IDR | Investing in communications as a culture and a capacity

Jul 10, 2024


By Sahana Jose – Associate Director, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies

A majority of grants made by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies (RNP) are unrestricted: there are no stipulations on how grantees should use them. Nonprofit partners can freely use these funds for organisational development, including core costs, capacity building, communications, and team engagement. On the other hand, programmatic grants are specifically provided to help organisations strengthen and implement their programmes. Yet, a recent survey we conducted for our annual impact report revealed that that less than 30 percent of the organisations we support utilise more than 50 percent of the unrestricted funds for non-programmatic costs. A handful of them, in fact, used 100 percent of it for programme expenses, killing the very intent of an unrestricted fund.

While this finding points towards the lack of sufficient programme funds in the sector, it also reveals a larger need for a straightforward category of grants for capacity building. These grants will nudge nonprofits to strengthen their systems, skills, culture, and resources, enabling them to carry out their work more effectively. Funders such as ATE Chandra FoundationEdelGive Foundation, and Forbes Marshall Foundation are among the few who have given ‘capacity building’ the limelight it deserves. They have pushed their grantees to categorically spend on building internal fundraising muscle and resilience.

However, much more needs to be done.

The need to focus on communications

Within the umbrella of capacity building, thanks to the efforts of Bridgespan’s Pay-What-It-Takes India Initiative and EdelGive’s GROW Fund, areas such as leadership and talent development, financial management, fundraising, and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) are receiving much-needed attention. However, the same cannot be said of capabilities such as communications and storytelling.

Communications, in all its different avatars (external and internal), continues to be viewed as a good-but-not-a-must-have capacity, and sometimes even a luxury. Many organisations struggle to find comms resources, build their capabilities to deliver effective campaigns, and more importantly, nurture a culture of communications internally. It is also an area that is almost impossible to raise funding for; yet it continues to be a line item in grant proposals, which typically seek details of media mentions, social media pages, and outreach efforts.

While some grants require organisations to create an impact video or report, these outputs do not address the long-term need for stronger storytelling capacity. They often only meet the funder’s branding requirements. In order to build a culture of communications, we need to start looking at communications as the wind beneath the wings that helps organisations soar. It is more than social media followers, writing blogs, event management, and YouTube hits.

In the chapter titled ‘Development Communication and the Dialogic Space: Finding the Voices Under the Mines’ from the book Communicating for Social Change: Meaning, Power, and Resistance, authors Christele J Amoyan and Pamela A Custodio trace the origin of DevComs, the academic discipline that studies communications in the development sector, back to the 1950s. The chapter quotes Nora Cruz Quebral, often referred to as the ‘mother of development communication’, stating, “DevComs’ ultimate goal is to empower individuals and communities to realise their full potentials.” The essay goes on to emphasise that DevComs places people at the centre of social transformation by harnessing their collective human capacity. Thereby, it urges us to reassess the function of communications and look at it as a powerful tool for meaning-making, culture-building, and creating a platform for the voices of the communities we serve.

Communications as a culture and a capacity

While several frameworks provide guidance on targeting your audience and crafting the right message, they fail to do their magic unless communications are strategically aligned with the organisation’s objectives. For example, if an organisation’s objective is to influence policy, then their communication efforts need to target the specific government department through one-on-one meetings, roundtables, and op-eds in mainstream dailies rather than a paid Instagram campaign.

Communications is both a culture and a capacity.

Communications is a culture in that it is not the responsibility of the founder or the comms head/team alone, but is a shared task in which a majority of the organisation plays an active role. Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a recipient of ATE Chandra Foundation’s capacity-building grant for communications, moved from a fragmented approach to one that integrated communications with other teams within the organisation. This change ensured that despite being heavily involved in legal research, Vidhi’s research and programme teams periodically engaged with the communications strategy and participated in building advocacy and dissemination plans to communicate impact. These efforts led to increased media coverage, higher attendance at their events and webinars, and their reports being cited in academic work as well as Supreme Court and High Court judgments.

Development communications is also a capacity because unlike standard marketing, which asks individual customers to like, buy, subscribe, spend, and consume a product or a service, it deals with society and complex social challenges. Communicators in the social sector must find ways to get people to sign up, mobilise, dialogue, advocate, donate, and take concrete action—all of which leads to a change in behaviours and attitudes—with limited resources.

