USC Price School of Public Policy

CPPP Study on Role of Communications

Knowledge in Action:

USC Research Study Examines Communications by Foundations

By Tracy Mendoza

James Ferris James Ferris, CPPP director and one of study’s authors
Photo by Philip Channing

The USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy recently released a new research paper, “How Foundations Use Communications to Advance Their Public Policy Work.” The paper addresses how foundations that wish to engage public policy are using communications as a core strategy in advancing their policy work.

“Little is known about how foundations that play an active role in the policy arena successfully use communications as a strategy in their public policy engagement efforts,” says James Ferris, director of the center and one of the study’s authors. “This paper begins to close that gap in knowledge by analyzing how 18 foundations are using communications to expand the reach and impact of their policy work.”

According to the research, foundations employ a range of communications strategies to advance their policy work; including five strategies within their grants programs and five strategies beyond their grants programs. These strategies allow foundations to move beyond the traditional role of only “speaking through their grantees” to employing communications strategies that directly impact their policy work.

This research paper, a companion to an earlier paper focused on how foundations organize and staff for policy engagement, also explores how foundations organize their communications efforts, as well as the challenges communications leaders face in doing their work. It raises issues that foundations encounter as they seek to tap the power of communications to boost their impact in the policy arena.

“The interviews clearly demonstrate that communications is at the very center of successful policy engagement for these foundations,” said Ferris, who holds the Emery Evans Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

The research was conducted by the center’s director James M. Ferris, Marcia Sharp of Millennium Communications Group, and Hilary Harmssen of Axio Policy Research and Consulting. It is a resource for foundation leaders interested in increasing the impact of their policy work. “How Foundations Use Communications to Advance Their Public Policy Work.” is available on The Center for Philanthropy and Public Policy Web site at http://usc.edu/philanthropy. An accompanying guide for foundation leaders, which includes questions to support discussion of the study’s findings and the issues they may raise, can also be found on the center’s Web site.