The Hewlett Foundation Blog
January 9, 2014 — By Larry Kramer
Some of you may have noticed that the Hewlett Foundation has a new tagline. (If not, you’ll just have to read a bit further to learn what it is.) Wait, you may say, a tagline? You mean, like what we hear on NPR in the morning? Why would anyone care about that?
I actually think the tagline is important—not in itself, but for what it represents and what it reflects. A tagline is a kind of mission statement, an effort to encapsulate something important about our values and objectives. On the surface, we’re hard to pin down. Certainly we make grants across a broad range of areas: “to solve social and environmental problems at home and around the globe,” as our former tagline put it. But that doesn’t actually tell you anything about who we are. It’s a vague and rather workmanlike description of what we do that leaves the really important questions unaddressed: What are we trying to accomplish? How are we trying to accomplish it? Exploring a new tagline is really a process of discovering, articulating, and in this way, helping to define our aspirations and our culture.
We asked for help from the firm Neimand Collaborative, which has worked with our Communications team on a number of projects. Though this was a small project, the firm’s principals, Rich Neimand and Dave Clayton, took it on personally. Dave interviewed members of our staff, a number of our grantees, members of our Board, and others familiar with the Foundation. He also spoke with some people who know less about us, but a lot about our field.
We asked Dave to do more than solicit praise. We wanted to know what people think is notable about the Foundation, both good and bad. Find out what people really think about us, we told him, what we do well but also where we need to improve. Rich’s job was then to take what Dave discovered and use it to develop a tagline that captures our values, addresses critiques, and taps into something meaningful. All in a few words.
That’s no mean feat. Bear in mind that a tagline also has to capture something real and ring true. “Just do it” could mean anything. But it works for Nike, both reflecting and shaping the company and its products. Same thing for Apple’s “Think Different.” I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Gratifyingly, Rich and Dave had a lot of positive adjectives to offer when they presented their findings—words like smart, forceful, decisive, creative, pragmatic, and optimistic. My favorite was haimish, a Yiddish word that translates roughly as homey and unpretentious. But while this was all very interesting and affirming, Dave also uncovered some helpful criticisms. Some people find you sterile, he told us, overly intellectual and analytic, and these qualities can make Hewlett seem aloof and distant from the work. That matched another critique that popped up: namely, that while we are very clear about our strategies, we are sometimes less clear about the reasons we do what we do.
With that as background, Rich and Dave set out to find language that would reflect the strengths and respond to the deficits. According to Rich, taglines traditionally fall into three categories, with some overlap: those that talk about why, those that talk about how, and those that reflect ultimate aspirations. The key, he explained, is to choose a tagline that emphasizes and reflects the most important of these.
In our case, Rich and Dave encouraged us to combine the second and third categories by focusing on how we do what we aspire to do. I think the thing we do best, and our colleagues in the field seem to agree, is to work by setting clear goals and carefully tracking how well we are achieving those goals. We are by no means the only foundation that does this, but it’s a really important part of who we are, something deep in the Hewlett Foundation’s DNA. To this end, we try to be smart and rigorous, and value being creative, collaborative, strategic, and focused on results. At the same time, we do not want people to miss that our work is animated by a deep sense of caring and humanity.
Sounds good, we said. Now capture all that in a phrase.
The tagline we chose is “Helping people build measurably better lives.”
We think this does a remarkably good job of capturing the elements described above. In talking about “helping people,” for instance, we mean to indicate that we are collaborative, that we want to work with and help others rather than do for them.
The word “build” harkens back to Bill Hewlett, the engineer, who was a true builder. We want to work with others to build things that improve the world and add value. This combines creativity and innovativeness with the workmanlike approach necessary to succeed.
“Measurably” is probably the word that will stand out most—the Hewlett Foundation’s “verdant.” To insiders in the world of philanthropy, it expresses our commitment to making sure we are getting something done. And it’s true: we spend a lot of time and energy trying to measure progress, so we can know if we’re on the right track and determine how to correct our course if not. Our work is tangible, and we hold ourselves accountable for results. To the general public and those not heavily involved in philanthropy, “measurably” will reflect something else we care about, namely, that the difference our work makes be appreciable and significant. We liked the word precisely because it captures both those connotations.
Finally, we wanted to remind ourselves, as well as others, just why we’re in this business—and that’s to improve people’s lives. Maybe that should go without saying, but like many things that ought to go without saying, it needs to be said, and emphasized, anyway.
When I first proposed reexamining the tagline, I felt almost sheepish. The Hewlett Foundation pays little attention to self-promotion (that itself is a core value here), so why bother putting time and effort into something so marginal. Instead, the project proved to be both interesting and fruitful—an opportunity to reaffirm and remind ourselves about who we are and who we want to be. And the final output is actually kind of catchy. Not quite “We Try Harder” or “Don’t Leave Home Without It,” but pretty memorable in its way.