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Liberating Communications: An Institute Connecting Us to Our Purpose and Each Other

Thursday, November 7, 2019

by Robert Bray, Director of Communications, NEO Philanthropy

Some 30 years ago, on the steps of the Supreme Court, I made a decision that would re-route my entire communications career.  At the time, I had a good decade of professional corporate PR under my belt.  But when I stepped in front the throng of news cameras covering a protest for LGBT rights where I was the media relations volunteer, I made a spot decision to come out as gay, live, on network television.

When my family and my corporate boss saw me on the news that night, I didn’t yet realize I would be leaving my tech PR job to spend the rest of my working life alongside the LGBT rights, immigrant rights and other social justice movements.

Earlier this year, I was reminded of this course-changing moment as I stood before a room of midcareer communicators in NCG’s cozy conference space, inviting them to ask themselves, “What will I need in order to enter this door on my professional journey and bring my authentic self and lived-experience to my job?”

This question is one few communications practitioners in philanthropy, especially in mid-career, are asked, let alone are offered the space to contemplate.

I myself am long past mid-career. I’ve enjoyed three decades of non-profit social justice communications and grantmaking and helped build communications training systems in several political fields.  In moments of reflection I have asked myself, what tools, training and peer connections would have made a difference along the way? Not everyone will arrive at a career-altering pathway to their life’s purpose outside the Supreme Court, but we all have similar questions about what we need to go forward and excel.

I don’t mean workshops, networking happy hours and professional development classes. I mean something deeper, combining the technical practice of strategic communications with the self-development skills to operate in a more diverse, evolving and demanding workplace.

Those questions informed my recent collaboration with a team convened by Emily Katz, VP of Public Affairs at NCG, to create a deep learning experience for its members.

Out of this effort came the first-ever 2019 NCG Communications Institute for mid-career practitioners – those standing at a professional threshold and contemplating what they need to do their best work going forward.   

It turns out what they need is not a workshop on tweeting, writing a better press release, creating slicker branding collateral, or videotaping a more interesting grantee story.  What they need is a comprehensive learning experience weaving together strategic communications, diversity, equity, and inclusivity acumen with the emotional intelligence skills to navigate the hyper-complex philanthropic and non-profit workplace.

Our interviews of racially diverse mid-career communications practitioners at NCG member organizations were clear on this point. We defined mid-career as past entry level, and not yet the top decision-maker.

We asked them to share their biggest challenges, fears, desires, and ambitions. Some of the answers surprised us.

Professional isolation ranks among the top challenges faced by communications staff in their mid-career.  Many feel isolated from colleagues at other agencies, lacking peer support and opportunities to share best practices.

“There is very little space in philanthropy for communications people like me to talk to each other, especially with shared geography, in the same media market, facing similar cultural, political and professional challenges at this point in our careers, and associated with the issues our foundations work on,” explained one professional.

Enter NCG’s 2019 Communications Cohort.

The cohort training space prioritized a tripartite approach, integrating (1) technical communications skills such as crisis comms, messaging and framing, storytelling and planning with, (2) behavioral, intellectual and emotional intelligence skills and (3) race, class and diversity awareness and practices.

But what became of the professional isolation many cohort applicants flagged early on, the sense of being alone and disconnected on the job.

Perhaps this is where the cohort most excelled -- to a degree not even anticipated by the faculty.

The closing of the isolation gap began with openers for each session asking participants about their dreams, the stories behind their names, their sources of inspiration, humor, resilience and spirit. 

Soon, participants were jumping into animated peer-to-peer discussions that were off-limits back at the office. This opinionated group was not without differences. However, participants grabbed ahold of each conflict as an opportunity to deploy their newfound emotional intelligence skills to get back “above the line.” 

By close of the cohort, students created several platforms for working together and staying connected.  These included a jointly created PowerPoint to drive home the core principles they would soon be implementing back at the office; a Facebook group alive with personal and professional support, including play-by-play photos of one participant’s wedding proposal (she said yes); and a two-part program for the field called “Liberating Ourselves; Liberating Philanthropy,”  to share their energy and excitement for bringing race, gender, and values into the field.

We hope NCG’s Communications Institute will connect more mid-career communications professionals in philanthropy with others like themselves to advance their careers and the field. Philanthropy will benefit from these advances. We prepare to embark on the next phase of our journeys through the truths we learn about each other and ourselves in these experiences.

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