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Getting the Message Out About Your Case Studies

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: Getting the Message Out About Your Case Studies

The story was one of strong egos clashing, clear missteps and notable successes.

Seven of the largest U.S. foundations had found a way to work together for ten years—and collectively invest nearly $500 million--to tackle a difficult issue few funders had attempted: strengthening higher education in Africa.

Presidents of four these foundations had initiated this work and each had forceful—and sometimes clashing—opinions with one another about the direction this funder collaborative should take. Collaborative members struggled to understand the lofty and somewhat vague mandate from the presidents. And they initially made investments that didn’t yield the results they hoped for. But they could also point to successes, such as seeding an initiative that brought high-speed internet connections to many African universities for the first time.

Participants from these seven foundations wanted to share with the larger funder community the hard-won lessons they had learned about effectively working together. I was commissioned by the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa to write a case study and document those lessons.

But I didn’t want to simply write a helpful lessons learned report and hope that the people who could most benefit would find it on the website of the collaborative.

While the Partnership planned to send the report to colleagues, the Partnership coordinator and I knew that a much broader audience existed for this report. Working together, we made sure that the valuable information reached as many of the right people as possible.

The experience made me think more about the most effective ways people can learn about and use the helpful information that foundations and nonprofits spend so much of their resources developing. Producing a report just isn’t enough. And often there simply isn’t much of a plan beyond getting the report completed, posting it on an organization’s website and perhaps tweeting about it.

Here are three suggestions to help you make the most of your next case study or lessons learned report:

1. Get it in the publications that your audience reads. Think about the publications your audience reads most often.  Then work to get an article or op-ed written about the report in those publications. I favor trade publications. First, they are easier to get into then, say, the New York Times, and second, they are read by the people you most want to influence.

While I was still writing the case study on the Africa grantmakers collaborative, I got in touch with the editor of Alliance magazine, which reaches a group of foundations that work internationally—a target audience for us. I wrote a short article that highlighted the most interesting and controversial parts of the work and included a link to the full case study.

In addition, George Soule, of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s public affairs office, wrote an excellent, detailed press release on the case study, which led to lengthy and positive articles in two other key publications.

2. Make it easy for people to interact with and use your lessons through social media. This approach, like the first one, requires some thought and planning. Patricia Martin, who wrote a report on how the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago attracted and engaged theatergoers in their 20s, used interactive social media channels to reach a broader audience.

Martin said in a blog post, “We didn’t produce a 200-page bound report to sit on a shelf. Instead, we transformed the report into a punchy, electronic book, broken down into themed micro-reports made available on a dedicated Web site.”

Martin said early traffic patterns showed that designing the material so that it could be easily be featured in tweets, blogs, Facebook pages and other social media was paying off and people passed along links to the report.

Meanwhile, Will Bohlen, director of communications for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, recently described how his organization is generating more interest in its reports through posting them on Scribd, a social media service that specializes in document sharing. Bohlen spoke of the success of this approach in a video posted by the Communications Network.

Taking time to develop a social media plan for your report can vastly expand its reach.

3. Organize a roundtable discussion of the findings or lessons. Adults learn best when they can engage with ideas. Simply reading about lessons or case studies is probably not enough for people to incorporate that knowledge into their work.

But discussing a relevant case with peers, asking questions and debating the approaches featured in a report can help people see how the findings relate to what they do. People are hungry for opportunities to take time out from their hectic schedules, sit down with colleagues and get into in-depth discussions about the issues they contend with in their work.

Patricia Patrizi, a well-respected evaluator, established the “Evaluation Roundtable” as an opportunity for evaluators to come together and discuss common issues they grapple with in their work. At the heart of these roundtable meetings are case studies that participants dissect and discuss.

Who could benefit most from your case study? From the beginning of the project, make a plan to hold a meeting to talk about the findings. Consider getting a trained facilitator who can guide the group in their discussion.

By taking time to think about how to make it easy for people to learn about, read, and use your case studies and lessons learned reports, you will vastly extend the influence of these reports and your organization.


We specialize in writing case studies, lessons learned reports and issue briefs as well as creating web content. If you have a project that you think might be a good fit, please contact us to discuss how we might collaborate. You can reach us at or (802) 748-3070


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(c) 2011 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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