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There’s No Such Thing as the General Public With Eric Brown of Brownbridge Strategies


In this episode of Nonprofit Thrive, Ben Freda sits down with Eric Brown, Principal at Brownbridge Strategies, to discuss communication in nonprofits. They break down giving your audience agency, what usable feedback looks like, the power of asking for opinions, and how to discover client needs. They also touch on Eric’s background in Washington and Hollywood.

Today's Guest
Eric Brown

Eric Brown

Eric Brown is the Principal of Brownbridge Strategies, using his expertise in public interest communications to help foundations and nonprofits achieve their goals. His experience includes  twelve years on the board of directors of the Communications Network and eleven years as the Communications Director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park. He has a thorough history working in philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, corporate social responsibility, and media relations.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Eric Brown’s journey from sitcom actor to philanthropy expert
  • Lessons taken from working in the US government
  • Getting to the heart of what your client needs
  • Why it is essential to give your audience a sense of agency
  • The keys to evaluation and applicable feedback
  • Why asking people their opinion is invaluable
  • What are the differences in communication between foundations and nonprofits?
  • Why the “general public” doesn’t exist

In this episode…

Marketing and communicating as a nonprofit is a tricky proposition. On one hand, most take up vital causes and humanitarian efforts that the average person wants to support. However, this also means that communication is more crucial than ever. How can you perfect this one element to make your organization thrive?

Engaging your audience creates the need for experienced professionals to help hone your message. Eric Brown, an expert in the field, preaches specificity and applicable feedback as central tenets of strong communication. By learning your audience and narrowing your focus, you can actually be more effective with a smaller target. This audience-driven approach lets organizations maximize their content’s value for more impact.

In this episode of Nonprofit Thrive, Ben Freda sits down with Eric Brown, Principal at Brownbridge Strategies, to discuss communication in nonprofits. They break down giving your audience agency, what usable feedback looks like, the power of asking for opinions, and how to discover client needs. They also touch on Eric’s background in Washington and Hollywood.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by BFC Digital.

At BFC Digital, we help nonprofit organizations thrive on the web so they can improve the world.

Our team of creative and tech experts understands that an online presence can help foundations and organizations accomplish their missions. That’s where we come in. Over the last decade, we’ve advised our clients on web design, front- and back-end development, and tech support.

We’re committed to supporting a select set of clients who continually inspire us with their vision for a better world.

To learn more on how BFC Digital can assist you in realizing your organization’s mission, visit, email us at, or call 646-450-2236 today!

Episode Transcript

Intro 0:06

Welcome to Nonprofit Thrive, a podcast where we learn from the humans who are helping nonprofits succeed in the digital world. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Ben Freda 0:22

Welcome to the show. I’m Ben Freda, the host of the Nonprofit Thrive podcast, where we share the stories of leaders in the nonprofit space, the people behind the organizations, the foundations, the companies that help nonprofits change the world. Past guests include people such as Eric Warneke, who works for people for animals. We had a great episode with him where we talked about developing the voice of animal welfare nonprofits and how he goes about doing that work he works. We had a great episode with Ryan Ozimek of Soapbox Engage who helped us understand, you know, what are CRMs why they’re important, how you can start with a spreadsheet and then grow into sort of other options of CRMs, which was super helpful for me, and hopefully some of the listeners as well. Today, we have a guest that was introduced to me by another podcast guest named Emily Culbertson, who I know as the web project triage manager, very excited to talk to him before I do, I have to give our sponsor message, which is a big surprise for our company. But I’ll read that and then we will introduce our guests for today. So our podcast is brought to you by BFC digital, where we help nonprofits thrive on the web. If you work at a nonprofit or foundation or another type of social change organization, I’m sure you know how hard it can be to find you know, good, reputable, friendly help for your niggling website issues, your bugs, your strange things that are happening, the maintenance and this updates you have to do. At BFC digital, we help our clients succeed on the web. By taking care of that stuff. We are your friendly neighborhood web tech partner, we can help you fix bugs, evolve your web presence, integrate your donation system, et cetera. And we can do it without ever asking you to fill out a support ticket because man do people hate support tickets. Go to to learn more. So today, thanks to Emily, I am very proud and excited to introduce Eric Brown. He’s the Principal of Brownbridge Strategies, which provides communications consulting to foundations, nonprofits. He ran communications for the Hewlett Foundation for over a decade before that. So he has a lot of experience with foundation communications. He also runs a podcast about nonprofit communications, my first interview with another podcaster, which is exciting. I’m very pleased to have him here today to help us to understand that world of nonprofit communication. So thank you so much for joining Eric.

