Communications Network: Reinventing a strategy and business model to achieve greater impact

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The Communications Network: Reinventing a strategy and business model to achieve greater impact


A network created to serve communications professionals within foundations had questions about its future.


A reimagined network with a bolder vision for advancing change that expanded opportunities for membership, programming, and revenue.


In 1979, The Communications Network was founded to provide resources and guidance to help advance strategic communications practice within philanthropy. After three decades of serving communications staff inside foundations, the network found itself at an inflection point amid a rapidly changing communications environment. In 2011-12, after gaining a solid financial footing after several years of turmoil, the network partnered with Community Wealth Partners to develop a strategic plan for its next phase of growth and impact.

Community Wealth Partners helped the network rethink its operating model and approaches to raising revenue. This involved working directly with various stakeholders, including representatives from some of the largest foundations in the nation. Going into this process, the network’s board leadership realized they wanted the network to have a bigger impact in the field, but they were unsure what this might look like. Ultimately, they decided to broaden the network’s focus beyond serving the needs of communications professionals inside philanthropy to include communicators from high-performing nonprofits, accelerating efforts to elevate the role of communications in the social sector to support local, national, and global change initiatives.

The execution of this broader vision prompted the hiring of a new leader to guide the network into this next stage after the prior leader had capably guided the network through a financial crisis several years earlier. This new leader (the sole staff member at the time) and the board worked to expand participation in the network, which created new opportunities for revenue. The network initially experienced challenges designing programming that would appeal to both groups – foundation and other nonprofit communicators. Over time, new members became more engaged and offered programming suggestions covering a wider array of new topics to advance knowledge and practice. The Communications Network now cultivates and develops future leaders through local groups in 18 cities, promotes greater social sector investment in communications, and offers an array of learning offerings for network participants through webinars, publications, and post-conference social outreach.

A bold vision

for greater impact


The network’s revised strategy has been transformative for the organization. The board has transitioned from a hands-on, grassroots board to a governing board overseeing the strategic direction set by the CEO and carried out by a staff of four. Network membership has grown from about 400 individuals in 2014 to more than 2,000 in 2020. At the same time, annual revenue has grown from $650,000 to $2 million and has shifted from being heavily grant dependent to relying primarily on earned income, with the largest sources of revenue being conference registrations and sponsorships. Today, The Communications Network’s annual conference attracts nearly 1,000 participants (compared to 300 in 2012).

The network assesses its impact by measuring member engagement and satisfaction – both of which rate highly – as well as assessing its influence in the field through communications and thought leadership. Anecdotally, the network is seeing greater emphasis on and increased investment in communications among many social sector leaders, a signal that the network is indeed helping elevate the role of communications as a tool for social change.

“The network has become a leading voice for the power of smart communication to make the world a better place,” said Kevin Corcoran, who joined the board in 2011 and guided the most recent strategic planning process. “We are the place changemakers come together to find inspiration, to hear the best ideas in the field, to collaborate and share with each other. Our work with Community Wealth Partners and the board’s decision to hire our CEO, Sean Gibbons, were real turning points.”

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