Key Points

Given their role in funding programs and services provided by nonprofit organizations, foundations have a critical role as advocates for social change. However, grant money is by itself not enough to create that change. Agenda-setting theory highlights the critical role of organizations in bringing change issues to the attention of the media and, therefore, the public.

This article uses content analysis to compare two sets of a random sample of news releases from 20 of the largest foundations in the United States. The two sets are seven years apart, from 2014 and 2021, to allow comparison of the maturation of foundations’ media relations processes as unrest in response to racial injustice and uncertainty in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic turned a spotlight on philanthropy and intensified demands that the sector step up support for front-line nonprofits struggling to meet urgent needs.

This project uses practices suggested by public relations scholarship and practitioner literature to measure the success of foundations in preparing news releases that will capture media attention. Results indicate that foundations are designing these news releases more as tools of self-promotion than as the objective sources of new information that are useful to journalists. The news releases were found to violate other best practices of media relations as well, including length, provision of multimedia resources, and sourcing.

These results helped shape a list of seven practices for foundations to use in developing more effective approaches to media engagement, and have opened new possibilities for research into how philanthropy can use communications to create positive social change.

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