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May 2012 (3 posts)

Glasspockets Find: The Annual Conference Goes Digital
May 23, 2012

COF annual conference 2012
The explosion of social media is having a multiplier effect on the reach of the traditional annual conference.  Long gone are the days when only those lucky enough to travel to the host city were able to attend a few sessions, network with peers, and grab as many handouts as possible to share with the folks back home.  With today’s social media, everyone in attendance can be a virtual fly on the wall, able to connect with everyone on the outside—in real-time—via text, audio and video.  A new window—transparency—is coming of age, bringing with it the potential for increased participation.

As a case in point, take the 2012 Annual Conference of the Council on Foundations that concluded in Los Angeles earlier this month.  Here are some of the topics of discussion that have emerged which you can explore, or even add to the dialogue:

A rich media archive of tweets, blogs, recordings, and images is now available, opening up new possibilities for more and more people to learn and interact than ever before.  As one of two Strategic Partners for the 2012 conference, The James Irvine Foundation asked three of its grantees who participated in panel discussions to share some of their thoughts.  It’s yet another example of our world becoming ever more transparent, with multiple points of entry.

-- Mark Foley

Transatlantic Exchange: A German Foundation's Social Media Journey, Part Two
May 10, 2012

(Anja Adler, a former communication manager for German foundation Stiftung Mercator, is now writing her PhD on the political importance of online communication and social media and works as freelancing social media strategist for the foundation. She has a M.A. degree in Communication and North American Studies from Free University Berlin.)

Anja Adler

Last time, I blogged about my recent journey to the US to learn about how US grantmakers are incorporating social media networks into their philanthropic efforts to identify models that might be useful for the German-based Stiftung Mercator, where I work. One of the questions I started with was whether social media leadership should be left to communications, or if programs should take up the responsibility? A recurring theme, and a possible answer that emerged throughout my journey, was the importance of cultivating internal social media champions.

Social media networks are fast-paced; organizational change isn't. As Case Foundation's Be Fearless initiative perfectly portrays, social media is just one measure among many towards a more tolerant and open learning culture. It is difficult for an organization to change everything at once. Additionally, every foundation needs to find its own way. But talking to Asia Society, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Knight Foundation, Open Society Foundations and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I heard repeating ideas. No question, CEO and leadership support are central to the succesful change of a foundation's communication culture. As Eric Cade Schoenborgn, Community Manger at Knight Foundation, perfectly put it, "We are our CEO." Robert Wood Johnson's Risa Lavizzo-Mourey (@Risalavizzo), Knight's Alberto Ibargüen (@Ibarguen) or Gates' Jeff Raikes (@jeffraikes), for example, are all active opinion leaders on Twitter. Additionally, they informally reward staff's social media engagement through praise and attention and formally by allocating resources or including it in staff performance assessments.

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Even though leadership support is a premise, social media cannot be installed top-down. When it comes to online, two-way communication, each and every member on staff needs to learn how to use these new channels and experience the added value themselves. Here the idea of "social media champions" comes in handy. Instead of "converting" all employees at once, this approach suggests building a coalition of the willing. All of the above mentioned foundations worked with pilot projects, starting with a handful of staff members and helped them become "social media champions." The chosen volunteers received training sessions and were supported by internal or external consultants to work on strategies relevant to their projects and needs.

For Mercator, this approach seems ideal. Giving interviews and speeches, my colleagues are already ambassadors of the foundation. By starting with only a few people, this strategy also formulates smarter goals. It help to keep costs and resources in check by offering training only when it is needed. With this strategy we could make sure that social media is only used when it supports our strategic work. And as a benefit the "social media champions" then spread the word about their social media success, be it the call of a journalist in response to a blog story, the tweeted feedback of a project partner, or the proposal for an online challenge by target audience not reached before. What more can you ask for?

I would be interested in hearing if other foundations have experience with this approach. Also let me know with whom I should visit on my next trip? Please also give me your suggestions or social media links I should see below.

At Mercator, we know we are just at the beginning of our social media journey and my travels in the U.S. have given me a guard railing. Hopefully this first tour was just the beginning of a continuing exchange because we are definitely looking forward to the ride.

Transatlantic Exchange: A German Foundation's Social Media Journey, Part One
May 3, 2012

(Anja Adler, a former communication manager for German foundation Stiftung Mercator, is now writing her PhD on the political importance of online communication and social media and works as freelancing social media strategist for the foundation. She has a M.A. degree in Communication and North American Studies from Free University Berlin.)

