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Want to Succeed in Social Media? Loosen up.

Guest Post:  Larry Blumenthal, Open Road Advisors

As they move into the less-buttoned-down world of social media, foundation staff face an interesting challenge.

Success with social media tools (and in life) requires that you loosen up a bit, let a little of your personality peek through – even offer a little self-deprecating humor. These are not things we foundation folk are traditionally comfortable indulging in. It’s like asking a bullfighter to wear a tutu.

I am here to tell you, however, that it can be done. Foundations, and similar policy-oriented, research-based organizations, can provide a little glimpse behind the scenes, offer some humor, some light-heartedness, even admit they don’t have all the answers, without letting go of their serious missions to make the world a better place.

Here are five relatively small steps that can help foundations let their personalities shine through and get more notice in the free-wheeling world of social media.

Show that you are human

People relate to people, not organizations. So stop being an institution. Talk about the people at your organization. Make them visible.

Here’s how the Connecticut Health Foundation describes itself on Twitter:

“The CT Health Foundation seeks to improve the health status of everyone in Connecticut. Communications Officer Jenn Whinnem is tweeting & listening (w/ others).”

Note the simple step of linking the feed to an actual, breathing person. One who is listening.

Check out this tweet from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation:

“Fay Twersky, philanthropy expert, to join HF staff as Senior Fellow in the fall. Read more about the work she’ll be doing:

Or look at how the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation uses Twitter to let people know about staff that will be at an upcoming Grantmakers in Health Meeting.

“A few more #RWJF staff members attending #GIH2011: @drdwayneproctor @davidcolby.”

Social media tools offer an easy way to show that the foundation is made up of people, people who are open to connecting with the world. A key step in strengthening your network and relationship with the field.

Give people a glimpse inside the ivy-covered walls

A foundation president asked me awhile back for advice in shaping her Twitter feed.  I provided a long listbut I think I can boil it down to one sentence: “Give people an inside look at your job and your thoughts.”

 Take a peek at Bill Gate’s blog. He offers a list of interesting books, thoughts from his travels such as this video from a trip to Antarctica he took with his father and his son, a poem written by his son, his philosophy on giving. He’s sharing pieces of himself. He’s creating opportunities to connect.

The more you offer about yourself, your thinking and your work, the more chance you will create connections with others, strengthening your network and making you more effective at what you do.

Ask for help

Social media is about building a community of people with a shared interest who can learn from each other. You don’t learn anything when you are busy speechifying, and you certainly aren’t building a community. Ask for help. You may be surprised at who reaches out.

Look at this question posted on Facebook by the Case Foundation:

“Social media is changing so quickly, what are the best books to help stay up to speed on the latest trends in social media? There are also so many new reports and stats about the latest trends—any out there that you’ve found most interesting or useful?”

They are not setting themselves up as the experts. Just offering to gather and share wisdom from the crowd. Not a typical role for a foundation, but a useful one.

More and more foundations are opening themselves up to the wisdom of the crowd. RWJF has turned the voting on its annual list of the most influential research to people in the field. The Maine Health Access Fund used Facebook to get feedback from the community on grant proposals. The Packard Foundation invited over 100 experts to help it shape its strategy around reducing nitrogen pollution. 

It’s not only OK to ask for help. It is one of the most powerful aspects of a good social media strategy.

Promote the Work of Others

Here is a question I hear debated a lot among foundation staff as they get their feet wet with social media. “Is it OK to point out interesting research/articles/publications from our grantees or others in the field? Doesn’t that mean we are endorsing everything they say and do?”

Yes, it is OK to do this. In fact, it is mandatory that you spend more time pointing out great work by others than you do talking about yourself. This is one of the core guideposts in social media (and not bad advice at work in general.)

Here’s Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, on Twitter:

“@HansRosling is great source of wisdom on Global Health — I’m following him!! @gatesfoundation”

And the Omidyar Network congratulating a social entrepreneur on Twitter:

“A HUGE congrats to @DarellHammond of @kaboom for being named 1 of 3 @schwabfound social entrepreneurs of the year: #socent.”

With social media, you are building a community, a network, and you do that by providing the other members of your community with value. One of the biggest values you can provide are links to helpful resources.

Show some personality

In my early days at RWJF, I found myself repeatedly in a conversation with the then V.P. of Research and Evaluation. He would insist that academics and researchers (his world) loved boring. The denser the material, the more they thrived. I would insist in response (as would any communications person) that you don’t sacrifice credibility just because your content is simple and straightforward and, maybe, even offers some personal insight or humor. In fact, it is more likely to be read.

Check out Jeff Raikes from the Gates Foundation again, joking with Conan O’Brien on Twitter:

“@ConanOBrien — thanks for swinging by @GatesFoundation! We just finished the new campus HQ — just starting on the used car lot!!”

Or RWJF V.P. Research and Evaluation David Colby riffing on obesity and fitness (major foundation goals) during Hurricane Irene:

“How many points toward presidential fitness awards does one get for bailing water out of one’s basement for 4 hours? @preschal”

These folks get it. If you want to make connections, build relationships, you have to give people a little something to relate to. Put yourself out there a little bit.

Yes, it feels a tad uncomfortable at first, like crossing the room at your first high school party to ask someone to dance. But it can bring big returns. Go loosen that tie, put on your dancing shoes and give it a shot.

What about you? Do you have any examples to share of how lightening up a bit with social media had an impact—good or bad? Any shiny examples of foundation people who get it? Please share in the comments section.

Larry Blumenthal spent nine years heading Web and social media strategy at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. These days he specializes in helping foundations with Web and social media strategy through his consulting firm, Open Road Advisors.


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