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RWJF: Thoughts on Putting the Social in Social Networking
March 12, 2012

(Erin Kelly is the social media manager at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Follow her on Twitter.)

Erin Kelly

As my colleague Steve Downs indicated in a January post here on Transparency Talk, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is "a couple of years into our journey and we reap the benefits of being more open and engaged every day." How serendipitous that as I started to draft an outline for this post, I stumbled upon "The Promise of Social Media" on Forbes, where the authors surmise, "Based on our extensive field research--we believe social media is likely to be one of the most significant forces reshaping management and business over the next decade and more." Here's my perspective on how one philanthropy is navigating this vast ocean and a few early observations from these efforts in the pursuit of making new things possible.

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Participate

Philanthropy can embrace this networked age to work collectively to reach our shared goals.

Many of us (staff at RWJF) are engaged on social media platforms sharing research and insights into the areas we work, revealing the results of grantmaking and evaluations, and touting the efforts of our grantees and partners. Steve affirmed this last month, as "a fundamental part of any RWJF staff member's job [is] to remain up to date with the latest developments in the field." Web 2.0, the introduction of social tools, has offered us greater opportunity for two-way lines of communication and engagement. When I want to gather intel, I share an update on my LinkedIn wall, or post a status update on Google+ or Facebook, soliciting input on my half-baked idea or venting the latest dilemma stumping me. When the Vice President of Research and Evaluation wants to learn what research really resonated with the public, without an internal bias, he invited "the people formerly known as the audience" to RWJF's web site to vote and comment. (words in quotation taken from @chiefmaven's visit to the Foundation in October 2011.

What have we learned? Set aside time to practice using the platforms to demonstrate the value of such efforts first-hand. "It sounds really simple," Steve says, "but it's very hard to know what social media really means until you do it. Conducting small, focused online experiments allow staff to learn about the potential for social media within their work." Staff members are encouraged to tweet during "learning sessions." These sessions have been part of our DNA for a long time; outside experts are invited to speak at the Foundation to share a dialogue with staff about a subject matter related to our mission. Our physical walls no longer hold back wisdom; at the same time this helps serve as a wading pool to help us, particularly new staff, build more confidence in these tools and mindset.

Be Vocal; Encourage Others to Join In

The Vulnerable Populations Portfolio was just beginning to investigate the area of trauma. Instead of approaching this through more traditional avenues, such as commissioning a scan, Program Officer Kristin Schubert hosted an online discussion to gain a better understanding of how different stakeholders viewed chronic trauma, particularly its impact on healthy development among adolescents. The program work is still being developed, but the discussion forum affirmed for Schubert that various audiences were thinking about and approaching trauma very differently and that no one at present is approaching trauma in a holistic way. While this effort provided an opportunity for RWJF staff and current grantees that work within adolescent systems to uncover real-time research, models and practice in the field, it also facilitated a network weaving opportunity for anyone involved in the issue to connect with peer-experts in youth neuroscience research.

What have we learned? To do our work better--e.g. develop strong, impactful programs--we need to be honest about what we know and what we don't know about a new area of interest. And when soliciting the input of others, it is critically important to be as specific as possible in the requests for engagement. Be clear about the information you are seeking and what you want others to contribute, so everyone involved walks away more knowledgeable and you attain the goal you set out to accomplish.

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Senior Program Officer, Mike Painter, wondered: Could we provide a social networking site (SNS) for a group of thought leaders working to improve health care across the country--patients, consumers, physicians, policy-makers, employers, health plan leaders, anyone with a genuine interest in improving the quality of care--to have open, honest discussions on a range of quality related topics? In the past, Painter has relied upon being a member of an existing listserv, which may seem limiting and constrictive given the environment we engage in today 24/7 with seemingly limitless platforms that offer farther reaching networking tools. From an original invite to leaders within the Aligning Forces for Quality initiative, the group has welcomed more and more people with similar goals and interests. The collective now has access to new perspectives and ideas, a treasure trove of experts and expertise to learn from, and a means to collaborate with one another. Almost one year in, Transformation has Begun is still going strong with more than 600 members on Facebook.