Eric Brown 2:59

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Ben Freda 3:02

Awesome. Awesome. So I think maybe just start at the beginning. You know, I was kind of excited to hear that you’re a fellow New Yorker, and actually a native New Yorker as well. So if you wouldn’t mind just sort of telling us a bit about how you got started. And I think it has to do with a chicken.

Eric Brown 3:20

Boy, I’m going to try and do the very short version because this story could go for quite some time. I guess I grew up in Queens, New York, but don’t hold it against me. I’m still a Mets fan. And definitely that’s not my fault that you, you know, pick your team. But I was actually the very, very short but complete version is I was a child actor. I’m okay. I will move to Hollywood when I was 17 to be on a sitcom. I flamed out by the time I was 20, something went back to school for political science, okay, and ended up as a press secretary in Washington on Capitol Hill. And then shortly thereafter became the Head of Communications for a nonprofit environmental organization called the Center for a New American Dream whose motto was more fun, less stuff.

Ben Freda 4:06

Gotcha. I like that. I like that. I like that motto is a good motto, isn’t it?

Eric Brown 4:10

Yeah. And then after that, I got a job at the Hewlett Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which is one of the top five largest charitable foundations in the country, running their communications department. There was no communications department when he hired me. So I was employee number one in the communications department that was there for a decade or so, a little more than a decade, and then left Hewlett and started my own consulting firm. Gotcha. I and I work with foundations and nonprofits, no surprise on helping them with their communication strategies and other stuff.

Ben Freda 4:44

Gotcha. Gotcha, gotcha. So I think the obvious first question is what was the sitcom?

Eric Brown 4:49

It was called Mama’s Family. It was a spinoff of The Carol Burnett Show. Oh, okay. Cool. And you played funny grandson.

Ben Freda 5:00

I’m gonna definitely Google this afterwards. And you live there. So this and this was when you were 17 to 20, something, would you say?

Eric Brown 5:08

Oh, the show was on for two years. And then after that, I would like to say that I experienced a market correction, which is to say, I stopped getting work.

Ben Freda 5:19

The market no longer desire to you unfortunately.

Eric Brown 5:23

Determined my future, which was anywhere but Hollywood.

Ben Freda 5:28

So but how do you go from being in you know, oh, I guess you went back to school for political science. You were just interested in political science?

Eric Brown 5:34

Yeah, I went to community college for a couple years, because my grades weren’t fabulous from high school eight years before, and then transferred to Berkeley. Okay, I started to study political science at Berkeley, and I worked on the Clinton campaign in 92, as volunteer and the double whammy campaign advanced, so I really got to look behind the curtain of political campaigns. Wow, I had always had a social consciousness. Right? It’s trite thing to say, but I remember when I’m not making this up. I remember when Nixon won in the 72. Yeah, that Nixon 172. I remember being bummed out, I was very young, but I thought I always had some kind of political consciousness. And I never really truly had a place to put it. And as an actor, kind of actors should not usually engage in politics because they end up sounding stupid. And they’re often under informed now many of them are really putting their voices where their hearts are, and making a difference. And that’s great. And actually, from podcast perspective, I had Ed Begley Jr. on recently, who was someone I worked with as a young person, but who has become quite an activist, and is one who’s able to marry his engaged personality and the things that he cares about with his public persona. So he’s using that in a great way. But anyway, I was not in that place at all. And when I left Hollywood, I thought to myself, like, what am I gonna do? And I didn’t honestly didn’t know. But I was always interested in politics. And I thought maybe I can make a difference that way. And then the politics moved into kind of broader communications stuff. And so I was able to apply my things I care about to make a living at it. Yeah.

Ben Freda 7:24

Yeah, that makes sense. And so you went from Berkeley to DC?

Eric Brown 7:28

Well, with Japan in between we, my wife and I taught English in Japan for a couple of years. Oh, no, it’s not a long show. Yeah. So

Ben Freda 7:38

DC working on political campaigns and, and in the press office? And then and then back to New York to work for the environmental nonprofit?

Eric Brown 7:47

No, that was in DC too. Oh, gotcha. Yeah. But so a quick thing about politics. And when I was a press secretary, I would every morning, we would go down this meeting in the basement of the Capitol, my boss, Congresswoman, Nydia Velazquez, who is still there. And she and I, she would turn to me and have me write a one minute speech, for her to read in the well of the House of Representatives. Fico, scurrying back to my office, I would write bang out this one minute speech on whatever the issue of the day was, and come back and give it to her. And that was probably the greatest proving ground for me to this day, or how do you take a complex idea and turn it into something that is meaningful, pithy, memorable, and short? Yeah, most of the stuff that we write is long, and boring, and not engaging. And so I’ve got to give a member of Congress a one minute speech to read that morning, and I had no 45 minutes to write it. That was probably the best training I ever got. But I also remind people out there, that when you’re working on writing for your organization, or you’re working on writing a speech for your boss, or you’re working on trying to communicate what it is you do and why it matters, this, how can you distill it into something really, really fundamentally, I don’t know, digestible? Start there, what is it you’re really talking about, and then you can start building out advancing on your ideas, calm, taking little side trips, if you need to. But I learned how to take the message of the day and turn it into a one minute speech, and I did it 45 minutes. And that was amazing. I mean, you gotta have ever done I got from that moment.

