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We’re Talking. Who’s Listening?

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(A version of this post also appears on The Center For Effective Philanthropy Blog.)

In a perfect world, our ideal audiences would read every one of our tweets, consume every blog post and make sure not a day goes by without checking Facebook for our latest updates.

But we know it’s not a perfect world, and for proof we have the results of a Center for Effective Philanthropy survey that examined grantees’ engagement with foundations’ social media. For any tweeting, blogging, or Facebook-using foundation that presumes their grantees are paying routine attention to what they’re writing, posting and featuring through social media channels, this study may surprise, but I don’t think it should disappoint.

Even though the results show that social media is not the favored means for learning about the work of their funders, there’s much to be comforted by in what the survey identified as information sources grantees do rely on to stay current about the work of foundations that support them. (More on that in a moment.)

Why shouldn’t these findings disappoint? Let’s start with the obvious. Social media is so ubiquitous and it covers just about every subject under the sun.

Because of the volume of content pumped out daily, we’re forced to be choosy about what we want to read, what videos we want to watch, what things we want to comment on. It may be, at least for some, that social media is more useful as a supplemental information source that helps them stay on top of news and reports they otherwise might miss were it not served up through a daily diet of tweets, blog posts and Facebook updates.

Also, instead of rushing to mark these findings as a failure to communicate, I think it’s more important to make note of what the survey tells about where grantees are more likely to turn to for information about the funders that support them – iewhat is already working.

As the report states:

On average, grantees find social media to be less helpful for learning about the foundation than individual communication with foundation staff, group meetings with foundation staff, foundations’ published funding guidelines, and foundations’ websites. The greatest differences in helpfulness ratings exist between the in-person communication resources—individual and group meetings with foundation staff—and social media.

To me, that finding is another example that while social media is meant to be social, it’s not always personal. And as much as we’d like to believe it’s two-way, there’s a lot about it that’s one-way. I say something, you respond. You respond, and I comment again. Even if that back and forth happens in real time, it’s not a conversation. It’s not the same as a face-to-face meeting – or even a Skype chat.

Also, I tend to think of social media as a tool that’s more effective at helping establish relationships with audiences that aren’t necessarily “us” or part of “us,” but people who are more than one step removed.

Grantees are not a faceless, anonymous audience. Foundations know their grantees by name. They know what they look like. Program officers have probably met many people at the organizations they’re supporting.

As much as the survey answers some questions, it also raises others that deserve follow-up. Among them, “Why aren’t grantees relying more on foundation’s social media?” My hunch is that they don’t think of themselves as an audience for foundation tweets and blog posts. And, as the survey shows, they already get what they need from other sources. There might be other answers worth knowing.

Other questions we ought to be asking include: what do foundations do to engage grantees in their social media? Do they simply treat grantees as another audience? Do they attempt to specialize content? Do they provide information that might appeal more to grantees than others? If the answers to those questions are “yes” and these efforts aren’t paying off, then it seems we’ve overstated the value of social media in this context as an effective communications channel. If so, let’s next turn our attention to see how effective it is at reaching other audiences.

Similarly, what if foundations–instead of targeting grantees as recipients of their social media output–made more of a conscious effort to engage grantees as social media content creators? As an example, The Heinz Endowments for the past several years have been offering a place on the foundation’s website, called In the Spotlight, where organizations tell their own stories “directly as they know best.” Heinz doesn’t control the content, instead gives grantees carte blanche to post whatever they want about themselves and their work.

To some, even in today’s free-wheeling social media environment—where foundations still like to exercise as much control over their content as possible—Heinz acknowledges for them that fear proved unfounded.

Says Linda Braund, communications manager:

Some people at the Endowments were genuinely worried that we could run into trouble with inappropriate content, and that was the biggest obstacle that I faced in getting the Spotlight online. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be aware of what’s being posted — I get an email with a link every time anything is posted to our site so that I can check it out. But, don’t let fear of what your grantees are going to say stop you from allowing them to post directly without waiting for approval from you. We have gained a lot of rich, authentic content on our site about the work our grantees are doing in the community — without a lot of work and time on our part.”

Whether social media is still a brave new world or part of our everyday life, several things are clear. We have more questions than answers. Social media is still a work in progress.  There’s plenty of room for experimentation.

But, as we’ve learned, thanks to CEP, there are limits to what social media can do and for whom.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


For more on this topic, click here to replay a webinar The Center for Effective Philanthropy held August 9 to discuss findings from its research report: Grantees’ Limited Engagement With Foundations’ Social Media.

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