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Thoughts on Putting the Social in Social Networking

March 16, 2012

(Erin Kelly is social media manager at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter. A version of this post appeared on Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog.)

Social_networkingAs my colleague Steve Downs noted in a January post on Transparency Talk, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is "a couple of years into our [social media] journey and we reap the benefits of being more open and engaged every day." How serendipitous that as I started to draft an outline for this post, I stumbled on "The Promise of Social Media" on the Forbes site, where the authors conclude, "Based on our extensive field research -- we believe social media is likely to be one of the most significant forces reshaping management and business over the next decade and more." Here's my perspective on how one philanthropy is navigating this vast ocean and a few early observations from these efforts in the pursuit of making new things possible.

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Participate

Many of us (staff at RWJF) are engaged on social media platforms sharing research and insights into the areas we work, revealing the results of grantmaking and evaluations, and touting the efforts of our grantees and partners. Steve affirmed this last month, writing: "a fundamental part of any RWJF staff member's job [is] to remain up to date with the latest developments in the field." Web 2.0, the introduction of social tools, has offered us greater opportunity for two-way lines of communication and engagement. When I want to gather intel, I share an update on my LinkedIn wall, or post a status update on Google+ or Facebook, soliciting input on my half-baked idea or venting about the latest dilemma to stump me. When the vice president of research and evaluation wants to learn what research really resonated with the public, he invites "the people formerly known as the audience" to RWJF's Web site to vote and comment (words in quotation taken from @chiefmaven's visit to the foundation in October 2011).

What have we learned? Set aside time for staff to practice on different platforms to demonstrate the value of such efforts first-hand. "It sounds really simple," Steve says, "but it's very hard to know what social media really means until you do it. Conducting small, focused online experiments allow staff to learn about the potential for social media within their work." Staff members are encouraged to tweet during "learning sessions." These sessions have been part of our DNA for a long time: outside experts are invited to speak at the foundation to share a dialogue with staff about a subject matter related to our mission. Our physical walls no longer keep out wisdom, and at the same time these sessions help all of us, particularly new staff, build more confidence in our use of these tools.

Be Vocal, Encourage Others to Join In

The Vulnerable Populations Portfolio was just beginning to investigate the area of trauma. Instead of approaching the work through more traditional avenues, such as commissioning a scan, Program Officer Kristin Schubert hosted an online discussion to gain a better understanding of how different stakeholders viewed chronic trauma, particularly its impact on healthy development among adolescents. The program work is still being developed, but the discussion affirmed for Schubert that various audiences were thinking about and approaching trauma very differently and that no one at present is approaching trauma in a holistic way. While the effort provided an opportunity for RWJF staff and current grantees that work within adolescent systems to uncover real-time research, models and practice in the field, it also facilitated a network-weaving opportunity for anyone involved in the issue to connect with peer experts in youth neuroscience research.

What have we learned? To do our work better -- e.g., develop strong, impactful programs -- we need to be honest about what we know and what we don't know about a new area of interest. And when soliciting the input of others, it is critically important to be as specific as possible in your requests for engagement. Be clear about the information you are seeking and what you want others to contribute, so everyone involved walks away with more knowledge and you achieve the goal you set out to accomplish.

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Senior program officer Mike Painter wondered: Could we provide a social networking site (SNS) for a group of thought leaders working to improve health care across the country -- patients, consumers, physicians, policy makers, employers, health plan leaders, anyone with a genuine interest in improving the quality of care -- to have open, honest discussions on a range of quality-related topics? In the past, Painter has relied on being a member of an existing listserv, which may seem limiting and constrictive given the 24/7 environment we engage in today with seemingly limitless platforms that offer farther-reaching networking tools. But from an original invite to leaders within the Aligning Forces for Quality initiative, the group has welcomed more and more people with similar goals and interests. The collective now has access to new perspectives and ideas, a treasure trove of experts and expertise to learn from, and a means to collaborate with one another. Almost one year in, Transformation Has Begun is still going strong, with more than six hundred members on Facebook.

What have we learned? First, find ways to meaningfully engage in existing communities or networks. And accept the fact that the right platform may not be the one you build. We tried this when the group launched -- we built the platform -- but the level of interaction was not what we had hoped for. Once the space moved to an SNS people were already familiar with (Facebook), membership and engagement exploded. Second, be sure you have clear terms of use, including general etiquette guidelines, in place from the beginning. According to a recent Pew Internet report, 85 percent of SNS-using adults say people are mostly kind, but nearly 50 percent have witnessed mean or cruel behavior by others on occasion. Concrete etiquette guidelines go a long way to ensuring that the SNS experience is pleasant and supportive for everyone.

Be Ready and Willing to Learn

Before letting go of the notion that the platform had to be ours, the foundation had enabled comments on every piece of content posted, including press releases, issue briefs, evaluations, and videos, at RWJF.org. Getting ready for this required significant internal coordination to ensure we had representation from all areas of our operations and a robust framework for moderation. But while we were ready (and eager) for a sizable number of comments, it seems that the opportunity to comment may not be as popular, on our site at any rate, as it is on widely read blogs.

What have we learned? Do not assume that a new behavior or means of interaction --e.g., allowing the public to comment on your content -- will be embraced by your audience.

Bundle Your ROI Stories

As thought leader Lucy Bernholz and James Irvine Foundation president Jim Canales point out in this insightful post, knowing what constituents are focused on or discussing at a given moment is vital to our work. We are no longer limited to having a discussion with those in the room; anyone with a tablet or smartphone can be part of the conversation. And we are looking forward to the next big breakthrough, whatever it might be, as multi-discipline thought leaders with unconventional perspectives begin to mingle and compare notes in large online communities.

If you ask staff who lived the activities discussed above, they would say that social networking has had an overall positive impact on the way we work, enabling us to surface a variety of ideas, gain valuable input with respect to team strategies, and disseminate knowledge more quickly and conveniently. Most importantly, these experiences have reinforced the notion that institutional philanthropy can embrace network technologies and work collectively toward achieving shared goals. Yes, as a learning organization forever focused on assessing impact, we still have a ways to go and are tinkering with how to evaluate our investments in social networking. But we are committed to getting there.

How about you? Do any of these lessons ring true for your organization? Is social media reshaping your work or the way you work? Share your comments and experiences in the comments below.

-- Erin Kelly

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