Using Social Media to Expand Networks–One Foundation’s Experiences
(A version of this post recently appeared on the Foundation Center’s Transparency Talk blog. It is the latest in a series of interviews with the staff of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to learn “how social media, and more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer, are adding new and critical dimensions to the work.” This installment features a discussion with Susan Promislo, senior communications officer for the foundation’s Vulnerable Populations Portfolio.)
Transparency Talk (TT): First, let’s start with a glimpse into a day in the life of your work at the foundation in light of all these new technologies. How is Web 2.0 changing your job as a senior communications officer? How is it changing your relationship with grantees and the wider community you serve?
Susan Promislo (SP): As the former communications officer for the Pioneer Portfolio, I think I was the first staff member at the Foundation to manage a blog and one of the first to use Twitter. In part, it was because of our involvement in conferences like TED and communities like Health 2.0 that are further out in front with technology and social networking. But we also knew that a broadcast strategy was not going to work for Pioneer, which focused on finding transformative ideas from within and outside of health and health care. We had to pursue a networking strategy, had to be learning, had to be open to ideas from all avenues.
So I learned by jumping in and feeling my way, listening to what was going on, and learning from others. And social media became not only another way to promote RWJF and our grantees, and engage others in our work, but also a way for me to deepen my learning on key issues and make valuable connections.
Twitter, in particular, has been really instructive. As I began to follow more people and have more people follow me, and see those networks blossom, I became more comfortable as a voice on the issues we care about, and as a connector who could share information that others might find valuable.
As far as our grantees, we provide resources to help them be more effective in their use of social media. But we also leverage RWJF’s platforms, voice, and reach to lend further power to their work.
It helps affirm that we’re connecting beyond our usual suspects, and that social media has empowered us to build stronger, more diverse networks. It has helped program staff raise their profiles and gain greater presence in new fields, paving the way to build relationships with key thinkers and actors that they might not otherwise have developed.
TT: We have all seen and heard many examples in recent years about how social media is a perfect medium for discovering new ideas and building networks. What initiative or project comes to mind that is an exemplary case of how you have used social media for these purposes? Share a brief background about the project with us and how it unfolded.
SP: Forward Promise is a $9.5 million initiative that we recently launched to improve the health, education, and employment outcomes for boys and young men of color. RWJF believes that health is shaped as powerfully—if not more powerfully—by social factors than by the health care we receive. Things like housing, access to a good education, income, exposure to violence, and access to reliable transportation make a huge impact on your health over your lifetime.
If you look at the challenges facing young men of color in this country, the data are pretty staggering. If we don’t act now to give them the opportunity to be healthy and successful, I think we’re in danger of undercutting the futures of an entire generation of young men.
In shaping our strategy for Forward Promise, we didn’t want to take an insular approach. We wanted to reach out to organizations and stakeholders on the ground in these communities, working on these issues and with these young men, and engage their input in shaping the strategy.
TT: What circumstances do you think made this a successful experiment? And reflecting on the experience, what was the biggest reward or outcome from this experience?
SP: Before we ever put pen to paper on a Call for Proposals, we issued a Call for Ideas to the field, relying heavily on social media. We researched and connected with a number of organizations that never either knew of RWJF, or did not view us as a potential funding source. Ultimately, we received more than 320 ideas from organizations that greatly informed and enriched the conversation and our exploration. And now we’re staying connected to them,keeping them informed of our progress and reaching back out to them with the Call for Proposals.
The Foundation has crafted a larger strategy around becoming a Web 2.0 philanthropy. What this means is that, if we run something like a Call for Ideas, at the end we can’t just thank everybody for their contributions, go back behind the curtain, and deliberate on where we move forward from there. We need to actively stay in touch with the community that we reached out to, and that shared with us so openly, and keep them informed of our progress. We need to shed light on how our strategy is forming, what our challenges might be, where we’re struggling, and where their insights could continue to help us. Because I think, in doing that, it engages more people to take part in what’s ultimately a stronger movement to change the future for young men of color.
TT: What surprised you the most about the effort?
SP: What struck me was that, of those 324 groups that responded to our Call for Ideas, more than 300 had no prior funding relationship with the Foundation. It helps affirm that we’re connecting beyond our usual suspects, and that social media has empowered us to build stronger, more diverse networks. It has helped program staff raise their profiles and gain greater presence in new fields, paving the way to build relationships with key thinkers and actors that they might not otherwise have developed.
TT: What advice would you offer to foundation colleagues interested in pursuing similar work?
SP: I think, in general, we’re all pressed for time and it’s easy to see engaging in social media as being less of a priority amidst all of the competing demands; but the time you put into it ultimately does have its payoffs.
There’s been a dramatic recognition on the part of the Foundation that we don’t have all of the answers, and that it’s key to connect to unexpected partners and networks that might have solutions we never would have surfaced on our own. Occasionally, social media help you harness serendipity, which I love—you just come across different perspectives and resources. And it gives staff a channel for their personalities to shine through, to be more approachable and informal, which is never a bad thing in philanthropy.