The Value of (Digital) Tools:

By Minna Jung
The Communications Network Board Chair

When I was working at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation several years ago, my colleagues noticed that I was developing a growing sensitivity to the words “tool” or “toolbox.” I had a reason for my somewhat irrational dislike; at the time, my job involved reviewing tons of funding proposals. In answering the question, “How do you plan to communicate the results of this project?” applicant organizations were predictably anxious to demonstrate that they had evolved beyond the, “We’ll publish a research article or white paper” phase. Instead, they said things like: “We’ll gather the ideas from this project to develop a tool/toolbox for others to use” phase.

What did people mean when they said, “tool,” or “toolbox?” Anything and everything, it seemed.   

As the communications officer on a particular grant, I’d actually get these “tools” and “toolboxes” sent to me, ‘cuz you know, digital was not such a big deal back then. So I’d get a big fat binder, with colored tabs, with various sections that summarized research findings or case studies from a project we had just funded. Then there’d be variations on the binder theme, you know, like a fancy accordion folder, or mesh pockets with zippers, or…you get the idea. 

These days, tools and resources are firmly ensconced in the digital space. Everyone wants a micro-site or some other type of online platform. At the Communications Network conference last October, we showcased many of these digital tools and resources through the pre-conference workshops and breakout sessions. Among the offerings: a resource for nonprofit organizations to help assess their communications capabilities (from Spitfire Strategies); a diversity/equity tool (from the Kellogg Foundation); and a digital storytelling resource (from Rockefeller). 

And last but not least, the Communications Network unveiled its own resource, Communications Matters, a model for effective communications that, in essence, represents a distillation of the major findings and insights from a research effort sponsored by the Network on what constitutes effective communications at nonprofits and foundations.

I’m the first to say that it’s more fun to play with these new digital resources than it was to heft around a big fat binder. And, I recognize that like the previous iterations of toolboxes I received, these new resources represented virtual goldmines of insights, knowledge, and experiences. But some of my questions about the value and utility of these tools and resources persist: how are people actually going to use these tools? What’s the role of the tool developer in terms of making sure these tools get used? Sharing a tool or a resource is often not enough to make the thing useful. Some people are good at teaching themselves. Others prefer a little more hand-holding, by someone who is nice and, incidentally, skilled at conveying the right amount of information at the right time. 

Put another way: you can give me pretty much any tool or utensil that’s related to food or grooming, and I’ll be able to put it to use. I can whip up a complicated stew, clip my dog’s nails—but anything to do with construction or gardening, I’m basically an idiot, and I need a lot of hand-holding and YouTube videos in order to, say, re-finish a piece of furniture, or grow tomatoes. In other words, the tool is only as useful as it is familiar or interesting to the intended user. 

So two points I’d like to make here, one with respect to tools in general and one with respect to Communication Matters:

—One, whenever we in the communications field debut a new tool or resource, we should spend just as much time talking about adoption and engagement as we do about the fancy tool/resource itself. And we should invest as much time and money on dissemination and uptake as we do on development and design. I get it: we all like to go ooooh! and aaaahhh! when someone shows us the latest digital whatever. But more often than not I want to learn more about how the resource is supposed to get into the hands of people who will actually do something with it.   

—Two, Communication Matters. Those of us who worked on this project for the Network learned so much about the attitudes and beliefs of people at nonprofits and foundations, with respect to effective communications. We learned so much, we wanted to share what we learned: hence, the model. But now we’re in the “what next?” phase. What do we do to make this resource useful to Communications Network members as they go about doing their jobs? How do we most effectively share the insights we’ve learned about strategy, brand, culture, action, etc. with folks in a way that will help them be more effective leaders and champions for communications at their organizations and within our respective fields of work?

The Network’s not been sitting idle on this question. Through a new series in partnership with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, #MoveIdeas, through a series of salon-type dinners, through other engagements, we’ve started to road-test the principles and ideas contained in the Communication Matters model with other folks. So when we come to our next Network conference, which is taking place this fall in San Diego, I’ll be interested in seeing what’s been happening with Communication Matters, and with other tools and resources that were launched by our brethren in philanthropy and nonprofits.   

I don’t know what the right metrics are to measure the utility of a tool in our line of work. If someone gave me an apple-slicer and I still cut and peel apples in my old-fashioned way, with a paring knife, did something go wrong? When it comes to a resource like Communication Matters, I suspect that the metrics for success have to do with the following questions:

—Did you ever find the time to take the tool out of its wrapping, and play around with it a bit? What would it have taken for you to actually apply the insights and lessons contained in the model—and, for you to want to populate the resource with more examples?

—Did it help start conversations that you wanted to have about communications at your organization or in the field?

—Did it help you focus on what you could do better in your job, or at your organization, when it comes to communicating effectively?

—Did you find time to use it as a training tool for others in your organization? Like maybe that brand-new communication staff person you just hired? Or the program person who’s eager to learn more about how communications fits into her/his role?   

So I’m leaving you with a challenge (and the Network’s taking on this challenge with respect to Communication Matters), which is: don’t just tell me you’re developing a new tool or resource. Tell me how it’s being used. Better yet: explain to me how you think it’s going to make a difference.