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Building Meaningful Relationships Through Successful Communication

This blog article is part of Foundant’s quarterly content series designed to offer tangible tips and practical resources on how to Work Smarter, Not Harder.

Whether planning a board meeting, crafting an email update for your team, writing a spring appeal, or creating your annual report, it’s essential to begin by asking yourself a fundamental question to ensure you know what results you’re trying to achieve:

What does success look like?

In the final podcast episode of our Work Smarter, Not Harder series, guest host Rachel Myers was joined by Erica Barnhart to transition to the topic for our next quarterly content series: Impactful Communications.

A renowned communication expert, speaker, author, coach, and University of Washington professor, Erica is obsessed with two things: the power of words and making the world a better place.

“I am always trying to figure out new ways to apply language and look at words. And it’s all in service to the work of nonprofits and foundations because the philanthropic sector is so important,” shares Erica.

Erica will be the featured speaker at Foundant’s upcoming sector education webinar on April 19, “Communicate for Good: How to Raise Awareness, Revenue, and Impact One Word at a Time.” But first, Erica and Rachel began the conversation about how to advance your mission by communicating in ways that are good for yourself, your team, your organization, and the world.


Internal vs. External Communication

Erica explains that if you communicate in ways that are good for yourself, your team, and your organization, the fourth—the world—will take care of itself to a large extent.

This highlights the importance of internal communication. But unfortunately, organizations can become too focused on external communications and not give internal communications the proper attention. What does poor internal communication say about how we value the people working for our organizations? Erica points to this as one of the causes of “quiet quitting” and burnout—both of which have impacted philanthropic organizations.

Even with the best intentions, communicating with internal team members has become more complicated in recent years. The way we work has changed, and so have our communication needs. Erica is often asked how to communicate successfully in a hybrid workplace with team members in various settings.

Furthermore, despite the importance of internal communication and its implications on organizational culture, most leaders don’t receive support or training on effective communication. This can impact an entire organization because, as Erica explains, “Once you become a leader, everything you say is louder.”


The Claxon Method

Twenty years ago, seeking to help fill this training gap, Erica created Claxon, a company focused on teaching organizations and leaders how to use words to change workplaces and the world.

In this work, clients often asked questions such as, “Should we be on Twitter?” or “Should we get rid of our print newsletters?” Recognizing that these clients were jumping to the “how” before understanding critical details about the “what” and “who,” Erica was inspired to create the Claxon Method—a protocol to help clients consistently communicate with clarity and confidence.

The Claxon Method includes three simple questions:

  1. WHAT results do I want or need?
  2. WHO is my audience?
  3. HOW can I most effectively communicate with them?
    Only AFTER gaining clarity about your goals and target audience can you determine the most successful message and channel.


Erica shared an external communication example for nonprofits:

  • Again, always start by asking, What does success look like? For example, you may seek to increase donations by 20%.

Rachel’s Epiphany! “This is the first question I ask myself for almost any project,” shares Rachel. In fact, when discussing how to plan great meetings in an earlier Work Smarter, Not Harder podcast episode, Rachel recommended that when planning a meeting, you should always begin by creating a purpose statement to (similarly) define your goal.

  • Next, ask Who are you talking to? Do you plan to achieve this goal by targeting new donors (donor acquisition) or existing donors (donor retention)?

Wait! While you may think it’s time to move to the “how,” Erica suggests you may need to do a few more rounds of “what” and “who” to nail down your goal and audience. She calls this the “what-who-what do-si-do.” So put on your square-dancing shoes and consider a few more questions, such as:

  • What are your target audience’s communication styles?
  • What does your target audience care about? What is in their hearts and minds?

Taking the time to answer these questions will help mitigate projection and avoid the tendency to do everything according to your own preferences. Armed with details about “what” and “who,” you can now move on to the How. It will be much easier to determine whether Twitter, print, or any other communication channel will be effective and which words may be most engaging.

Finally, throughout each step, Erica recommends grounding yourself in the Why. Ask yourself why a particular effort is so important, why an audience is vital to the success of this project, and why you should use one strategy vs. another.

“Keep challenging yourself to zero in on the approach, message, and strategy that works best,” adds Rachel.


Communication Styles

Erica suggests learning about your target audience’s communication styles, if possible. But what are these different styles, and how can they inform the way you communicate?

Erica recommends taking Pierre Casse’s Communication Style Self-Assessment to learn your communication style. Discover whether you are:

  1. Action-oriented
  2. People-oriented&
  3. Idea-oriented
  4. Process-oriented

Knowing your own style, as well as the style of your team members, can help you communicate more effectively internally. And while you can’t ask donors to take the quiz, understanding the four styles and recognizing behaviors can help you communicate more successfully externally and, ultimately, build stronger relationships.

Join Erica in our April 19 webinar to dig deeper into these styles and learn how this knowledge can have “profound implications” on your communication.

Watch Rachel highlight a few key takeaways from her conversation with Erica in a short 6-minute video.



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About the Author

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, Katie never moved until she left for college. Since then, she has lived in two countries (U.S. and Chile), four states (CA, CO, OR, MT), 10 cities, and has had too many addresses to count. (Need moving tips? She’s got them!) Grateful for the opportunity to explore such different landscapes, meet diverse people, and experience unique cultures, Katie considers every stop on this journey an integral part of her story. Perhaps that’s why Katie is passionate about telling stories about other people and experiences that inspire her. Throughout her 30-year career in marketing and communications, Katie feels fortunate to have been able to dedicate her skills to writing compelling copy about organizations that serve others or enable the work of those who do. Before joining Foundant’s team in 2021 as the Marketing Copywriter, she focused her efforts on writing about the programs and services offered by a public university art museum, a customer-owned utility, and local government in Eugene, Oregon—all of which make a difference in the lives of those they serve. That’s what brought Katie to Foundant. She is energized every day by the work its clients are doing to make the world a better place. A mountain girl at heart, Katie is happy to have finally planted her roots in the city of Foundant’s headquarters, Bozeman, Montana. When she’s not working, you’ll likely find Katie outside, looking for different ways to explore the local trails, rivers, and lakes. It’s hard to say whether she has more photos of Bozeman’s breathtaking sunrises and sunsets or her beloved dogs, Moby and Max. One thing is sure—she has fewer photos of her husband and two teenage daughters whom she loves deeply but are far less willing subjects.

Profile Photo of Katie Sproles