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Justin Bieber vs. the Gates Foundation

May 21, 2014

When it comes to social media and "crowds," the largest philanthropic foundation in the world is no match for Justin Bieber. Not even close. As the graphic below shows, over the thirty-day period from November 3 to December 3,"Justin Bieber" was mentioned in 40,596,304 tweets while the "Gates Foundation" appeared in just 4,765.

Bieber_vs_gates

This somewhat crazy comparison offers some important lessons for philanthropy as foundations struggle to measure their grantees' (and their own) online impact.

Lesson #1 — "Crowdsourcing" requires a CROWD

The professionals that really understand crowdsourcing work for companies like eBay, not for philanthropic foundations. But like most of us, foundation program officers have learned enough about all this stuff to be dangerous and increasingly pepper their grantees with questions and suggestions about crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing works best when knowledge can be built on the clicks of very large numbers of people involved in relatively simple market-based activities such as shopping and travel, or where new markets can be created, as we are beginning to see with crowdfunding. Crowdsourcing in the philanthropic space, on the other hand, has by and large been a failure, and there is a trail of dead wikis to prove it.

Lesson #2 — Scale is a relative concept

Justin Bieber has scale, and so does the Gates Foundation. The crucial difference is that young Bieber's is driven by the mass-market appeal of the entertainment industry, while the Gates Foundation operates in a niche market. As important as the issues — agricultural development, malaria prevention, vaccine delivery — that drive the Gates Foundation are, they will never attract the kind of attention that a successful pop singer does. And as much as I might like to live in a world in which the 900 million people who do not have access to safe water are as important to the Twitterverse as the latest boy band, I do not. It has nothing to do with "fair" or "right"; it just "is." Philanthropy as a whole has achieved scale online: collectively, America's foundations have 4.5 million followers on Twitter. But philanthropy's scale is relative, and even though its reach is far greater than it was just a decade ago — and continues to grow — it will always lag mass social media trends. Meanwhile, Justin Bieber alone has nearly 49 million Twitter followers!

Lesson #3 — Foundations' (limited) online traffic is commensurate with their unique offline role

The niche market that is philanthropy exists precisely because there are still too many important needs in the world that markets and governments cannot (or will not) meet. Government, when working well, can be effective at delivering vital services such as education and sanitation and in holding up standards that cross boundaries and span the globe. Foundations, however, have a more nuanced, offstage role to play, using their relatively limited resources to address problems that fall between the cracks, test new ideas, and take an occasional risk. Foundations' predilection for acting in a low-key way also has roots in the oft-professed humility of wealthy donors who create foundations. The result? Offstage + humbleness = offline. Fewer than 7 percent of America's foundations have websites, so it should come as no surprise that we are not exactly the talk of the town on Twitter.

I suppose this post, in the end, is a call for philanthropy to get real when it comes to social media. We have long since resigned ourself to the fact that our tweets won't spur mass movements around our most cherished ideas and programs. Which doesn't mean we should give up. Now is the time to build a meaningful, lasting relationship with social media and whatever form of frictionless communication lurks just offstage. Foundations need to have realistic expectations about their grantees' reach, as well as their own, and accept that we will never be truly competitive in a medium that increasingly is dominated by entertainment, sports, and global brands. At the same time, philanthropy has to get better at communications, much better, and social media is an essential tool for doing that. Justin Bieber may be off the charts in terms of followers, but when it comes to message quality, the Gates Foundation rules.

Brad Smith is president of the Foundation Center. To learn more about what's trending with foundations and social media, click here.

Comments

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When the niche issue areas of philanthropy do crossover to mass-market appeal it tends to look like the hashtag activism of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. While the campaign has been successful by many measurements, it has also drawn some legitimate criticisms, such as the misinformation and stereotypes propagated along with the campaign by scores of well-intentioned, yet under-informed individuals.

Mass-market engagement in the causes we hold dear is a mixed bag, and seeking engagement for engagement's sake is about as meaningful as a tweet from Justin Bieber account.

Thanks for your post, Brad. With luck, it will trend on social media. In the meantime, my only comment in response is not to look at social media in isolation but just as one of the many tactics a foundation or nonprofit can use to deploy an effective -- and in best cases -- integrated communications strategy that aims to help further organizational goals and missions.

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