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Immigrants Rights Groups Need Support for Communications

Four Key Takeaways on How Philanthropy Can Help

The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund asked several immigrant rights organizations how foundations can help ramp up their strategic communications work. Here is what we heard.

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As federal policy makes immigrants a target, foundations are stepping up to support nonprofits’ advocacy efforts and work to protect people who are in harm’s way.

But grant makers must also give priority to a key part of the puzzle—helping advocates get the support they need to shift public debates and tell their stories in a powerful way.

“As long as immigrants are a punching bag at the highest levels of government and throughout society, then what we’re facing is a communications challenge as much as anything else,” says Cynthia Buiza, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center. “We as a movement need a more powerful and proactive response to what’s happening out there.”

The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund recently asked several immigrant rights organizations we support how foundations can help ramp up their strategic communications work. Here are the four key takeaways they provide about how philanthropy can support organizations and movements so they can share their messages in ways that will allow them to have bigger, broader impact.

Provide grants to allow nonprofits to hire dedicated communications staff.

Nonprofits say they do not have the resources to hire enough people to lead and manage communications. Organizations tell us they need dedicated staff to manage social media, websites, events, crisis communications, and other day-to-day priorities, not to mention longer-term communications strategy development.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center is a key player in ensuring that immigrant communities across the country have legal information, representation, and advocacy support to protect and advance their rights. The center hired its first full-time communications person only in the last three years; now it has a communications department that includes a manager and an associate. Together, these two staff members are responsible for leading the organization’s outreach to immigrants through social media, the center’s website, ethnic media outlets, and other approaches.

“We’re asking a lot of those two people, and there’s never enough time or bandwidth to do the two-way engagement with external audiences you really want and need to do,” says Melissa Rodgers, director of programs. Rodgers and her colleagues also have identified a need to approach communications more strategically. “We want to be able to think about where we want to be heard and how communications can best support our advocacy, but that’s hard,” she says. The group’s executive director, Eric Cohen, adds the organization has considered hiring a senior-level director of communications, but it is hard to offer a competitive salary. If those of us who are grant makers can afford to hire high-level communications people and see the value of doing so, then why wouldn’t we want to make sure grantees can do the same?

Support research and communications efforts that allow organizations to shape messages that work.

Movement work demands that social-justice groups be able to develop and deliver moving messages that will drive public opinion and action on critical issues. But it takes time and resources to identify what messages work and to develop and deliver them effectively to target audiences.

The Haas, Jr. Fund supported the California Immigrant Policy Center to launch a statewide opinion research effort that would strengthen messages to counter the criminalization of immigrants. The organization used the research to develop tool kits and other materials that would help its constituents find the most effective ways to talk about immigrants’ positive contributions to the state.

“That research equipped us to begin a serious conversation about how we talk about immigration and immigrants in the state,” says Buiza, who credits the messaging work as a critical factor in California’s ability to advance policies that have made it a national leader on immigrant rights. “Now we have a ready response when anti-immigrant people say something outrageous, and we can frame the debate the way we want with values-based, pro-immigrant messages.”

Invest in nonprofits’ ability to share stories of individuals and families at the heart of their work.

Effective storytelling is a proven formula for moving hearts and minds; connecting our audiences to the stories of people and communities we care about is the first step to building support and spurring action on urgent issues.

The Undocumented Student Program at the University of California at Berkeley leans on storytelling to lift up the importance of investing in critical services and support for immigrant students and their families, highlighting the journeys and struggles of undocumented students at the university. “In an era of alternative facts, stories have the power to break through the fog and humanize the immigrant struggle,” says the program’s founding director Meng So.

Developing and publishing these stories can be a time- and resource-intensive process requiring interviews, videography, and more. He wishes the program could do more to use the power of its stories to influence statewide and national dialogues through wider distribution, as well as activities aimed at training and supporting more students and their families to share their stories, especially when privacy or safety concerns are particularly sensitive.

Support nonprofits that want to collaborate on communications.

The success of movements depends largely on their ability to create a unifying message and help organizations working in different parts of the country coordinate communications. According to Katharine Gin, co-founder and executive director of Immigrants Rising, the immigrant-rights movement in the United States would benefit enormously from more collaboration on communications issues.

“There’s a lot of good research out there on what narratives are working to move policy and public opinion, but there just aren’t opportunities for folks to come together and hash it all out in a safe space,” Gin says. More specifically, she and her colleagues at Immigrants Rising would appreciate more opportunities to talk with peers about shared communications challenges and how to change prevailing narratives on immigration.

Next Steps

How can grant makers up our game and provide movement builders with the resources they need to shape debates and engage with key audiences? Here are some ideas that surfaced in our interviews:

  • Provide more general support so organizations can add dedicated communications staff and embrace communications as a key, day-to-day priority and a critical component of advocacy and movement work.
  • Add line items for communications to all grants. If you are funding a project, make sure you are supporting your grantees to integrate strategic communications into their plans.
  • Invest in research, message development, storytelling training, webinars, and other vital communications activities.
  • Find the best consultants and partners who can work with nonprofits in areas including writing support, website development, videography, digital marketing, and communications strategy—and provide the resources nonprofits need to work with them.
  • Invest in communications-focused gatherings for nonprofit leaders and staff members, and support them to build their networks and collaborate with colleagues to tackle shared communication challenges.

The best first step to helping nonprofits communicate more effectively is to ask what they need—and to listen. “Communications is an essential part of organizing and advocacy,” says Becky Belcore, co-director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, another grantee. “When you scrimp on communications, you’re truly limiting what an organization or a movement can achieve.”

Used with permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy Copyright© 2019. All rights reserved.