At the start of the year, Steve Downs kicked off our Transparency Talk blog with a great overview of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) social media strategy and how it has evolved since their early adoption and experimentation stage two years ago. Given the many questions grantmakers have about developing and assessing social media efforts, we are continuing to learn from the road the RWJF staff has traveled by offering a series of interviews with staff members about how social media, and more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer, are adding new and critical dimensions to the work. The first of these case studies, on social networking as a learning tool, is available here.
Transparency Talk (TT): First, let's start with a glimpse into a day in the life of your work at the Foundation in light of all these new technologies. How is Web 2.0 changing your job as a Senior Program Officer? How is it changing your relationship with grantees and the wider community you serve?
Mike Painter (MP): I'm Mike Painter, and I'm an avid social media user (but I don't think I need a twelve step program quite yet). Don't get me wrong, I certainly like and use email, telephone, and video-conferencing a great deal. In my work at RWJF, though, social media, including tools like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, add an important and rich layer of capabilities and collaboration power to my tool set. Before I came to the Foundation I was an RWJF Health Policy Fellow working for a year on Capitol Hill. While in that position, I fairly quickly realized that there were interesting things happening in our office that I wanted to share with others. We didn't have social media tools at the time to power that sharing, so instead I manually put together email distribution lists to help keep people informed. That experience demonstrated to me the power of collaboration technology—even something as simple as an email distribution list. To me, social media is an obvious logarithmic enhancement of that rudimentary sharing and collaboration capability—one that dramatically increases the reach and magnitude of my old distribution list efforts.
TT: We have all seen and heard many examples in recent years about how social media is a perfect medium for collaboration and facilitating discussion. Among your efforts, what initiative or project comes to mind that is an exemplary case of social media and collaboration? Share a brief background about the project and how it unfolded.
MP: At RWJF we spend a great deal of time trying to improve American health and health care. To tackle such a complex, gargantuan set of tasks, we need collaborators and partners. We cannot succeed without them. Frankly, we need the ability to find great ideas and terrific people who can do most of that work—the small number of people at our Foundation could never on our own succeed. One way we do that, for example, is to work with leaders across the United States from various regions and sectors—health professionals, consumers, employers, and others—as they restructure health care in their respective local markets. We've used a number of technology platforms to enhance and promote that collaboration. One tool has been particularly promising, our Facebook site called Transformation Has Begun.
We clearly wanted to promote an online and ongoing discussion about improving the quality and cost of health care. Initially, we attempted to host a collaboration network discussion on our RWJF server. We heavily promoted that discussion using RWJF's significant communications assets. We absolutely got attention for that early site—in fact over 10,000 initial views. Unfortunately, though, the only way we generated conversation or debate on that site was when we literally spoon-fed and manually prompted it. We essentially had zero spontaneous conversations and fairly quickly realized the site, itself, was a failure. After a fair amount of internal consideration, we decided to close that first site. Rather than give up on electronic collaboration entirely, we decided to go where people already were—Facebook.
TT: Rather than giving up on your objective, you moved the conversation into a new space. What do you think made this move a successful one?
MP: When we moved this conversation to Facebook, we initially worried that people would not want to mix fun posts about the weekend, parties, kids, and biking with intense policy discussions about transforming health care. Turns out they would. What we found was that people joined the site fairly readily—and almost immediately began generating spontaneous discussions about health care transformation. They shared materials—engaged in spirited debates, all without our ongoing prompting. Clearly, participants liked the format and found it easier to access than our prior server site.
TT: What surprised you the most about the effort?
MP: I think we were all pretty surprised by the stark contrast between the spontaneity on the Facebook site compared to the almost complete lack of interaction on the prior discussion site. It's also interesting that this Facebook conversation seems to have legs. Over a year later, the Facebook site is still going strong. The number of participants has grown steadily. We at RWJF are simply participants among many. We jump into conversations when it makes sense. Sometimes we ask for input about project ideas—other times we highlight interesting materials or issues—or hop into another discussion thread.
TT: Do you have any interesting examples to share about how a conversation that started online via the Facebook page has informed any of your offline work or strategies? Or for those who are skeptical about the "return on investment" offered to grantmakers by social media, what are some specific take-aways for you and your work?
MP: As a member of this Facebook community, we have from time to time asked the group for help. For example, in 2011 we were developing a new payment reform call for proposals called "Payment Reform Strategies for High Value Care". Normally, for this sort of project we would devise and craft the call for proposals pretty secretly and quietly—based on internal, non-public discussions among ourselves and our immediate expert advisors. In this instance, though, we decided instead to get help from our Facebook community colleagues. We essentially crowd sourced the project development—and got a terrific product with a real time, real world sense of what leaders wanted and needed with this sort of payment experimentation. We posed the program design problems to the Facebook community in a series of questions and received a significant number of very helpful comments. We used those comments to develop the call for proposals—and importantly reported back to the Facebook group as we were developing the project to let them know how their comments were helping us create the new project. That grant offering ultimately attracted 72 high quality proposals from across the nation. From those, we ultimately awarded grants totaling almost $1.8 million to four cutting edge payment reform projects.
TT: What advice would you offer to foundation colleagues interested in pursuing similar work?
MP: We are not saying that any particular social media tool is the single, best answer or approach. Certainly, we hope to see many new and exciting social media approaches—and hope to try them out as well. I think we did learn that it pays to experiment with these tools—to be bold. It turns out the risks were actually minimal and manageable—and the upside was pretty big. Some of us may have had unfounded fears about losing some measure of control of the discussions we were promoting when we moved to Facebook. In our experience, we almost certainly gave away control, but in return we got a glimpse of something much more important and powerful—energized and empowered collaborators willing to work and share with us toward some important common yet tough, big goals—like, for instance, improving health care.