Ben Freda 9:26

That’s amazing. And then you’d had to do it every day. So you were practicing, like failing, succeeding every day, and eventually, you really learn how to do it. Do you find we’re skipping ahead a little bit, but do you find that when a nonprofit or communication or foundation bring you in to help with communications? Do you feel like that’s one of the first things you say is your stuff is too long? No.

Eric Brown 9:46

I mean, what most of what I do is ask questions. I mean, it’s kind of like being a little bit of like being a therapist. And and you see like, what do you try and what are you trying to achieve here? What Yeah, why, why why why, why why and lot of why, because what often happens is an organization will make their own. They can know in their own heads what they want. But it’s unclear to anybody else and you write, you have to be quite clear about, here’s what we’re trying to achieve. Here’s why it matters. Here’s what effect it’s going to have on the X, Y, or Z. And here’s what people need to do. And that other part is often left alone. Is that like, oh, you should care about our issue. The general public needs to be aware, like awareness is a big thing. Well, yeah. Yes, and no. I mean, what we really want to do is like, I’m aware of all sorts of things that are bad for me, and I do them anyway, bacon would be at the top of the list. Awareness is not enough. Right, right. I think that’s kind of Yeah, so that’s kind of the point is like, why are you here? I call it the James Stockdale question when James Stockdale who is running mate 92 He got up in the vice presidential debates. This is like who am I? And why am I here? Yeah, that rhetorically, but it seemed like he didn’t like-

Ben Freda 11:03

Was that the same debate where he turned down his ear? His his hearing aid that they turned it off? At one point? He was like, sorry, I missed the question. I turned off my hearing.

Eric Brown 11:10

He was refreshing, but maybe not the right guy for the job. So yeah, well, who are you and why are you here? What is it you do? What’s this is an interesting, here’s a website thing that one of my hugest, pentest Pete, about it. On a website, you go to a website, you go to an organization, and they say about us, and they don’t tell you about them. They say what they do, right? They say how they do it. They don’t say who they are.

Ben Freda 11:46

You mean like the people or what the organization, what the organization is their organization?

Eric Brown 11:50

Here’s, yeah, here’s here’s, in a sense, what often when I’m writing for a client, I’ll go to an organization and and I’ll have to describe what that organization is. And if I go to their About Us page, they very rarely say, We are an organization that is committed to such and such. And here’s why it matters. They go straight into that and there’s a terrific message person. He’s a she’s kind of like the message guru of the progressive community and not Shenker Osorio. She says, talk about the brownie, not the ingredients are the recipe for how to make the brownie. Most organizations give you the recipe for brownie mix, but they don’t talk about the delicious, Chewy, gooey wonderfulness of the brownie itself. And I think most organizations suffer from this, which is this Oh, into how they do what they do the steps, the how many divisions they have, or how many programs they offer. They go straight into accounting cost centers.

Ben Freda 12:58

I mean, I guess a few people want to know that at some point, and hopefully they can find that information. But I would imagine 99% of the people don’t care.

Eric Brown 13:04

Yeah. Yeah, for example, and again, this is this goes back to website design. When I was at the Hewlett Foundation, we had an education program that was working on K through 12. Education, we also had a global development program, so called, and it had international education as part of it. Now, if you’re a visitor to the Hewlett website, you care about education, you don’t care who’s writing which education check. Right, right. But the organization wasn’t, wasn’t designed to communicate by issue. It was designed to communicate by program. And yeah, and therefore someone who’s doing international education, go to the Hilo website and not find international education in the place where you would think to find it, which is under education, they have to know to go to the Global Development Department, and that there was an initiative or a sub program devoted to education. Now, yeah, this is a hard challenge to solve. But as if you think about your visitors like, what do they care about? And how do I connect them with the information that they need? That’s a huge challenge. And that’s kind of why you make the big bucks. Yeah.

Ben Freda 14:14

Yeah, well, you maybe you can critique our profit, not me. Oh, I thought you meant the foundations. But yeah, yeah, no, yeah. And this is, I’ll tell you what the process is, when we do website builds. And you can critique this in 10. We can in front of everybody in the world. Yeah.

