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Foundations and Social Media

May 16, 2008

(Guest contributor Alison Byrne Fields leads the Issues & Advocacy practice for DDB, working with nonprofit organizations, foundations, and corporations to create social and policy change by using a full range of communications solutions. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)

Social_circle Don't know whether you saw the recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy about the growing number of foundations that have begun to use online media, including social media, as part of their communications strategies. One of the key points raised by the article was whether foundations should be making further investments in communications, as opposed to making those dollars available to well-deserving nonprofits.

Do I think foundations should be spending wads of cash to send out self-congratulatory press releases? Nope. Do I think it matters all that much if the average American can distinguish between the “brand values” of this or that foundation? Not really. But I do think foundations could and should be using social media in the same way that corporations are beginning to: to build relationships.

Another recent article, this one in AdWeek, examines how a growing number of companies are "building brands by building relationships," forgoing large advertising budgets in favor of better customer service and a focus on developing great products. Their reasoning? As trust in institutions (of all kinds) and the efficacy of top-down messaging continue to decline, the best marketing tool is excellent word of mouth.

So, how, specifically, can foundations use social media to build relationships and engage others? Here are a couple of thoughts:

Facilitate learning and community among grantees: Many grantees look at a funder's other grantees as competition, not as allies. Through grantee social networks, foundations can help their grantees come together to share resources, war stories, and lessons learned. These networks can be closed to the public or made transparent to generate greater interest in the funded work and opportunities for the public to get involved.

Amplify the conversation: There's already a conversation going on somewhere in the social media universe about the issues in which your foundation is investing. Count on it. That conversation is happening both on Web sites created by your grantees and other nonprofit organizations, and also among individuals whose ability to reach and engage an audience is changing the face of advocacy. As a foundation, you probably already serve as a convener, so why not "convene" a conversation online? And I don't mean starting a new conversation; I'm talking about aggregating conversations already happening around your activities into a central location and investing resources in driving others to become engaged in those conversations as well. One of the best current examples of that is the relatively new (and still-growing) Digital Media and Learning site created by the MacArthur Foundation.

There are other things foundations can and should be doing in the social media universe, and I'll be writing about some of those ideas and activities in future posts. In the meantime, you might want to take a closer look at how your foundation is using social media to build relationships. Does it have a social media strategy and/or goals and objectives? If not, why not? And how might you, as a staff member, help convince your colleagues that it's time to explore the brave new world of social media? We'd love to hear from you.

-- Alison Byrne Fields

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Posted by Matt  |   May 16, 2008 at 03:20 PM

While I agree that foundations shouldn't spend "wads of cash on self-congratulatory press releases," they should certainly communicate with the public at large. Too many foundations seem to rely on the organizations they're funding to do so; surely the largest foundations are at least as well situated financially as the organizations to produce press releases. And a modicum of objectivity rather than self congratulation is also in order. I agree that foundations should continue to build relationships with their grantees -- and your social media suggestions are on target -- but is it too much to expect them to develop one with the public also?

Posted by Alison Byrne Fields  |   May 16, 2008 at 03:57 PM

Matt, I definitely think that foundations can be using social media to develop relationships with the public and can rationalize the expense in that doing so will help to increase support for achieving their mission. I just don't think it's about the foundation as a brand name, but about the foundation as a leader on an issue.

And, while I think many foundations know how to use media relations in a way that is strategic and, again, mission driven, I also think that many of them shy away from it because they see the only purpose as being self-promoting.

It may have something to do with the fact that many foundation staff come from the academic world, where anything with a whiff of self-promotion (ironically enough) is seen as tacky.

Posted by Marc Schwartz  |   May 19, 2008 at 12:46 AM

The beauty of communicating to the public is that the foundation has a unique opportunity to connect an individual with a cause they can believe in and engage with on multiple levels. I have managed many annual giving programs and the one thing that all of the donor research and donor interviews taught me is that people have a far greater need to give than organizations have a need to receive (philosophically, that is...). The power of social media is that it can connect the internal need that people have to give with opportunities to participate in a way that is meaningful and significant. The power of that conversation can be richer and can have more far reaching impact than could be anticipated.

The self promoting, if authentic and actually cause related, can do much more good than harm in providing avenues for engagement. This may make the investment and effort a greater investment in the future.

Posted by Pat Aufderheide   |   May 23, 2008 at 07:44 AM

Alison's advice is so smart; it shows the difference between the old PR and the new social media. You're not "selling" people information, you're sharing and connecting as part of your core mission. In fact I think her advice reminds us that communications tools are essential to core mission. Foundations and nonprofits, as critically important institutions for an open society, need to build the capacity to connect into their basic processes. FYI, the Center for Social Media blog, available from our website at http://centerforsocialmedia.org/, often touches on relevant topics, if you're interested, and our upcoming conference, Beyond Broadcast, http://beyondbroadcast.net/blog08/, showcases how media for public knowledge and action are changing rapidly.

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