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Heinz Grantees Tell Stories “As They Know Best”

Does your website possess a seemingly insatiable demand for new content? Ever wonder if all the hype about Web 2.0 and “user-generated content” might ever lighten that feeding burden?

Or, if despite all your effort producing “objective” content about the foundation’s work, your grantees might not illuminate its value, in their own words, better than you ever could?

If so, consider following the progress of  “In the Spotlight,” a new project developed by the Communications group at the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments and run from a section of its website.” Here, select grantees are given limited administrative access for two weeks.  During this time — with the exception of a Q&A with the grantee’s chief executive that is produced by Communications Officer Carmen Lee  — they are free to post wide-ranging content they believe may be of interest to Heinz’ constituents.  Comments are also welcome but anyone posting must agree to established community guidelines.

Although the Communications staff receives notification when comments are published, they are not screened in advance.

Obviously, this is a major departure from how most if not all foundation websites are run. According to Doug Root, Communications Director for the Endowments, “This was definitely a scary move for us because it meant giving up a lot of control foundations are used to having.” Outweighing those concerns, however, was the Endowments’ desire to build connections that could benefit their grantees and help them grow. “Very few of our grantees have access to significant, formal support for their communication efforts. But all are looking for ways to connect with new audiences.”

Current and recent grantees are invited to apply on-line with the following appeal:

You want expert training in how to harness the latest interactive media tools to tell more compelling stories about your organization. You want a free digital camcorder for your organization so that you can continue making powerful videos. You want to exchange ideas and collaborate on projects with like-minded nonprofit colleagues. You want to take advantage of the Endowments’ Web presence in the foundation and nonprofit sectors in order to raise the profile of your organization. If you have all these wants, then Spotlight is tailor-made for you.

Sweet promises, indeed, but the foundation is also investing significant resources to ensure that grantees gain full benefit.  In addition to on-site training supported with a guidebook and free flip video recorders for participants, the Endowments has communications staff and a consultant offer training on story telling, blogging and topics like the “art of small screen video.”

Among the grantees featured “In the Spotlight” was the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh that posted to the Endowments’ site 43 times during their two-week tenure. Entries include descriptions of museum activities by a wide range of staffers as well as videos of children engaged with exhibits. The most memorable posts also happen to be the silliest.   Check out the first of the Museum’s daily “Chicken Dance” contest videos featuring Heinz Endowments president Bobby Vagt below.

According to Linda Braund, who is managing the project for the Endowments, “The Children’s Museum was a very strong participant right out of the gate, but some grantees might not have the same capacity or energy. We offer training and consulting help but we stop there. We don’t push it (even when it’s clear that some need it!)”

In addition to technical assistance for grantees on the front-end, Heinz commissioned the web design firm, Engauge, to add new features to the foundation’s website. This includes informing Braund when anyone posts comments to these pages.   She also has the ability to turn limited administrative control to users once the foundation’s original Q & A is published. Visitors can also sign up to receive email updates about individual organizations featured in this special section. Traffic to the site is up significantly since “In the Spotlight” launched and “most of the traffic is going to these pages.”

Braund adds, “It’s not easy for any communications person to give up control.  But if you want to be in this Web 2.0 world, if you want to participate, you have to share that control.”

“At the higher level, we are trying to evaluate the effectiveness of social networking tools,” Root explained.  “And testing that effectiveness with our grantees seems like a great starting place.”

–Susan Herr


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