Eric Brown 14:30

This is a workshop and plenary.

Ben Freda 14:32

Exactly, exactly. So here’s what we do. We start a new website project with a client, right. And usually, it’s a client that we’ve been doing support and maintenance on for a while. So we know that pretty well. But let’s say they need a refresher or whatever. But we always ask the first the first things we always ask two questions, who’s the audience and what do they need? That’s what we’re really talking about. And so we start with who is the audience and then we get to like, what are they looking for? What do they need? Now? One of the things we don’t talk about as much is who what is the organization like? What do you Want to say it’s less about, like the way we do it now, and this can be critiqued and change? Is it’s less about what does the organization want to say? And more about what is the audience need? Is that wrong? Right? On the right path? Would you change that?

Eric Brown 15:13

This is interesting, because as a consultant, you’re always trying to give your, your client what they want, but also what they need. Exactly. Yeah. Now, the fact of the matter is, your client is going to come to us like, oh, I want a new font for my website. Yeah, I was like, oh, whoa, what’s underneath that? What is it you actually need? What’s missing? What is it that you’re not able to deliver that makes you think that the fit the font is the problem and extended the font? That’s the problem? And I think that that’s so trying to get at the, at the guts of what an organization is, what are you? What do you do? Why does it matter? who you work with? Who are you? Who are your clients? who your audience is, what do you want? What did they care about? How do you create messages or tools or whatever that speak to their values that deliver for them? So that what wonderful thing happened? And having that that’s, that’s just strategy? That’s communication strategy. It’s marketing strategy. It’s everything strategy is really understanding. What is this organization? What is its role? What does it do? Well, what does it need to do better? Those are kind of other things that you want to get at. But who are they working with? What are the what are those people care about? Yeah, and how do I create messages that speak to their values? Because often, you’ll say, like, Oh, these people need to care about climate change. Great example. Yeah, it’s a really great example. And the fact is they may care about, or they may care about saving money by putting solar panels on their roofs or whatever, they may not care about climate change, and they may not need to, but we want them to do something that will advance our shared goals. And their shared goal is saving money, my shared goal is protecting the environment for the future, whatever. And so we can’t, you can’t make people care about them, you just can’t write us, you just have to figure out what they care about that you have in common. And that’s, that’s where your area of engagement is.

Ben Freda 17:03

I love that I love that you can make people care about things, but you can figure out what they do care about and find out where your areas of overlap are and engage them there. That’s the slice.

Eric Brown 17:12

And because like, we often we’re just so frustrated, that the audience doesn’t care about the things we want them to care about, oh, we have, I’ve said this a million times, it’s not your audience’s fault that they go and communicated with that’s on you, you have to find the thing that works for that audience. Now, it may be that you’re just picking the wrong audience to that you’re on strategy isn’t correct, which is I need to make these people who don’t care about the thing that I want them to care about to care, right, and you don’t have enough in common. So you’re just not going to get there. So you pick another row. And those are very, you know, come to your maker, kind of conversations, like you guys are in the run business, or you’re focusing on the wrong set of audiences. And that can be challenged. Yeah. Sometimes your clients think I’m gonna find a consultant, that’ll tell me exactly what I want to hear. Do it the way I want to do. Okay, have a nice day.

Ben Freda 18:05

Climate change example makes me think of something else, which is that oftentimes, and I think this is true of climate change, in particular, that the problem is communicated in a way sometimes, and the and the audience cares about the problem, but like, what they’re supposed to do about it is sort of less communicated, which creates anxiety, but like nothing, you know, nothing to do about it. You know, do you find that happens, as well? Or is that less of a problem?

Eric Brown 18:28

Oh, of course. I mean, you want people to feel like they have some agency? Because of us like climate? Yes. It’s a horrible problem. Yes, I feel terrible. Thank you for reminding me about how bad it is. But since there’s nothing for me to do, I’m just going to go back to the bar and order another triple vodka or something like that. I feel totally powerless. And now even more depressed.

Ben Freda 18:49

Right. Okay. I can’t sleep now because of what you said. Yeah.

Eric Brown 18:53

So yeah, you have to provide people with some sense of agency. And you also have to make them feel like what they do matters. And that’s where, I mean, there are lots of opportunities for that on any issue. So maybe as a consumer, your consumer patterns do make a difference. And here’s why if you add up all the consumer activities than you show savings are or your voice as a voter or a constituent constituent, or a influencer or a budget, and that can be of your family members of your friends. Or if you have a broader audience of those folks, think people and calibrating watt hour they have relative to the opportunities that they have to use that power really important because people have to come away think, Wow, I feel better about this thing as a result of this engagement that I have, right?

