exiting with purpose

Internal and External Communication

Countdown to Sunset

As our board prioritized a proactive communications strategy, our first vital decision, as the foundation’s leadership team, was when to announce the sunset timeline and its implications. We deliberated heavily about this. Our board anticipated that the announcement might divert the foundation team and our partners from our core work. They feared that co-workers might abandon the organization. They worried about the bond with our partners. They were right. Everything changes when a sunset plan becomes public.  Everything.

We knew that our work couldn’t be completed in our now-limited timeframe unless our entire team was involved in the conversation and could strategize together. So again we took a risk most organizations would avoid: we chose to share our timeline for completion 27 months prior to the close of the office.

The planning phase leading up to that mandatory meeting was a time of intense learning. All summer, the office vibe was askew. Different co-workers knew different amounts of information. Managers participated in key conversations relevant to their initiatives. Yet in most cases, the full context could not be shared. At one point, we deliberated whether to share high-level detail with one specific team that was mapping out its programmatic future and abutting critical deadlines, but ultimately, we decided that we wanted all co-workers to receive the same information simultaneously.

That meeting launched the process of re-balancing the organization and re-defining who we were. Representing the culmination of months of preparation, we have to admit that it was a relief for some of us. But it was a day of shock for many others. Termination is uncomfortable, no matter the circumstances, so program directors and executive team members tried to deliver the news as thoughtfully and supportively as possible, conveying what the sunset meant, reiterating the founders’ and board’s original goals and intents, and articulating the high-level strategy for the completion of our work.

Immediately following the group session, members of the management team met individually with each co-worker, reinforcing the primary messages and putting additional personal details on the table, such as a staff member’s projected termination date and severance package details.

Nonetheless, it soon became apparent that maintaining a unified, consistent message from all managers in an environment and time of constant change and charged emotion would be almost impossible. We learned early on to continually reiterate facts and confirm that all co-workers had heard the same information. We provided scripted responses to frequently asked questions and anticipated queries.

We used regular team meetings as opportunities to reiterate, clarify, and add to the common pool of knowledge. Though we recognize that we have been wrong on many variables along the way and strategies continue to evolve to this day, after that initial meeting, we shared what we knew when we knew it, and corrected or clarified in real time to sustain the culture of transparency we value and try to keep our board, our management team, and the rest of our colleagues on the same page.

Immediately following our internal announcement, we launched an external communication campaign. Given Santa Barbara’s small-town nature and intertwined networks, there were many individuals in the community with personal knowledge of the foundation, its donors, and its co-workers. Prior to the public announcement, we received inquiries from a few savvy partners who had deduced that a change was on the horizon, and so we realized that we had to act faster with a public announcement than we had planned to.

We considered holding a press conference, but we struggled with whether our sunset was truly newsworthy, particularly since we were simply executing our original plan. Ultimately, we nixed the idea. We’ve usually done our best work under the radar, away from the distractions of the spotlight; a press conference did not fit our style. Moreover, nixing the press conference idea allowed more time for the team to focus on communicating directly with partners.

Instead, we called or met personally with our closest partners, then followed up with written communication to reinforce the message. We provided detailed speaking points for them to use in conversation with their boards, their staff, and others within their close networks.

Despite our best efforts, ever since the initial communications blitz, explaining the sunset timeline and its various ramifications has required constant reiteration in our community interactions.