“Who wakes up every day and thinks about philanthropy? Only a few nerds like myself.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH DAVID BROTHERTON
David Brotherton runs a boutique consultancy – Brotherton Strategies – where he specializes in philanthropy communications. His most recent publication, Speaking of Change, funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation is a call for philanthropic institutions to use smarter communication to improve their impact. In addition to being a communications veteran, he’s also a friend, colleague, and frequent collaborator of Minerva. And we sometimes share his office dog, Lukas.
How did you get your start as a philanthropy communicator?
I was working for a fairly well known technology company in Seattle in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a business I cared much about. Their products were losing market share quickly. And the daily grind of corporate PR was unfulfilling to me. I realized I needed to do something that had more meaning, so I quit.
One of the first consulting clients I landed after that was a new grant making foundation called the Marguerite Casey Foundation. After doing some early branding work with them, I found myself compelled by what institutional philanthropy represented. This new foundation not only had a progressive vision for effecting social change; it had the assets to make a huge difference. Suffice it to say, I was drawn in. And I went on to serve as their director of communications for about four years.
And what led you from Casey to opening your own firm?
At MCF, I had no staff, but I did have a decent consulting budget. So I hired a number of firms – one after another – each of which was good on the pitch and talked like they understood my needs, when they actually had no idea how philanthropic communications really worked. They didn’t understand the pace, the strategy, the politics, the values. And mostly, they didn’t really get a business where the “profit” was measured in social change, rather than units produced or dollars earned.
So eventually I decided to be that consultant I couldn’t seem to find: someone who understood the uniqueness of doing strategic communications in a philanthropic context.
What brought you to Seattle?
It was 1996 and I had recently returned to Eugene, Oregon to finish up my Masters degree in journalism after wrapping up a reporting fellowship in Washington, DC. And like any good grad student, I had a job tending bar.
One morning, after a particularly late closing shift at the pub, I was sitting in my underwear in my house, watching Beavis and Butthead on television, when the phone rang. I answered it, and this voice on the other end of the line says, “Hello, is David Brotherton there? This is Norm Rice.”
Having no idea who that was or why he was calling me, I literally said, “And you are….?”
“I’m the Mayor of Seattle. And I’m running for governor. I’m looking at your resume, and curious to know if you might be interested in working with us?”
It was kind of crazy. A couple of days later I accepted a gig running comms for a gubernatorial candidate I barely knew in a city I’d rarely visited. But I quickly decided I liked Seattle. So after the campaign ended, I decided to stick around. And 21 years later, I’m still here. I also still watch Beavis and Butthead whenever I get a chance. Because good things tend happen when I do that. Obviously.
Why did you leave Washington DC?
I left Washington, DC twice, actually. I initially spent four years there working on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant and speechwriter, then came back west for a journalism graduate program at the University of Oregon. I returned to DC the second time after J-School to cover Congress as a working reporter in a small DC news bureau. It was an awesome experience to be sure, but it solidified the fact that I was not ultimately going to make my living as a newspaperman. I just couldn’t see how the $7 an hour my bureau was paying me to cover meaningless Congressional hearings was ever going to lead to me writing world changing investigative features for The New York Times or Washington Post. I was neither Woodward, nor Bernstein. And I really missed the Pacific Northwest something terrible.
Legislative assistant and speechwriter sounds like a great job for someone just out of undergrad. Why did you leave?
It was great. I was all of 22 years old and my boss was a Democrat from Idaho – back when they used to have those. One of the earliest votes he had to take as a Member of Congress was against the first Gulf War, and I can’t tell you what a heady feeling it was to help him write that first speech in opposition to to war. That was as good as my job got in the four years I was there. He did the right thing; he risked reelection from day one, and it was very moving to witness.
But after a few years on Capitol Hill, I eventually knew it was time for me to leave. That came into clear focus one day when I was in a meeting discussing some completely innocuous and irrelevant piece of legislation with a bunch of other Congressional staffers. As I looked around the table at all the other staffers, I realized just how many of them were pasty, pudgy, stressed out, self-important white dudes. And the older and grayer and balder and fatter these guys were, the shorter and more gravy stained their tie was.
I had an immediate epiphany looking at all those white men with their short, stained ties: There is an inverse relationship between your tenure on The Hill and the length of your neckwear. “I cannot become a short tie guy,” I told myself. “I have to get out now, while there’s still time.”
Let’s return to the current day. You’ve had a varied communications career where each job lasted four or so years – speech writer, journalist, bartender: What is it about philanthropy communication that caught your interest and kept you at it for more than 13 years?
Philanthropy is a grossly misunderstood, and enormously influential, sector of our economy. If you look at the resources the foundation industry—and it is an industry—represents in relation to the GDP, it is way bigger than most people realize. Foundations also have the benefit of a tax status that affords them great latitude to affect social change in ways that few other institutions can. So the fact that I get to help those institutions decide either how to give their money away and how to leverage their voice in the process is one of the greatest honors I can imagine. Very few people wake up in the morning thinking about philanthropy, just a few nerds like myself. But I feel lucky that I get to play some small role in this sector and all the potential for good that it represents.
If you were going to offer a piece of advice to philanthropic communicators—not consultants, but foundations, writ-large—of things they could do better, or differently, what would it be?
Admit mistakes, and be willing to acknowledge successes and failures as they happen. Philanthropy is notoriously bad about recognizing where it falls short—even though it falls short a lot. The pendulum is starting to swing toward transparency and daylight, and some foundation comms shops are starting to step up, but philanthropies on the whole still have a long way to go.
Another thing I often tell foundation communicators is not to take themselves too seriously. Too many people think foundations have to operate with a stiffness and earnestness that isn’t always necessary. Accountability is good; don’t get me wrong. But too much of the work we do is over-analyzed, over-considered, and over-thought. But our over-mediated world doesn’t always operate with that much planning and forethought. Foundation communicators need to work at being more spontaneous, adaptable, able to flex quickly and often.
Funders can actually learn a thing or to from their grantees in this regard. One of my favorite examples is a website called Nonprofit AF. The truthtelling and honest humor that site conveys is a good shot across the bow for the rest of the independent sector to model. The fact that this little blog started by the executive director of a small nonprofit in South Seattle now has 150,000 national readers – including many of the biggest foundations in the country — shows it has struck a nerve.
One final but important question: Tell us about your aunt.
My Aunt is a rock star. She’s an 90-year-old Catholic nun, with a PhD from Fordham, who taught peace studies and feminism for most of her career. She spent 20 years or so at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley educating Jesuit seminarians on how to be feminist-minded priests. She was the field-education director and speech writer for Coretta Scott King at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta in the early 1970s. As a member of the Sisters for Christian Community (SFCC) she chose to forego all financial support from the Vatican nearly four decades ago and has been a wholly self-sufficient, self-made woman ever since. Like you might expect of any self-respecting feminist, her relationship to the institutional hierarchy of the Church is, well, um, complicated. Take the subject of women joining the priesthood for starters. She and the boys in Rome don’t really see eye to eye. It’s one of a thousand reasons why she has had such an influence on me – her fierce independence and willingness to agitate for change from within a system is unlike anyone else I knew growing up. It provided a model that I suspect helped shape what I do for a living today.
She sounds like the mythical goddess Minerva. Do you think she would have been a priest had she been allowed?
No question. She would’ve been a hell-of-a priest.