Ben Freda 19:43

Because there’s something I can do. There’s some agency that I have over the situation that I didn’t have before I met you or read this thing or saw this website or whatever. It’s given me that feeling of agency that I can do something about it. I see.

Eric Brown 19:55

And this is why it’s really interesting because you often have to give somebody something to do. And we often in our own communication, it’s like, Oh, I’m gonna wait, raise awareness, and then the magical march on Washington will have, well, that’s not how people operate. Right? My awareness of vacant is 100%. And I love this stuff. So my cardiologist isn’t thrilled with me. But they’re like, Oh, screw him. So so but but it was like, okay, obviously, I’m exaggerating about baking, it’s just, I don’t wake up thinking about baking, but it’s like, you make healthy choices about eating and things like that. And so yeah, you moderate and you try and manage it in ways that makes sense. And not giving your audience something to do is leaving the action off the table, ran it also get lulled into a false sense of security, that your message has some value. Oh, I raised awareness, and therefore I’m done. It’s not measurable, you want to be able to know if your communications are working, the only way to know is if you have a call to action, and it gets its act. You have to have some ways of measuring that. And sometimes it’s qualitative. And sometimes it’s quite, so measurement is all created equal. But you have to have some indication that this stuff is working. Right? Website is great. They click they buy, they don’t buy they do the thing that you tell them to do. They don’t. Yeah, but for a lot of nonprofits that are advocating for some wonderful thing to happen, you have to have some indication that audience is acting on this year.

Ben Freda 21:33

You know, it’s so true. It’s one of the things that I’ve been talking to people about recently, even on website world, because for nonprofits, it’s often not entirely clear how to measure what to measure what success means, the same way that I’m in a lot of groups that have to do with web development for for profits as well. I mean, that there are people you know, there are people doing web development for all kinds of stuff. We do nonprofits, but I know people who do for profits, and their measures of success are almost like a math formula. They’re like, how much did we spend on the site? How much did we spend on the Google ads, how much traffic did we get multiply that by the drop off rate, multiply that by the number of people have filled out the lead form, multiply that by the number, the value of each lead, you get a number, and you can tell whether the number is higher or lower than your cutoff, it’s really easy, you know, way, and then you know, and I’m working in nonprofit world, and I’m like, Ah, you know, nobody’s buying shoes, or filling out a lead form for yoga or whatever, you know, we’re trying to get people to engage with an issue, we’re trying to get people to sign up a, you know, a petition. And in some cases, we’re trying to give resources to people like, like, we did a project for an organization that helps teachers handle a homeless students in New York City school system, because there’s a ton of them, and the way that you can help homeless student is a little different, cuz then I have an address, and maybe they have, you know, they, they have trouble with where they’re going to be, they don’t sleep as well. There’s like a bunch of things. So So alright, so you put together a, you know, a toolkit or whatever for that, you know, that you’ve gotten, you know, whatever, 5000 people to donate to download the resources that they’re going to print out and put on the wall of the school, but like, how much is that worth? You know what I mean? Like, there’s, they’re spending 10 grand on that, let’s say, what is it worth it? Is it not? It’s just hard to know, you know what I mean? So this measurement piece is really interesting. So I liked that you brought it up.

Eric Brown 23:15

Yeah. And it’s an this is an eternal question. There was a famous department store owner in Philadelphia named John Wanamaker. And he used to say, half of my advertising is working. Great. Problem is, I don’t know which half?

Ben Freda 23:29

Totally, totally, yeah. And, but even he can measure even he can say, All right, so I have a million dollars of sales, and I spent 100,000 bucks on ads, and the least you knows that, you know what I mean? Right?

Eric Brown 23:39

Yeah. All right. And then when I raise the my ad, by then salesman, like, Okay, uh, you know, you can make some inferences about that, right? Sometimes. And here’s the thing, that evaluation can be really useful. And evaluation, again, doesn’t have to necessarily be quantitative, that you can send somebody in there who asks a whole bunch of questions to a whole bunch of people and say, about your work, like, did that make a difference? Like yeah, did? How did it make a difference? It made me think differently, or whatever. And so you’re getting feedback that may not necessarily be quantifiable in the dollars and cents way. But you’re getting indications that your messaging is working, you’re getting indications from your audience, they’ll tell you, what works for them and what doesn’t. And you’ll also be able to measure their own level of knowledge about an issue, for example, by just asking them questions. There are ways to learn more about whether your stuff is taking hold. You just have to be a little disciplined about going and asking those questions and finding those people and testing them. The other wonderful thing is that if you call people who are your audiences, however, define and ask them questions, they will tell you the answer. People love to be asked their opinion. They love to be tested on their expertise, that it’s like it’s out there and they’ll do it for free. You know, like, it’s like, Hey, can I have a half an hour of your time to talk about this stuff? But of course, yeah, busy, but they love to it’s flattering. Like an expert. Not kidding. I’m not I’m not being facetious. It’s really, really true. You could just add, that’s how you learn the answer.

