motivate Carlos's work.

He imagines a future where leadership is Brown, Black, Queer, Non Binary, and Undocumented; a future where communities have the power to determine their own lives.

At ChangeLawyers℠, Carlos serves as the foundation's primary designer, curates the popular weekly newsletter NEWS BRIEF, and ghostwrites the foundation's opinion essays. In 2019, he co-created the inaugural Leaders Summit, a sold out, day long gathering of over 200 social justice lawyers. In 2018, he co-develop the organization’s new name, brand, and visual identity with Mission Minded.

Carlos is also involved in efforts to redefine what a philanthropist looks like. He's a member of Latino Community Foundation's LGBTQ Giving Circle, where he and his fellow queer philanthropists have funded organizations like Oasis Legal Services, El/La Para TransLatinas, and Somos Familia. He's currently developing a series of panel discussions with Northern California Grantmakers about how to liberate philanthropy. 

Besides liberating wealth and power, his obsessions include baking layer cakes, Mexico City, and the color yellow.


Each month, the Institute offers two, two-hour sessions with our faculty and special guests for a total of 12 core sessions.

There will also be an additional option to attend Alum-led Vent Sessions as a space for Institute participants to connect with each other about the content. Find the session dates below.

  • Welcome and Introductions | May 24, 2021: 10:00 am - 12:00 noon
  • Module 1 | June 10 & June 24, 2021: 10:00 am - 12:00 noon
  • Module 2 | July 8 & July 22, 2021: 10:00 am - 12:00 noon
  • Module 3 | August 5 & August 19, 2021: 10:00 am - 12:00 noon
  • Peer Vent Session | August 25, 2021: 12:00 noon - 1:00 pm
  • Module 4 | September 9 & September 23, 2021: 10:00 am - 12:00 noon
  • Peer Vent Session | September 29, 2021: 12:00 noon - 1:00 pm
  • Module 5, Part 1 | October 7 & October 21, 2021: 10:00 am - 12:00 noon
  • Peer Vent Session | October 13, 2021: 12:00 noon - 1:00 pm
  • Module 5, Part 2 | October 21, 2021: 10:00 am - 12:00 noon
  • Module 6 | November 4 & November 18, 2021: 10:00 am - 12:00 noon

Target Audience

The Institute is best suited for communications professionals who have advanced into positions of some authority, but who are not yet the ultimate decision-makers in their department. The titles of people in this mid-career role often include such descriptors as director, officer, manager, and associate. The Institute is open to members and nonmembers. Priority is given to members.


Members and nonmembers: $3,000

The application deadline has passed. Stay tuned for 2022 Cohort information. Questions before then? Contact Kayla Ballard at

About the Application

Thank you for your interest in Northern California Grantmakers’ 2021 Communications Institute. Please take a few moments to complete the information below and respond to the questions. You are able to save your responses and return to them at a later time.

Northern California Grantmakers holds equity and social justice as a focus and recognizes the value of having a cohort that brings a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives based on language, race/ethnicity, age, gender, socio-economic background, political beliefs, religious beliefs, disability, and sexual orientation. We welcome and strongly encourage applications from individuals who identify with these backgrounds and perspectives. We are committed to creating a diverse, inclusive, and multicultural cohort, and our application review process will take lived experiences from these backgrounds and perspectives into consideration.