Social Media Can Open Door to Philanthropy's Future

Social Media Can Open Door to Philanthropy's Future

In retrospect, I'm not sure I would try this exercise again.

A few months back, I began a workshop for staff from a variety of foundations by asking them to shout out all of their whiny, cry-baby excuses for not getting involved in social media. The excuses flew at me fast and furious, like so many tranquilizer darts. I don't have time. It's too much work. We don't have the resources. Can't figure out the return on investment. Senior staff don't see the value. We're afraid of losing control. What if people criticize us? My shoes are too tight.

I was going down like one of those tagged bears on Animal Planet (or my chunky Uncle Bernie after eating both drumsticks on Thanksgiving).

Then I heard the excuse that got my blood pumping again: "Social media doesn't seem relevant to my work."

There it was. All of this talk about Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. It all feels like so much noise. Why should I care that someone with a wolverine tattoo on his neck and a self-inflicted case of ADD is tweeting that he is stuck in line at Starbucks? What does that have to do with grantmaking? And does he really need more caffeine, anyway?

I realized I had about forty-five minutes to convince these people that social media is more than relevant to philanthropy. That it is core to our future. That social media can make us all better philanthropists. There I said it. Social media can make foundations more effective. I know that doesn't go down easily, but here is an exercise: Forget about the tools for a minute and look at the core principles behind social media: collaboration, openness, transparency, timeliness, sharing work in progress, embracing and learning from failure. Then think about how we traditionally operate as foundations.

We could clearly benefit from adopting some of the practices of the Wikipedia world, where input is invited from a much broader and diverse audience and the knowledge is being gathered in an open and participatory manner. Why? Because if we have the courage to embrace social media principles to break open and speed up our traditionally closed and limited grantmaking model, we can produce stronger, more grounded, innovative, and effective solutions. Isn't that what we want more than anything to make a difference on the issues that we care about so deeply?

They seemed like a good group of people at this workshop, except for the guy in the back with yellow eyes and a raven on his shoulder. I took a deep breath, hitched up my pants, and offered them three reasons to welcome social media on board.

Better Listeners. A program officer mentioned to me recently that he didn't think he could be effective at his job if he didn't follow the blogs, Twitter buzz, and other online conversation in his area of interest. He didn't see that as extra work. He saw it as a better way to stay informed. If we can get past the idea that social media is just one more thing to do, one more thing to learn, we will see that these tools can help us do what we are already doing only more effectively. At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation we use many of these tools to "listen" to what is being said about us, our senior staff, and our grantees. We also try to monitor what is being said on the issues we are working on. Why? Because we are vainer and more self-centered than a Hollywood celebrity? No. Because we want to understand how our work is being received and because we want to join the conversation. Both will help us have more impact.

Better Partners. In the traditional world of foundations, communication tends to be one-way. We tell the world what we plan to fund. We tell the world who has received our funding. We share what we are learning in the form of briefings and publications. All good things, but all focused on broadcasting our message to the universe. In the world of social media, you put down the megaphone and hold a conversation. I heard a senior executive involved in social media at Starbucks say recently that what works best are things the company can do together with its customers. I think that principle can work well for foundations also. Building partnerships is something we've always done. Using these tools to broaden those partnerships and harness the power created by the resulting networks can only make us better at what we do.

Better Agents of Change. Last May, the Maine Health Access Foundation posted letters of inquiry on Facebook. It wanted applicants to its Fund for the Future to get broad input from the field before they submitted their proposals. Program officer Len Bartel knew that input from the community would make the final proposals stronger. The for-profit and academic worlds boast many examples of tapping into the wisdom of the crowd to make their products and their research better. The foundation world has a growing number of examples as well. The Packard Foundation has used wikis to get broader input into its work on nitrogen and reproductive health. RWJF and other foundations have been working with Changemakers and Idea Crossing to experiment with new ways of generating ideas. The Rockefeller Foundation is helping nonprofits tap into InnoCentive's global network of problem solvers. And the Case Foundation is involving every day citizens in the process. Those are just a few examples.

If we want to make a difference, it is time to tear down the walls that have traditionally existed between us and our grantees. Between us and "the field." It is time to begin to open our closed grantmaking process to the world. Time to let a broader audience provide input at a much earlier point in the process and all the way through the evaluation phase. Social media can help us do that. Social media can help us have more impact.

How did I do with the group in the workshop? No one came at me with a sharp object. We all drank too much wine together afterward, even the guy with the raven (the bird liked the merlot), and talked about the challenges ahead. Did I convince them? Maybe a little. Did I convince you? You tell me. We're in this together.

Larry Blumenthal is director of social media strategy for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. He blogs and tweets regularly about philanthropy and social media.