Ben Freda 25:13

Just yeah. Oh, I liked it. I liked that. So when you’re working with organization you do that you’d like to, you will advise them to, like, set up these times where you’re having focus groups, or you’re making phone calls, or you’re doing that kind of stuff.

Eric Brown 25:23

Yeah. I mean, the biggest question that you can ask your client or your whomever is, how do you know what you think, you know, you challenge them to test their assumption, like, oh, yeah, I just know, like, how do you know? Well, I feel it, that’s probably not good. Let’s go and ask a bunch of people, let’s just in most consultants will go and do kind of a scan at the beginning of a project, like give me 10 people to talk to who are in your area, and then I’ll ask them questions, and I’ll learn about them. And I’ll learn what messages are working, I’ll learn what they care about, and all that other stuff. And that’s, that’s kind of your baseline. So I do think that it’s also kind of a cheap, clever way of communicating. So when you’re asking your audience questions about the things that they care about, you’re also communicating about what you do in a general way. At that same time. That’s a really healthy advocacy campaign.

Ben Freda 26:14

I will tell you the secret about well, you know this because you do a podcast. So someone one of the reasons of doing podcast, well, not the reason, but somebody came to me after I said, I think I might want to do a podcast because you know, I want to meet people understand more about the, you know, the universe of what’s going on in nonprofit tech. They’re like, You got to use it as a sales tool. You know, you got to use it as sales tool. Because you’re communicating during the like, theoretically, I’m communicating, we do web stuff, you know what I mean? But I’m also, you know, and so it’s like this, it’s kind of what you’re saying. And I remember thinking, that’s a little sleazy, right, like this whole slimy, but I mean, but at the same time, ever, it’s fine.

Eric Brown 26:50

I have to tell you that if my podcast was meant to be a marketing tool it has. I know. anyone’s ever hired me because I was on podcast. Yeah. Okay, they had a podcast, but that doesn’t matter. It. I also feel it is, in a way, the same kind of thing. Because what I do is I call up people who are interesting to me. Yeah. And I asked them questions, they most almost always say, yes, they would be happy to come on, because they’re flattered. And they want to be, you know, because flattering, it’s nice to be asked your opinion and to be given a platform for it. And I learned from them, and I build a relationship. And that’s the value of the podcast is just, it allows me to learn and to process. And I’m an extrovert. And so I have to plan the process by talking. And the trick is to is process by talking without making a fool of myself. But that’s, I get so much that I can’t control. But it’s how you build relationships and learn. And I think that’s the purpose of the podcast for me. And so far, you know, whether I learning anything is questionable, building relationships, a little processing and getting a chance to air out ideas in a public way can be really valuable.

Ben Freda 28:06

For sure, for sure. And for and for me, too. I mean, we know a lot about web tech. We don’t know a lot about this, what you’re talking about no communication. So, so meeting people like you, and just having those conversations for me is so good. Because I want to know why we’re doing what we’re doing. Why are we doing the web tech? Right? Like, what’s the purpose? Like, what is the larger universe that we’re operating within? So, Emily, good example, we talked to her about, you know, when projects go bad, what do you do? You know, so my friend Ryan talked to him about CRMs, which is sort of external thing. But yeah, it’s so helpful to sort of have those conversations or just process them in your mind. I mean, it’s, it’s the greatest. So anyway, which you which you know, when you started podcasting A while back, like how long ago?

Eric Brown 28:45

Six season? Yes, we started in? Yeah, we just started our 60s. It’s been five years. And it’s you and who else by my co conspirators, a guy named Kirk Brown? No, no relation. Browns, that Kirk runs a firm called REACH strategies. And he’s also the executive director of a nonprofit organization working on green energy, and, you know, whatever the new Green Clean Energy Future called recharge America, and Kirk and I know each other from a while back from way, way, way back. And he he was the one who said that we needed a podcast and which I said was the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, but I just took him up on it. And I continue to harangue him about it. And what we do on our podcast is usually I do the interview of find a guest. And then he and I will engage in what we cleverly called the blah, blah, afterwards, where the two of us talk about what we just heard. And then again, it’s another way for us to, to process and to put into perspective, and sometimes into context for folks who may not necessarily be familiar with the specific area of communications that we’re talking about. So alright, podcasts about communications for nonprofits and foundations, but communications runs the gamut. So sometimes We’ll have a little chat about what that person said and what we think it means for other people who don’t do that kind of work and find that the generalized rules inside.

