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Why Would a Foundation Tweet?

The following is a guest post by Lucy Bernholz, a managing director at Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors, and reprinted with permission from her blog: Philanthropy 2173

Back in February I stumbled into a twitter conversation from staff at The James Irvine Foundation. It turns out they were having a foundation-wide training on using social media. That led me to ask Jim Canales, CEO, why would a foundation tweet? His February responses to that question are here. At the time, Jim also agreed to reflect again on the question six months later – here are his current thoughts:

Lucy Bernholz) Everyone loves digital analytics, so let’s start there. What kind of measures is the Foundation using for its social media experiment? What are you tracking? What do the numbers show?

Jim Canales) As I noted in our initial discussion, one of our 2011 goals is to actively experiment with social media, with a particular focus on exploring how social media might help us share what we are learning, listen to our grantees, build networks and demonstrate transparency. Ultimately, what matters to us is whether we used social media to accomplish those outcomes, and that’s going to take more than a few months to measure. However, six months into this experiment, we have been following a few tangible metrics, such as:

· Twitter followers: @IrvineFdn has gone from a few hundred followers to over 1,500. I also started my own account on January 1 and now have about 560 followers. I also follow close to 200 people, and who I follow and what I learn is perhaps more valuable to me than how many followers I have.

· Social media activity among staff: At the beginning of the year we had a handful of staff with Twitter accounts but no one was particularly active on any social media platform. We now have 23 staff with Twitter accounts (most of the program staff), seven who are relatively active (at least weekly), and three who are very active (daily activity.)

· Klout score: To the extent these kinds of measurements are useful, our Klout score has been steadily increasing with @IrvineFdn now at 44 and @jcanales now at 46.

LB) Have you experienced a social media success? What was it and why do you describe it as such?

JC) Perhaps our most effective use of social media this year related to the announcement of a new arts grantmaking strategy, particularly because we integrated social media into a broader communications plan from the outset. For the first time, we held a live webinar, produced an animation that illustrated the new strategy, and invited our grantees and others to provide input by commenting on our website. We promoted all of these interactive means of communications through our social media channels and noted that our announcement was rebroadcast by many of our followers. In the past, we might have announced the new strategy on our website, focused solely on written content, and sent an email to our grantees. By thinking about how to use social media and other tools that technology offers, we ended up with a more diverse and, hopefully, creative set of communications to share the new strategy and benefit from their reactions.

LB) What’s your best story of a social media Aha!?

JC) Let me refer again to the arts strategy rollout. Through this experience, we found that social media is most effective when it is connected to a broader communications plan. And we learned that the broader communications plan will likely be more creative if we recognize that our content needs to be social media-friendly. We can’t just produce long white papers and post them on our website, hoping people take the time to read them. Using a social media lens helped us communicate about our work in a more accessible manner. And the video-graphic we produced to describe our strategy has been very well received.

Personally, I continue to be impressed by how much more I am able to learn and how much new information I see through active use of Twitter. There are articles and blog posts I would have never run across on my own, and I can observe and participate in conversations, even if briefly, that help me stay connected with people I might not otherwise engage with.

LB) Where have you been most disappointed in how social media has been used by the Foundation? Have you experienced a social media failure? What was it and why do you describe it as such?

JC) As newbies to the space, I’m not sure we have yet experienced a full-fledged failure or major disappointment, but there is a challenge that we are still struggling with. For us, social media is as much of a listening tool as a broadcast tool. Being active on social media should help us learn from our grantees and other experts in our fields of interest. But given the power imbalance inherent in the funder/grantee relationship, it has been hard to generate much feedback or criticism, even friendly critiques. So we need to work harder to build the kinds of relationships with our partners that minimize that imbalance. As we expand our social media efforts, we will need to be even more attentive to exhibiting the kind of values that will be conducive to genuine dialogue. That means we need to be humble, transparent, responsive to others and open to criticism. Only then can we expect others to engage with us in the kind of genuine dialogue that will make all of our work more effective.

LB) What’s next in your social media plan?

JC) While we will continue to experiment through 2011, we are beginning to move into a more rigorous implementation phase. We have benefited from significant help this summer from our Social Media Fellow, Jonny Dorsey (@jonnydorsey), who has studied best practices in the use of social media by nonprofits and is applying that learning to our approach at Irvine. We will be using hashtags and searches to find and join social media conversations that are relevant to our work. We will continue to use social media to solicit input and advice on our grantmaking strategy. And we will strive to do all of this with the humility, curiosity and openness that we strive for in all of our endeavors.


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