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What I Learned at the 2023 Communications Network Conference: Insights and Innovations


As the Senior Communications Manager at United Philanthropy Forum, I work to ensure that communication efforts are centered around telling full, complete stories that mobilize the power of philanthropy, demonstrate the role and power of Philanthropy-Serving Organizations (PSOs) to nurture a more courageous philanthropic sector, and harness the breadth and work of our members.

That being said, having the opportunity to attend the 2023 Communications Network Conference (ComNet23) in Atlanta, Georgia was a catalyzing learning opportunity for driving my work to greater heights. The Communications Network, who is also a Forum member, gathers annually to forge relationships and exchange knowledge with communications leaders around the world. This was my first time attending ComNet, and I’m excited to share my learnings and key takeaways from the dedicated community of communicators, storytellers, strategists, designers, researchers, producers, and community builders I engaged with. 

At the Forum, a big part of my communications work is highlighting our racial equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts. The Learning Lab, Advancing DEI Impact Through Comms presented by Niiobli Armah IV and Ashley Jones from We-Collab, really left me with new ideas about the art of communicating about equity. The only way we can create a just, fair, inclusive society is by creating systems that address the unique needs of the people and communities we serve so they, too, can democratically and civically participate, prosper, and reach their fullest potential. 

This Learning Lab has taught me better strategies for identifying key moments where we can advance our work, such as with our Journey Toward Racial Equity report, Racial Equity Case Stories, and our Racial Equity Listserv. It’s taught me to create and continue to foster systems of two-way communications for real-time, ongoing learning, such as with our Communications Peer Community. Lastly, the Lab taught me to highlight moments when our leadership is bold in their equity statements, like with the recent blog post from our president and CEO, Dave Biemesderfer, about our commitment to advancing racial equity. Above all, my biggest takeaway was that frameworks and approaches don’t matter if you don’t put them into practice. I will intentionally continue to put these frameworks into practice at the Forum. 

Another significant part of my role is supporting the advancement of our public policy work. The Learning Lab, Depolarization and Building Social Cohesion led by Forum board member Kristen Cambell (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement), Phebe Meyer (Center for Christianity & Public Life and Affiliate, Clapham Group) and Norris West (The Annie E. Casey Foundation), was pivotal in helping me learn how foundation and nonprofit communicators can contribute to bridging political and social divides by creating opportunities for leaders with opposing views to engage with each other by focusing on shared interests. 

By concentrating on co-creation and understanding the value systems that people operate under, we can decrease volatility and hostility. As a communicator, shaping trusted messages while making sure that the Forum as the messenger is modeling healthy, civil dialogue is how we accomplish the change that we seek. This is evident by Forum efforts such as our Annual Philanthropy + Policy Institute, Annual Foundations on the Hill, and our Public Policy Peer Community—all of which are intentionally designed spaces to convene and discuss issues affecting the sector in a bipartisan manner. As I continue supporting our public policy efforts, I look forward to approaching the work in a way that reminds our members and the broader sector that the main goal is to find common ground on issues—without dehumanizing one another in the process—in order to bridge social and political divides. 

The keynotes at ComNet23 were even more riveting. The opening keynote, The Story of AI led by Aimee Rinehart (Associated Press) and Mikhael Simmonds (Center for Community Media at CUNY), offered insightful perspectives about how to use generative AI tools in communications work. AI technology is only expanding and it’s not going away. It’s up to us as communicators to optimize AI technology in productive ways to enhance our goals of communicating impact. 

What was probably my favorite part of the entire ComNet23 was hearing LaTosha Brown speak about her journey toward creating Black Voters Matter. She expressed that she got to where she is today not just because she had a story to tell, but she learned how to tell it effectively. By placing value on organizing and communicating through relationships, recognizing the power of community building, and understanding the impact of deep listening, she developed storytelling strategies that bring people together and deliver change. 

As communicators, we need to embed culture into our communication strategies, reframe and shape narratives that give hope, and never be afraid to be imaginative. Every social movement starts with a story, and it’s important that we as communicators show how our organizations are a part of a larger movement ecosystem that works co-creatively with people and communities to eradicate systems of injustice. 

Not only did I learn so much, but I connected with both new and familiar communications professionals who are passionate about using communications to drive social good. Overall, I left ComNet23 feeling inspired, motivated, and ready to advance big, bold ideas that mobilize PSOs to action. I’m already looking forward to ComNet24 in Kansas City! In the meantime, I’m taking what I’ve learned and applying it in ways that serve our members and the broader philanthropic sector to lead change and increase impact in philanthropy.

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