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Foundations Ask, How to Measure Social Media’s Contribution to Social Change?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest funder of health programs in the U.S., recently hosted a roundtable on Social Media Measurement. Nearly a dozen foundations gathered with communication experts, evaluators and data analysts to share best practices and learn from one another. A version of the following post originally appeared on Knight Blog, the blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Guest Post: Mayur Patel

As social media tools have become ubiquitous, foundations have used them in a variety of ways to expand their networks, gather insights and build new relationships. As a result, there’s a growing interest in developing better ways to measure the impact of their online efforts.

At Knight, our approach to social media is based on using the tools to create opportunities for interaction and information exchange. As my colleagues Elizabeth Miller and Jon Sotsky recently wrote, we actively use social media to connect with our network, gather feedback, cultivate networks and promote our grantees and topics of interest. As a foundation, we’ve often used social media to disseminate publications and lessons learned, invite discussion on foundation topics, promote open contests and let people know about grant application deadlines. Our experience has demonstrated that social media tools have been powerful in pushing us to be more transparent. It’s opened up new channels for participation and feedback in our work.

ATwitterwallSocial media can be part of a broader shift in philanthropy as foundations seek to become better networked as organizations and more adept at building effective relationships. It can also help a foundation inspire and promote the work of its partners, and engage others in marshaling resources towards achieving social change. Steven Downs, director of IT at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, summarizes their investments in social media as part of a larger focus on greater “openness, participation and decentralization.”

We think these broader shifts in philanthropy are a good thing. At Knight, we try to use social media to mirror our programmatic goals. And we’re eager to learn how we can better use and track its impact on our work in the following areas:

  • Transparency: Improving the transparency and responsiveness of our work and the openness of our strategy and grantmaking.
  • Information Dissemination: Sharing lessons learned and helping shape best practices.
  • Network Strength: Diversifying and growing our network to find new talent and sources of innovative ideas.

Several foundations now regularly collect basic social media analytics, which are monitored on a monthly basis and fed into program reviews. These measures tend to cover two areas:

  • Reach and awareness, e.g., Twitter followers, Facebook fans
  • Broader engagement and participation, e.g., retweets, Facebook like and shares, tweets using hashtags created by a foundation or program and click throughs.

These measures can be useful proxies for broader outcomes and are relatively easy to collect. But the difficulty is they tend to concentrate attention on measures of activity that don’t always connect to larger programmatic goals.

During the meeting at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, participants focused on how foundations can go beyond basic social media metrics to understand impact more broadly. Some of the questions we considered included:

  • How to use social media analytics in combination with traditional evaluation data collections, such as surveys, interviews and content analysis?
  • What’s the best way to examine outcomes, like improvements or challenges in brand perception?
  • How do you better segment online audiences to go beyond aggregate data and develop meaningful insights into who views what?
  • How can foundations better understand influence on knowledge and practices in the issue areas they care about?

To follow an online conversation about social media measurement, as well as find links to materials used at the event, use the Twitter hashtag #SM_RE

Mayur Patel is vice president/strategy and assessment at Knight Foundation


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