Transparency Talk

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Walking the Talk: Using Social Media to Demonstrate Transparency
August 9, 2011

Jenn Whinnem(Jenn Whinnem is a communications officer at the Connecticut Health Foundation. In this role, she manages the Web, social media and e-mail initiatives, and contributes to overall Web vision and strategy for the foundation.)

When it comes to transparency, social media really forces philanthropy's hand. Is your organization really committed to transparency—the good, the bad, and the ugly? Because social media will compel you—and those around you—to take a good, hard look at who you are and what you're doing.

When it comes to  transparency, social media really forces philanthropy's hand. Is your organization really committed to  transparency - the good, the bad, and the ugly?The value of being transparent in social media, however, is considerable. You can foster deeper relationships with your existing audiences—including grantees—and connect with new audiences, who can become grantees. Overall, the biggest opportunity in social media is to increase your impact on the social issues you're addressing. And what foundation doesn't want that?

From our beginning in 1999, the Connecticut Health Foundation (CT Health) has had a strong commitment to transparency. Even though she was a staff of one at the time, our president and CEO, Patricia Baker, started to develop our annual report all by herself.

And yet, a year ago when we started thinking about social media, we knew we had to consider the impact of real-time feedback from the outside world. We also had to ask ourselves, "How would social media help us achieve our mission of improving the health status of everyone in Connecticut?

Luckily for us, our brand screams for social media. Our brand promise—to support "innovative solutions for health justice"—calls for us to capitalize on new opportunities like social media.

With our brand and our leadership fully behind the use of social media, we took the plunge two months ago—letting our four brand dimensions guide what we share and how we share it:

  • Caring and Respectful. Will sharing this help our community? Can we hear what our community has to say? Will we be showing our respect for their work and what they're trying to do? Will sharing this part of our human side allow us to connect with our community? If so, yes, we will share.
  • Effective Alliances. If we really want to make a difference in our priority areas, we have to collaborate with others. Will sharing this allow us to strengthen our existing relationships, or build new ones? If yes, we will share.
  • Knowledge Leader. Will what we're sharing inform and educate our community? On the other hand, can we also take in information from our community, and use it in our work? Can we pave the way for deeper understanding of the issues that are important to us? If yes, we will share.
  • Visionary Action. At CT Health, we're change agents. We not only want to take visionary action, we want to inspire others to do the same. If we can highlight a visionary action (either ours or theirs), we will share it.

So what has this meant for us? How do the guidelines translate to our day-to-day? When the CT Health Leadership Fellows got together to wish a member of their class farewell, we re-tweeted pictures that one of the Fellows shared with us. After we held three listening sessions with members of the Connecticut oral health community, we blogged about some of their insights to foster conversation with our broader audiences, because we know we don't have all the answers all by ourselves. We are, after all, a learning organization, and we want social media to help strengthen our work.

Not that we haven't had some challenges along the way. In the spirit of transparency, I'll share two of our main struggles here:

  • What is the role of non-communications colleagues in the creation of content?
  • How do we share political news and research from other organizations?

Figuring out what participation in social media looks like for our program and finance /operations colleagues is something we're still working on. At the beginning, we created an Editorial Committee so that the different functions within CT Health could share what we're doing and brainstorm topics. And yet, everyone is so busy. Turning those ideas into blog posts and then making sure they're factually accurate takes time—time that our colleagues may not feel like they have. Our communications team is trying to demonstrate the value of participation to them—such as building individual brands to increase our overall impact—to make it feel less burdensome.

One success we've had in this area was having our Vice President of Finance & Operations Carol Pollock write "3 Tips for Selecting a Chief Investment Officer (CIO)." Carol was hesitant to position herself as an expert, but we assured her she'd just be sharing her experience. The result? A philanthropy trade publication contacted us to learn more, and this has the opportunity to blossom into a full-fledged feature story (interviews pending).

Our challenge around politics is that we're a non-partisan organization, and the IRS specifically prevents us from lobbying. We can't appear as if we're endorsing one side or another of a politically-motivated issue. And yet, for example, we're a foundation focused on health in a time when health care reform is a hot issue. What we've done so far is stick to the facts, and highlight health policy research that may be in the mainstream media and that doesn't provide suggestions or recommendations about specific pieces of legislation or regulation.

That's how CT Health is using social media, and what we're learning along the way. What would you share with us that you've learned?

-- Jenn Whinnem

Comments

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Hi Prentice,

Social media usage will definitely get an organization thinking about sharing - especially in terms of just how much we're comfortable sharing. I think your question is right in line with this.

Thanks for commenting!

Jenn

Can the use of social media reduce resistance to transparency in the field of philanthropy?

I think so.

At GMA Foundations, we are in what nonprofit social media guru Beth Kanter calls the “crawl” phase of social media practice.

But even at this early experimental phase of learning, the use of social media has pushed us to ask of ourselves and of our foundation clients: “What does real transparency look like?”

As you point out, social media challenges us to communicate more effectively, connect better with nonprofit organizations, demystify the work of philanthropy, and elevate social issues that are often on the margins to the center of conversation.

The great stories from the Connecticut Health Foundation, suggest that diving in to social media may be just the trick that helps foundations understand the value of increased transparency in their own work.

I look forward to hearing more of your stories.

Michelle - we are definitely trying to have some fun with it. I think our Facebook page tends to be our most personable outlet - we have more personal photos of staff and their children. That was a deliberate decision on our part ("with a purpose") to let our grantees know we're people too. Thanks for reading!

Laura - I think we're still finding our way a little bit as to understanding how we can be MOST useful, but we've definitely opted for being useful in everything we do. Thank you for your encouragement!

This is great advice, Jenn, especially for non-profits, government agencies and other groups that have careful regulations to follow.

Then again, this is likely helpful for any organization - stick to the facts and place the focus on providing useful information that helps educate your audience. Can't go wrong with that!

Jenn, this is a really valuable piece for those who are using social media to reach a target audience, rather than "just for fun." Social media needs to be "fun with a purpose" if it's going to lead to goals being met, and the 4 checkpoints you've listed are an excellent outline!

Keep up the great work you're doing over there!

~Michelle

Hi Jayme, I've really been pleased to be at an organization that says it's a learning organization and means it. Thanks for your kind words!

Jenn, this is an amazingly well done piece to share insights that are usually kept under wraps by prestigious organizations.

My takeaway here is that you are "a learning organization."

Seems y'all are walking the talk with this kind of authentic engagement. Please share more, and I'm eager to read!

Hi Jon, I'm really enjoying how it's all coming together at work. Thanks for commenting!

This is a great insight into the work you and the team have been doing Jenn. It's a valuable case study! Thanks for sharing.

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