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Shaking Up Our Assumptions With an 'Un-Survey'

July 01, 2014

Headshot_bob_pullinWe're all inundated with information in today's super-saturated media environment, so as we begin the redesign of the Ford Foundation website we have to ask ourselves: "Why would the social changemakers we want to reach spend time on our site to begin with?"

To answer that question, we decided to turn the traditional online survey model on its head and let our audiences ask us questions instead of the other way around. We called it the Un-Survey.

The Un-Survey is an experiment that we hoped could help us:

  • Unearth the kinds of information our audiences would find valuable.
  • Deliver on our commitment to transparency in a way that is genuinely useful to others. (Transparency can't be limited to only what we want to share — we have to share what our audiences want to know.)
  • Foster a creative environment that helps break down the boundaries between those inside and outside the foundation.

Since we launched the Un-Survey six weeks ago, visitors have submitted over a hundred and twenty questions, and those questions have changed the way we think about our audiences' interests and needs and inspired us to pursue new ideas about our website's content and functionality.

What's been especially great is the fact that the questions are astute and address specific details about Ford's approach to social change and the practice of philanthropy. (They are also remarkably on topic, which is not always the case when a foundation opens itself to a broad community.) We've shared the higher-level questions with our leadership team, and they've found them to be illuminating as well.

Blogging about the launch of the Un-Survey, Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center's San Francisco office, summed up our intention well: "We are all being invited to be thought partners of the Ford Foundation." We knew we were crowdsourcing input from a very smart audience, but the quality of that thought partnership has exceeded our expectations, with some questions building on earlier ones and making the sum greater than the parts. And because the questions are available for any other interested foundations to read, we can all tap into the creative and diverse thinking of the social changemakers who participated.

What We've Learned

The Un-Survey helped us deepen our empathy for our audience. We can now put ourselves more fully into our website visitors' shoes, and — even more exciting — we now have a clearer sense of their aspirations for us:

  • They would like to see greater collaboration within the funder and grantee communities around shared goals, with Ford helping to facilitate.
  • Our community is asking us to more fully explain how we conceive of and execute our role as a philanthropic institution.
  • They are eager for us to share more about our progress — not only about our successes but also about what is not working.

We hope our social change audiences see the Un-Survey as an opportunity to have a meaningful influence on the next version of our website. And we know what the real measure of this experiment will be: whether we deliver on what our audiences asked for. That's our next big challenge —and it's one we're excited to take on.

Bob Pullin is chief of digital engagement at the Ford Foundation, where he is focused on using digital technology to help build relationships with the foundation's key audiences. This post originally appeared on the center's Transparency Talk blog.

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