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Are Foundation Leaders Using Social Media?

September 16, 2010

It took a while, but foundations are starting to grasp the importance and utility of social media. As documented on Glasspockets.org, more than 700 foundations have jumped into the Web 2.0 waters, including 297 on Facebook, 222 on Twitter, 107 with blogs, and 93 with a YouTube channel.

But just how engaged are foundation leaders themselves with these new communications tools?

In July, the Foundation Center surveyed members of its Grantmaker Leadership Panel -- a regionally representative group of 228 independent and community foundation leaders -- to find out. Completed surveys were received from 73 of the 288 panel members (32 percent), and the responses seem to suggest that while use of social media by foundation leaders is catching on, it's not yet part of their regular routines.

Some key findings:

  • About one-third (33 percent) of foundation leaders use Facebook regularly, and a similar number (30 percent) regularly read blogs.
  • About one in 10 foundation CEOs listen to podcasts (11 percent) or watch YouTube (10 percent) videos.
  • Just 6 percent use Twitter regularly.
  • Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) read e-newsletters regularly, while about half (47 percent) use Listservs regularly.

Survey respondents also appeared to be cautiously optimistic about the potential of Web 2.0 to help further the work of philanthropy in general, but were uncertain how best to use social media to further their own work.

Perceived Usefulness of Social Media/Web 2.0 Services

Grantmaker Panel_Social Media_001 Grantmaker Panel_Social Media_002

At the same time, many respondents felt the full potential of social media for their foundations and philanthropy in general still lies ahead. "[T]he end has yet to be written on the social networking chapter in philanthropy," said Karen McNeil-Miller, president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. "I imagine a generation of foundation leadership -- myself included, even as one of the relatively younger CEOs -- will have to go away before it is embraced and tested fully."

(To download the four-page report, which includes brief profiles of two social media "power users," Emily Kessler and Albert Ruesga, click here.)

Is Karen right? Is the relatively low level of social media use among foundation leaders a generational thing? Should more foundation leaders be using Twitter, reading and commenting on blogs, and appearing in videos posted to YouTube? If so, should that be instead of, or in addition to, their current communications activities? Feel free to share your thoughts below....

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Bradford Smith  |   September 16, 2010 at 04:22 PM

Historically foundations--due to a mixture of genuine humility, independence and, in the case of family foundations, privacy--were ambivalent about communications. I remember joining the Ford Foundation in l991 and receiving a copy of the New York Times style manual with which to draft my grant recommendations (conditional tense was to be used until the grant had actually been approved). Every once in a while a Program Officer would want to write an OpEd and was either heavily edited or decided to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, thus sparking lengthy policy debates. Imagine my surprise when I came to the Foundation Center a couple of years ago and found five unedited blogs and lots of staff twittering away.

Social media represents a very different kind of communication that is difficult to control in any kind of conventional way. But its speed, economy and reach are undeniable and foundations will learn to harness this potential to both tell the world about the good work they do as well as exchange information that can help them and the partners work more effectively.

Posted by Jereme  |   September 16, 2010 at 06:15 PM

I think Brad makes a good point about social media being difficult to control by conventional means. If you’re accustomed to having your message vetted by others for content and tone, it's unnerving to shoot out a 140 character Tweet that could be taken out of context or sent to the wrong person (think: the boss finding out by 'sick in bed' you meant 'poolside in Cabo'). Even worse, you might be afraid your uncensored Tweeting might upset current or potential donors.

So if you haven't tried social media then it's natural to be a little afraid. But once you close your eyes, furiously tap away at the keyboard and click send (actually, close your eyes AFTER you type...) you realize it's really not so bad. In fact, it's even enjoyable to spark conversations around the web about the things we care most about. You'll probably find that you'll inspire more people to your cause than you would deter. Certainly plenty of small businesses, politicians, non-profits and foundations are Tweeting and blogging to GREATER success because they are engaging the people who matter most: their supporters.

Now I'm going to go Tweet that I commented on this... (so should you, by the way!).

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   September 16, 2010 at 06:28 PM

Brad, thanks for the post. I think you hit the nail on the head in your second paragraph. I also recommend the presentation/slide deck put together by Tina Arnoldi, director of information management for the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina, for the just-concluded Fall Connference for Community Foundations: http://ht.ly/2FdNK

Intended for community foundation leaders, but lots of applications to other organizational settings as well.

Posted by Bruce Trachtenberg  |   September 17, 2010 at 12:48 PM

The Communications Network did a report on what we were all calling Web 2.0 -- all the way back in 2008 -- and before the explosion of Facebook and Twitter. One of the most interesting lessons learned from the study, and which was (then) slowing the adoption of new communications technology among foundations was the fear of losing control. (Of course, one wag commented,"What control?")

I think it's correct to assume that comfort with blogging, tweeting, and posting on Facebook is generational. Also, communicating via social media is instantaneous and two-way, and that's something people used to slower forms -- and less talking back -- have to learn to get used to.

I also recall once watching as a foundation got badly slammed on a philanthropy blog and wondering when, if ever, officials would respond. Finally, after waiting for 24 hours, I called the communications director and said, "You have to say something...you can't let those comments go unanswered." The response: "We're working on it."

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   September 17, 2010 at 06:33 PM

Thanks for the comment, Bruce. In an increasingly "real-time" world, I think many foundations are starting to grasp the importance of effective (i.e., rapid) crisis control and of being more responsive and transparent in their overall communications. But as you and I have discussed, foundations looking to deploy "patient" capital against longstanding, deeply rooted social problems face a different kind of communications challenge, one that's made more difficult by the real-time nature of social media and this new set of expectations. I'm not saying it's an insoluble problem, just a tough one. Would love to hear others' thoughts on the subject....

Posted by Tina Arnoldi  |   September 20, 2010 at 12:01 PM

Mitch, Thanks for the mention. One thing I tell people who are hesitant to use social media is that they should at least start "listening". By listening, I mean set up a Google alert to monitor their foundation and other keywords, such a "nonprofit" within a certain geographic area. Use http://search.twitter.com to see what people are talking about. Once there's a basic understanding, consider starting with a Facebook page. With 500 million users, clearly there's something to it. On my site (www.TinaArnoldi.com), I also have slides from a Social Media 101 talk and a tutorial for making use of twitter without an account. I'm also happy to answer any questions people have about getting started.

Tina Arnoldi
Coastal Community Foundation

Posted by Careerfield  |   September 21, 2010 at 01:33 PM

There are a lot of tools as well right now that help out those of us who are a little scared of social media. A lot of companies will auto update our facebook pages or twitter from our website feeds. Its a good start at least.

Posted by Bruce Trachtenberg  |   September 21, 2010 at 03:47 PM

Sorry for this delayed response to your thoughtful comments about the challenges of communicating in a 24/7 world about work that takes years to complete.

Yes, you are correct, it's a challenge. But one that can be managed if you think about the opportunities available to foundations that carefully use the time over the course of a program or initiative to keep various audiences informed of progress, what they learning (as they learn it) and what changes, if any, they're making along the way.

Also, if the work a foundation takes a long time, at the start make that clear and also make clear what you'll be able to share and when ... and then just do it.

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   September 21, 2010 at 07:37 PM

Good advice, Tina. Thanks!

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   September 21, 2010 at 07:39 PM

Good advice, Bruce. And applicable ("just do it") to more than just effective communications. Thanks!

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