Ben Freda 30:07

Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. And it’s called, it’s called, Let’s Hear It.

Eric Brown 30:10

Let’s Hear It.

Ben Freda 30:13

So if anybody’s listening to this podcast and wants to hear one done by a real professional, in contrast to this, they will, they should listen to Let’s Hear It. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between communications for a nonprofit versus for a foundation? Because I think we’ve talked so far about mostly nonprofit stuff, right? Like you should care about this and take this action. Well, how does it work for foundations? What are they wanting to communicate? And why?

Eric Brown 30:40

That’s an interesting thing that I’ve been toying, playing with for the last, I don’t know, 20 years. Oh, good. What is the point of foundation communications, I think it to run a communications at a foundation, you have two layers of roles, one of which is understanding the universe in which your grantees are operating. I mean, the foundation’s business activity is grant making person, yeah, they were making grants to organizations to do good things in the world. But understanding how they’re doing those good things, and the communications environment in which they operate, I think is essential. Even if a grantee can’t communicate well, it will fit very well. And so part of my job as the head of communications is to diagnose that to help them to educate them to educate the program officers inside the foundation to give them tools to evaluate a communications effectiveness or potential or that sort of, so it’s just kind of understanding the world that these organizations are operating in. So that’s one. And then the second one for the foundation itself is to kind of learn when the foundations voice matters on a particular issue. And most of the audiences for foundations, frankly, are other foundations, because you’re always trying to get those other people to put their money into Right, sure, it increases the value of your own investment. Gotcha. I call it that communicating inside your field, usually, and then sometimes you’re communicating to other decision makers at the Hewlett Foundation was a rather large footprint, many Foundation, people would go into the administration of a number of them are in the Biden administration, or in state administrations. So like becoming the decision makers themselves. And so those relationships with these great big, huge decision makers are important. And so understanding what the foundation is, why it matters, what’s good about it, what it’s seeing what it’s thinking, whether it’s kind of creating signals, inside the nonprofit community, or inside the funding community, those things are important. So you are communicating to a wide variety of audiences, what you’re not committed communicating to is my mother in law. Right? Right. He’s not his decision makers won’t, very nice lady, but she’s not my audience. And so I don’t need to be, I don’t need for the so called general public, which doesn’t exist. And don’t let anyone ever tell you that it does. But to understand about what the Hewlett Foundation is, and why it’s not, they’re not the they’re not the and so understanding who your audience is, and what you want them to do and know and feel that that’s a sophisticated process. But you also have to kind of be candid with yourself that it is not important to be popular at cocktail parties, right. So it is important to do is use your money for good in as efficient and effective way as possible. And communications are central to that. But the last little thing about working at a foundation is that you don’t actually do anything, you pay people to do things. And so you have to be willing to be one step removed from the good things that are being done and that are happening. You’re not the activist, right. And being willing to take one step removed from the actual work is an important part of deciding to go work for foundation because people sometimes get there they come out of the grass roots or something like that. It’s like we got to do something like no, don’t do anything. Right. Those people do the thing. Right, you kind of have to be willing to be the behind the scenes a little. So yeah, it’s a different relationship for some people. And some people get really frustrated, and some people really love it.

Ben Freda 34:12

And what about you? Did you find it frustrating? Or did you really love it? Or both?

Eric Brown 34:15

No, I loved it. I loved seeing over the trees, so to speak, seeing all how these pieces fit together into something larger when you’re at a nonprofit and I was for five years. But all you see is your lane you hate. Right? Because you have a business to do you have work to do. We had members to get and newsletter to put out or whatever. We’re really, really focused on our job and how we fit into a larger organism or larger setting. And it wasn’t by our concern, and I liked being able to take that step back and see how all the pieces fit together how movements occur, how change gets made from a wider perspective.

Ben Freda 34:54

Was there a particular theory of the case? Let’s say about how Hewlett saw of how change happens or how the world changes.

Eric Brown 35:02

And she’s saying, I think you’ll it was very interested in policy. And when I was there, particularly on climate, and it was a, I think there were some hypotheses that that were unsuccessful, which is that one hypothesis was if we determined how to, like what policies would be most valuable and effective at dealing with climate change, for example, then that was the that was success. But the problem was that those policies ended up running up against politics, and social movements and, and things that had, yes, we knew exactly how to take carbon out of the economy, we just didn’t know how to take carbon out of the politics of the economy.

Ben Freda 35:44

Which turns out to be a much harder issue, harder issue.