Zenith, an organisation that employs legal tools to help communities access justice, received a storytelling grant from RNP which gave the nonprofit a lens to think differently about how to communicate their story. This support helped them build an internal system to document, package, and disseminate knowledge to both their online audience and the communities they work with. Using this grant, they took up courses, hired a communications team, and acquired camera equipment as well as subscriptions to tools such as Canva and Adobe InDesign. This new lens led to more intentional and consistent platforming—through blogs, documentaries, comics, and theatre—of grassroots stories with increased sensitivity and empathy.

What can funders do to help nonprofits tell their story better?

1. Start with capacity-building grants

Stripped to its basics, communications presents the answer to the question, “What is the core mission of your organisation?” Narrating your organisation’s story and mission in a powerful, easy-to-understand, and accurate manner—by the founders, senior leaders, employees, as well as your key stakeholders—is a telling indicator of an organisation’s health. Capacity building grants can support the development of clear strategies, sound leadership, and robust internal structures and systems. This in turn acts as a foundation upon which an organisation can craft, articulate, and communicate a clear narrative about their work.

EdelGive’s GROW Fund, which aims to build the capabilities, resilience and future readiness of grassroots organisations, collaborated with agencies such as Social Lens Consulting and Grant Thornton to support capacity building and organisational development. Data from their progress reports over the first year shows that nonprofits have used approximately 90 percent of funds to meet the core costs on human resources (HR), which helped them retain people and continue their operations smoothly. A strong HR function fosters a culture of learning, documenting, and sharing that could become the backbone on which a solid communications strategy is built.

2. Storytelling grants as a category under capacity building

RNP experimented with a storytelling grant with a few of our partners. The mandate was to use the grant to build their internal communications capacity and create outward-facing creative outputs. While one organisation used it to create brand videos, another availed of it to hire a consultant to put together a cogent communications strategy and execution plan.

Waste Warriors, one of the recipients, reported, “As a result of the storytelling grant, Waste Warriors could allocate internal comms resources to prioritise PR and media engagement. This moved resulted in garnering significant media coverage with key publications on the pressing waste issues in the Indian Himalayan region and showcasing the impactful work undertaken by Waste Warriors.”

At RNP, we continue to have storytelling as a category under our capacity-building bucket. Our learning has been that emphasising spending that amount on brand building pushes the teams to creatively leverage the grant. 

3. Support different vehicles of communications

Rainmatter Foundation funded Civis to create Climate Voices, a go-to guide for anyone who wants to make a difference in India’s climate policymaking and play a direct part in co-creating environmental laws with the government. The funding also empowered Civis to craft a wide-reaching outreach plan that involved engagement with community radio stations; an interactive voice response (IVR) system initiative with Gram Vaani to reach audiences across 50 districts in Hindi-speaking states; partnership with a PR agency for media mentions; and engagement with influencers, other nonprofits, and civil society organisations.

This is a fine example of funding a novel idea and extending support to include the outreach plan. Such support allows the nonprofit to get creative with community engagement right from the start.

At RNP, we have a small budget assigned for funding our partners’ events. When planned with intention, events can help nonprofits engage their key stakeholders and forge partnerships to meet their goals.

Translation grants is another option to explore: knowledge made accessible in multiple Indian languages allows for greater reach and engagement.

4. Sponsor course fees and modules that will aid the communications team

There are many communications-related offerings available to nonprofits. Chambal Academy offers a Hindi-language workshop on the art of storytelling, specifically tailored for nonprofits operating in the Hindi hinterlands. TerreGeneration, a social impact communications agency, created and conducted a 17-session module on the basics of impact communications for RNP partners. This programme covered topics such as audience mapping, design, influencer management, and PR. India Development Review (IDR) offers customised workshops on writing and messaging.

Underwriting the cost of these courses or fellowships is another way of helping grantees and workshop participants gain knowledge and engage with comms specialists.

At its heart, communications is the intentional exchange of ideas that forms the bridge for a community to unite in pursuit of a common purpose. It plays a fundamental role in amplifying social impact and requires greater support.