What have we learned? Find ways to meaningfully engage in existing communities or networks. The right platform may not be the one you build. We tried this when the group launched--we built the platform--but the interaction was not as high as anticipated. Once the space moved to a SNS people were already engaged in (Facebook), membership and engagement catapulted. Also, ensure you have clear terms of use, including general etiquette guidelines, from the beginning. According to a recent PEW Internet report, 85 percent of SNS-using adults say people are mostly kind, but nearly 50 percent have witnessed mean or cruel behavior by others at least occasionally. Offer concrete etiquette guidelines to foster a pleasant and supportive SNS experience.

Be Ready and Willing to Learn

Before letting go of the notion that the platform had to be ours, the Foundation enabled comments on RWJF.org. The Foundation welcomes comments on every piece of content posted, such as press releases, issue briefs, evaluations, and videos. Getting ready for this required significant internal coordination to ensure we had representation from all areas of our operations and a robust framework for moderation. While we were ready (and eager) for a sizable number of comments, it seems that the opportunity for commenting may not be as natural on our site when compared to the more conversational nature of blogging.

What have we learned? Do not assume that a new behavior or means of interaction--e.g. public commenting on your material--will be accepted by your audience. People may not turn out or may be less willing to jump in to offer public comments on an academic article or other published works. While the Foundation was ready for action, the website averages one to two comments a week.

Bundle Your ROI Stories

As Lucy Bernholz and Jim Canales point out in this insightful post, knowing what constituents are focused on or discussing at a given moment is vital to our work. We are no longer limited to having a discussion with those in the room; anyone holding a tablet or smart phone is now part of the conversation. The Foundation is excited to witness the next big, bold breakthrough bound to transpire when multidiscipline thought leaders and unconventional perspectives mingle in the large community.

If you ask staff who lived the activities summarized above, using social technologies has had an overall positive impact on the way we work allowing us to surface a variety of ideas, gain valuable input into team strategies and help disseminate knowledge. Most importantly, these experiences have reinforced the notion that philanthropy can embrace this networked age to work collectively to reach our shared goals. We still have a ways to go. As a learning organization ever focused on assessing impact, we are still tinkering with how to evaluate these investments in social networking.

Do any of these lessons ring true for your organization? Do you see social media reshaping your work? Share your story of how new ways of communicating, convening, or collaborating have galvanized your organization in the comments below.

-- Erin Kelly

Comments

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David & Jim, thank you for taking the time to read the post, share comments and pass along to your network! RWJF is just one of many testing out these waters (case in point http://storify.com/philanthropy/why-do-you-tweet-as-a-nonprofit-leader). The opportunity to share our experiences with others in the sector (on blog posts on Glasspockets or creating social stories on Storify capsule) challenges us to reflect and learn in the moment. And your comments validate the good news; while it seems that a new network pops up each day offering us a new way to work, there is a strong desire to share more openly and in real-time. #rollsupsleeves

Thanks for openly sharing your emerging strategies for the application of these social media tools in philanthropy. I happen to agree with the premise that these tools will have a fundamental impact on the work of philanthropy in ways that we have not yet fully understood. That's all the more reason that thoughtful experimentation, risk taking, moving out of our comfort zones, and simply diving in is so important. But equally vital is doing what you are doing at RWJF: sharing what you are learning as you engage in these new approaches. Let's hope others follow your lead and that collectively we can learn together as a sector and figure out how to navigate this new terrain. It's exciting and holds tremendous potential for our work, and that's precisely why it demands our attention. Keep on sharing!

Thanks for the thoughtful! Hopefully sharing your example will encourage more foundations to embrace social so openly. It seems like a natural way for foundations to engage in thought leadership, particularly when many staff members are participating.

The "Roll up your sleeves and participate" really resonates. I find some people I talk to or train on social media feel they need to master certain concepts before starting, but there's no substitute for doing it.

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