Eric Brown 35:47

Now, this isn’t to say that you don’t need both. You have to know once you get politics, what do you do with them? You know, and I have, but instead, what we ended up with was, what do you do with them, but we didn’t get the politics. And I, I’m drawing vast generalizations around this. And I think that nobody saw exactly how toxic politics were going to be. But it was always positive. And I think that that’s a really good example of a very valuable strategy that has had lots and lots of value. For example, many of those policies ended up being enacted in Europe and other places. And so there was a lot of value there. And Europe has done pretty well on climate change because of the policies is slightly different animal than it is here in the United States. However, foundations also learn and they adapt, they get a better sense of what does it take in order to fix it?

Ben Freda 36:39

Can you I want to go back to one thing you said earlier, just because it’s been niggling my brain, when you said, Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s just the public? What do you mean by that?

Eric Brown 36:49

Well, okay, if somebody asks you to define yourself, the less you’re never going to say, I’m the general.

Ben Freda 36:57

I’m Joe Q normal or whatever.

Eric Brown 36:59

I am nothing. I am just, you know, I have gray blanks like, No, I’m a dad, I’m a, I have a hobby. I’m a gardener. I love baseball fan. I’m someone who cares about the right like, you define yourself by the things that you care about. Right. And so that so when you when any organization says we were trying to reach the general public, that doesn’t exist, there is no such thing.

Ben Freda 37:24

So that’s no such thing. Right. Gotcha, gotcha.

Eric Brown 37:29

Wait, what, you know, what we’re trying to reach? Are people who do this people who care about that people who identify as this that kind of, because then you know what to talk about? Yeah, otherwise, you know, and that’s, and that’s why many organizations, there, they’ve blended themselves down into something that doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean anything at all, you have to have clarity, you have to, and you have to know who it is, your people are, so that you can see that you can engage them to do the thing you want them to do. Now, sometimes you have folks who are it is said that there’s like 20% of people are kind of hard left, or they’re you know, if you think about politics, world of politics, 20% are hard left 20% ish, are hard, right. And the 60% in the middle are the ones who you’re you know, there are ways to engage them and it across a variety of, of issues. And finding the thing that those 60% care about, is can be challenging, and people are often or are in conflict with their own issues. Sometimes we hold conflicting, competing values. And the trick is how do you make the value that you care about rise above the one that it’s conflicting with so that you can move your issue forward. And we’re seeing that in the country right now in the aftermath of DOPS. So people who have voted for conservatives who put in folks who would take away abortion rights, now realize, like, Oops.

Ben Freda 39:00

My values are in conflict here. I wanted to be part of that tribe. And I realized that now it’s been created something that I don’t agree with. Yeah, exactly.

Eric Brown 39:09

And that’s how I see much of communication, I have to understand who it is I’m trying to reach. And I’m, like I said, What do they care about? What are the things that they care about, that we hold in common? Yeah, but we’re not talking about the general public because it doesn’t. Nobody defines themselves that way. And if I try to define myself that way, I will be nothing to know.

Ben Freda 39:34

I really liked that. That is really Yeah, that really makes it clear and harkens back to what you said earlier, which is like you want to find something in common with those people so that you can engage them on that in that overlap of their concerns and yours. Yeah, yeah. Listen, this has been absolutely great. I felt like we could go for another hour easily. I think I got through like two of my 10 questions or something. Which is great that means that you’re a great guest. And you’re, you know, you’re talking about this is excellent. But, but I do want to ask just before we go, you know, where people can find more information about you, and, and your firm as well, if they want to, you know, if they were interested by what you said, how can they find out more about you?

Eric Brown 40:17

Sure. Well, I’m at and felt like it sounds I guess, and it definitely check out let’s hear it, which is, And yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s, I feel very, very lucky to be able to do this work. I get to work with amazing organizations and people and have great conversations, and I really appreciate you and what you’re doing and congratulations on the podcast. It’s a terrible idea. But it’s the it’s the worst best idea I’ve ever had to do. So.

Ben Freda 40:48

I mean, if nothing else, it’s I will say it’s a lot of fun to talk to people. I mean, it’s just it’s great fun. Yeah.

Eric Brown 40:54

Thank you so much. And condolences.

Ben Freda 40:58

Good, good. If I ever you know, I’ll reach out to you at some point. If I’m like, Oh, my God, what am I doing? But Eric Brown, everybody. Thank you so much for coming on. It was a real pleasure. Real pleasure. Pleasure.

Eric Brown 41:10

Thank you so much.

Outro 41:13

Thanks for listening to the Nonprofit Thrive podcast. We’ll see you next time. And be sure to click Subscribe to get future episodes.

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