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Becoming a "Web 2.0 Philanthropy"

January 18, 2012

(Steve Downs is chief technology and information officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's Glasspockets blog.)

Steve_Downs_RWJFThe Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, like many philanthropies today, has embraced social media. We have a Facebook page, YouTube channels, blogs, and multiple official Twitter feeds. Our staff also participate directly: more than forty of my colleagues are regular Twitter users and many have contributed blog posts to popular sites within their fields. Our CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey (@risalavizzo), sets the tone with her regular activity on Twitter.

Like many philanthropies, we're still finding our way and doing our best to learn from our collective experiences and from the experiences of others. For RWJF, engagement in social media is rooted in a context -- a context about who we are as an organization and what we seek to become.

The first part of that context comes from our history with transparency. Since RWJF's beginnings, we have emphasized independent evaluation of our programs. As David Colby (@DavidCColby) and his colleagues have detailed, RWJF chose to make public the results of those evaluations so others could learn whether the interventions had (or had not) been effective. In addition, since 2007, we have made public an annual assessment that examines a number of dimensions of our organizational performance. (You can download the reports from our Web site.)

The second part starts in 2008, when RWJF underwent a strategic planning exercise where we began by looking at the world around us. We saw innovations in philanthropy coming from newer, smaller foundations like the Steve and Jean Case Foundation and Omidyar Network that were leveraging new technologies to cast a wider net, stimulate conversation, and engage people more widely. We saw new models for the sector such as Kiva and DonorsChoose -- platforms that enabled more direct connections between donors and their impact. And we also saw the amazing, disruptive accomplishments of services like Wikipedia and craigslist that were run by organizations employing only a few dozen staff but drawing their power from vast networks of engaged users. We came away from this effort with a sense -- still impressionistic -- that we should explore what it would mean for us to become a "Web 2.0 philanthropy."

"Web 2.0" is becoming an archaic term as it is supplanted by the term "social media," but for us the distinction has meaning. Where "social media" is often associated with services like Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr, we see Web 2.0 as running deeper. It is the collection of tools that harness the collective creativity and knowledge of -- and promote interaction among -- the Web's many users. It is based on an "architecture of participation," which enables the users of a service to add value to that service. Beyond social media, it can be expressed in many ways, ranging from the user who improves on a cooking magazine's recipe by adding an unexpected spice to the protester during the Arab Spring posting a cell phone video of a beating on YouTube for the world to see. It is the seller-rating system of eBay, in which the experiences of hundreds of other buyers give a potential buyer confidence in the seller. It is about the blurring of the lines between producer and consumer, between expert and non-expert, and the aggregation of many small contributions into something of great value.

We knew that as a relatively large and middle-aged foundation (we celebrate our 40th anniversary this year) with traditions, habits and engrained practices, we would have to consciously push ourselves to evolve in this direction. We needed first to flesh out the vision, which we did through a combination of research (i.e., small "r" research like reading case studies and talking with folks at other organizations) and experiential learning. Those of us tasked with working on the vision felt we couldn't do so unless we were actively engaging in Web 2.0 experiences, so we started experimenting with Twitter and Facebook -- and experiencing their cultures and value to our day-to-day work. It wasn't long before we concluded that becoming a Web 2.0 philanthropy was not so much about adopting new social media than it was about embracing the underlying values of Web 2.0 and weaving them into our work. To that end, we homed in on three principal values:

  • Openness, at one level, implies transparency -- letting others see into the organization and how it works. But in Web 2.0, openness goes beyond organizational transparency and represents humility and a willingness to learn, to be surprised, and to hear and accept criticism.
  • Participation refers to a style of engagement in the professional communities of which we are a part. It requires asking questions, listening, responding, and contributing where we can add value -- whether expertise, research and other materials, or connections.
  • Decentralization is a natural consequence of distributed participation and inherently requires a ceding of some control. So much information is now created and shared collaboratively, and the path and shape that such information takes cannot be controlled by any one entity or group. A tremendous upside of the emergence of Web 2.0, however, is the potential for countless unseen contributors to augment and amplify one's own contributions.

Building on these values, the research and our early experiences, we sketched out a vision of how RWJF could embrace Web 2.0. The vision included a number of elements, ranging from using social media to be better informed about our fields and the work of our grantees, to cultivating networks of people and organizations who care about our issues, to crowdsourcing expertise, to seeking feedback and criticism, to using Web 2.0 principles to design programs that work at very large scale. The vision, along with a strategy to evolve toward it, gave the organization a context and a rationale for our embrace of social media.

One might be tempted to think that with all this Web 2.0 strategy development going on, we approached social media with a deliberate, carefully planned strategy, when in fact we took a much more organic approach. Previous to our Web 2.0 work, we had done some blogging and gotten over the usual jitters about all the things that could go wrong. Later, as a few intrepid staff began testing the waters at Twitter and Facebook, we consciously took a supportive stance. We came up with social media guidelines that, while putting up some guardrails to limit the likelihood of an unfortunate event, actually encouraged staff to experiment and to develop their own individual personalities online. We wanted them to explore how they could provide value, and we wanted to learn from their experiences. The context of our overall push to become a Web 2.0 philanthropy informed the development of our social media guidelines, provided a strong incentive for staff to participate, and, by connecting their participation to a set of values, also influenced how they participated.

We're a couple of years into our journey and we reap the benefits of being more open and engaged every day. Many staff feel as if they're better engaged in their fields, learning more, and expanding their networks. At the same time, this being a journey, it hasn't always been easy. Staff wrestle with where to find the time to engage meaningfully in social media, and being open and engaged often means having to expose what you don't know, which can be uncomfortable. We're also finding that there's a long way between having a vision of how to leverage Web 2.0 to change the world and having the world work like a Wikipedia or a craigslist. Just because you ask people's opinions doesn't mean you'll get them -- sometimes the crowd keeps its wisdom to itself. (My colleague Erin Kelly will speak to some of these challenges in a future post on our social media experience.)

As we continue on this journey, we still have lots to learn -- and we'd love to hear how others are finding success or overcoming obstacles to becoming more open, more participatory, and more decentralized. Has your organization ventured down a similar path and/or embraced social media tools to work in a different fashion? Are you using them to listen or become better informed? Build networks? Service a traditional organizational or "consumer" need in a new manner? Use the comments section to share your thoughts....

-- Steve Downs

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Posted by Howard M. Walters  |   January 20, 2012 at 12:14 PM

RWJF is certainly ahead of the curve in its social media use, but not simply for occupying the virtual space. The Foundation provides relevant public health information; from its blogs to coverage of events like APHA. RWJF gives people a reason to "follow". What I would like to see is regional and community foundations engage in a similar way, creating more localized hubs for this information.

Posted by Stephenjdowns  |   January 23, 2012 at 11:53 AM

Howard -- thanks very much for the nice comments. We certainly do strive to make useful information available and we're trying to make it even more usable (so people can interact with it, share it, build upon it, etc.). On the flipside, we'd love to see even more people talk back to us in social media, so we can learn and improve from the feedback.

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