Anja Adler

Many German foundations are still debating whether or not to engage with social media. Even though some of the larger foundations set up Facebook, Youtube or Twitter accounts, one-way communication is still the rule and dialogue on these new platforms – with few exceptions – oftentimes left to the communication intern. At Stiftung Mercator we believe that social media are not just an add-on. At the end of 2009, we therefore set up a strategy with the aim to integrate these new communication channels in the work of all of our staff, attempting to be more transparent and to help our staff with feedback and new ideas from old and new stakeholders. After the first two years of getting our feet wet, we have successfully set up a social media task force to continuously build our skills, installed a social media newsroom that incorporates channels like Facebook, Flickr, Scribd, and Youtube, and experimented with online campaigning in some of our projects.

While we are proud of the accomplishments, we are still looking for answers to some of the most important strategic questions:

  • Should social media leadership be left to communications or should programs take the same responsibility?
  • How can we inspire more feedback and generate more added value?
  • What are the best “calls to action“ for us and how can our community benefit in return?

With a few more years of a social media head start, we were wondering what the U.S. foundations have to say. So I ventured out to the U.S. this March to speak with nine of them, which included representatives from: Asia Society, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, German Marshall Fund, Knight Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sunlight Foundation, and the Foundation Center.

Click on the blue tags to see location details. Hint: Double click the map to zoom in and see all locations in New York.

View a bigger map »

After more than 2,000 miles traveled, and more than  24 hours spent in meetings, with more than 26 people, there were plenty of answers and helpful anecdotes (I put together Storifys on each foundation for more information). As William Bohlen from the German Marshall Fund correctly remarked, "If you know one foundation, you know one foundation." Still, some patterns have emerged and as I reflect on this journey,  two recurring themes  were echoed about lessons learned from philanthropy sector experimentation into social media usage thus far: content is king, and the development of social media champions. In today’s post I will focus on what I heard about content, and in my next post I will share the specifics on what I learned about social media champions.

Content is King

With the growing importance of the internet and the transitional role of journalism, new intermediaries are taking over the public sphere. "For the first time in history, we have the chance to become influential publishers ourselves", Geoff Spencer, Vice President Communications and Marketing at Asia Society, told me. Instead of discussing all the possible social media channels out there (apparently Pinterest is the latest craze in the States, too...), I found myself talking to many foundations about the growing importance of addressing target audiences directly instead of only trying to pitch the media. This new focus on content ownership seems to have increased the foundations' awareness of data and stories in general. The trend of content strategy and rise of content strategist positions at many U.S. foundations might be a reaction to the insight that all social media channels need a good online hub – and in most cases this is the web site.

With an integrated Twitter wall and large image-centered news releases, Knight Foundation's web site, for example, puts stories about grantees and projects first. The Foundation Center's washfunders.org project uses powerful data visualization to coordinate funding efforts of eleven foundations and transparently and visually report about it. Sunlight Foundation even funds a project called Politiwidgets that provides infographics on members of Congress and makes inserting them into a blog post as easy as embedding YouTube videos. Blogs also do the job, as Rachel Hart, Communications Officer, Open Society Foundations, summarized, "I see our blog as our own newspaper. We can’t just wait for others to cover our issues, we need to get the story out there ourselves." And that sometimes leads to stories in the traditional media. One of Open Society Foundation's blog stories has been picked up by CNN, a Knight blog story found its way into a PBS report, and posts from Asia Society's blog are regularly featured in The Atlantic.

For Mercator, this focus on content strategy will mean three things for the future:

  • First, we will be discussing how to increase online editorial content on our grantees and projects to better link our social media story-telling to our online presence. Of course, you can already find all the necessary information (project descriptions, funding data, project partners etc.) on our web site, but apart from news releases we do not yet share success stories and lessons learned.
  • Second, we will also be talking about data visualization. With the help of mapping and infographics we could probably communicate our complex topics - climate change, integration and cultural education – in much more approachable, user-friendly ways.
  • Third, we will be screening the most important blogs for our topics. Even though we might not start our own blog right away, we will definitely be engaging in this new sphere of public debate in the future.

In my next post I will share details about the other theme that emerged from my travels, about finding and supporting internal social media champions. Since I could not meet with every foundation representative who is involved in interesting social media experimentation, please share your thoughts about what you have learned from incorporating social media into your philanthropic work in the comments below.

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