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September 2013 (4 posts)

Family Philanthropy and Social Media: A Conversation with Kate Wolford, President of The McKnight Foundation
September 26, 2013

Kate Wolford (@KateWolford) became president of The McKnight Foundation (@McKnightFdn) in 2006. This blog is re-posted with permission from the August 2013 edition of Family Giving News, the monthly email newsletter of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

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We don’t see a lot of foundation executives on Twitter. So, let’s hear a bit more about your own experience with social media – how did you first get started?

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The biggest value to me personally is in what I follow: a mixture of topics directly relevant to our work, as well as others that help broaden my horizon.

The first thing to make clear is that I am not an expert on social media! The McKnight Foundation has been getting its feet wet on Facebook and Twitter for a year or so, and recently launched a blog. We’ve also been experimenting with Yammer as an in-house tool for sharing knowledge. I registered my personal Twitter account about eight months ago. I was an early adopter, so I could better support our institutional communications strategy. My plan was to simply “lurk and learn” on Twitter, following others so I could better understand how our foundation and grantees were using social media to increase our reach and impact. Now I tweet as well, and more and more McKnight staff are using social media.

What are three things you hope to gain from social media?

The biggest value to me personally is in what I follow: a mixture of topics directly relevant to our work, as well as others that help broaden my horizon. I see articles that I would probably never see otherwise—or at least not in such a timely manner.

For The McKnight Foundation, my goal is even greater transparency and awareness about how we are using private funds to pursue public good. It is an avenue to share research, as well as promising and proven ideas with a broader network both within and beyond philanthropy.

Social media—like every tool—can be used for good or ill. More than a goal, my dream is to use it in ways that support a powerful global movement for social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

Why should a family foundation use social media?

Social media can be an additional useful way to engage with current or potential grantees, stakeholders, and the general public. It’s not a substitute for strong individual relationships and deep dialogue between foundations and grantees. Foundations still need a one-stop organizational website through which grantseekers can find clear information on the foundation’s mission, goals, strategies, what it will or won’t fund, its application process, etc.

Taking advantage of as many communications tools as we can use well and cost effectively can enhance our transparency, accessibility, and ability to share knowledge and perspectives in our fields of interest.

A Center for Effective Philanthropy survey in 2012 found that only about 16% of grantees followed the social media streams of their funders. I suspect this number will grow quickly as both nonprofits and foundations move from early experiments in usage, evaluating feedback and ramping up in areas that seem most productive for building their networks and advancing their goals. We’re also increasingly reaching out to important program stakeholders beyond our grantees, and social media is one way to reach those broader audiences.

The real power of social media is the opportunity to go beyond just one-way communication to a more engaged dialogue. Unlike newsletters or press releases, social media is—well, it’s social! For many family foundations (and foundations in general), that may push the boundaries of their comfort zone. Social media puts real-time information, learning and perspectives out to a potentially very broad audience. That, in turn, may invite new levels of scrutiny, critique, and interaction.

I think it is important to enter with the mindset that you will get feedback that covers the spectrum from positive to negative, and from polite to nasty. Embrace that, and focus on how the input can also broaden your perspectives, sharpen your thinking, and increase your effectiveness and impact.

What kind of rules and practices do you follow?

In general, I think about how all my communications, whether in a community conversation or a blog or a tweet might reflect on the foundation and its reputation.

While “all tweets are my own,” I do not tweet anything that I would not want associated with our foundation. I know others who more freely mix the personal and professional—in that case, I think it would be important to be transparent with your board of directors about that choice.

I limit my time on social media to 30 minutes per day, and sometimes I don’t get to it all. On my best days, I uncover 3-5 articles that I read or tag for my next plane ride, and I share something that will be of interest to my followers.

I see some foundation leaders focusing mainly on topics relevant to the philanthropic sectors while others cover a number of topic areas. I think each person has to “find their own voice.” I lean toward the eclectic side of the spectrum — I follow and tweet on topics ranging from governance to climate change to education to Minnesota.

Should the foundation executive engage if the foundation already has a social media presence?

There are a number of factors to consider, including size and staffing structure. In small foundations where the executive already has many hats, it may simply not make sense nor be practical to maintain a separate Twitter or blog presence. The executive can still have a presence—authoring blogs or being quoted on the foundation sites.

Another key consideration is board expectations around the level of visibility of its lead staff person, and whether or not he/she should have a voice that may be distinct in substance or tone from that of the foundation.

Final thoughts?

I’d encourage foundations to use any communications tools that help them reach and engage their own key audiences in useful ways. Within that, just like any tool, social media probably isn’t a great fit for everyone.

So as we explore social media’s pros and cons at McKnight, we are paying close attention to how our philanthropic colleagues are using it to the best effect. We’re forging our own unique path as we go, which I think is very important, but we’re also keeping our eyes out for model practices and practitioners around the country. For readers interested in digging deeper, I’d point you to nonprofit social media guru Beth Kanter, The Communications Network’s resource-rich website for nonprofit and foundation communications pros, and terrific sector blogs like COF’s RE:Philanthropy, Foundation Center’s PhilanTopic, and the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

And there is no shame and very little to lose in lurking first, like I did, just to see if social media seems like a good fit before diving in!

-- Kate Wolford

(For a list of additional Twitter feeds to get started, see this Ask the Center feature on Family Giving News.)

Glasspockets Find: MacArthur Foundation Videos Illuminate Program Strategies
September 18, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

We all can't be experts in every field—but we can communicate in ways that makes our intentions clear. Let's say you hear that a foundation is interested in the same issue your work is addressing: girls' education. But girls' education could refer to subsidizing pre-kindergarten in the U.S., awarding college scholarships for young African women, researching improved STEM education, or any number of other programs. The trick to understanding a foundation's goals is to get down to the specifics, without getting lost in a morass of jargon or hours of research.

The MacArthur Foundation is experimenting with using video to explain their program strategies, including Investing in Girl's Secondary Education in Developing Countries. In this four-minute video we are given an explanation of the program goals, why the foundation has chosen to concentrate on this specific need, and the larger global initiatives that tie in to their program strategy:

Watch the video»

A strength of video as a communications tool is that the visuals illustrate the foundation’s values, bringing their program goals to life. Another virtue is that the delivery of the information is usually a personal narration told in straightforward language. We all have read our share of foundation strategy documents that seem written only for specialists. On camera, people are less likely to speak in academic lingo—making it is easier for the program staff to convey their passion for the issue, and thus easier for those on the outside to see and understand what is going on inside foundation portfolios.

In this MacArthur Foundation video, Jorgen Thomsen, Director of the Conservation & Sustainable Development program, explains what excites him about their current strategy and how it builds on and diverges from previous areas of focus:

Watch the video»

Which foundations have excelled at producing videos that illuminate their specific program goals? Let us know at glasspockets@foundationcenter.org.

-- Rebecca Herman

Managing Impact for the Long Term: A View of the Next 100 Years, from the SOCAP Conference
September 11, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Last week in San Francisco was the SOCAP conference, which is dedicated to increasing the flow of capital to social good by bringing together investors, philanthropists, foundations and social entrepreneurs. If you didn’t make it to the sold-out conference, SOCAP shared videos of the events via YouTube.

 

"Make sure that that those around you learn from your failure."
On the first day of the conference, the panel discussion on “Managing Impact for the Long Term” included Case Foundation CEO Jean Case, who emphasized the importance of starting with a big idea, taking risks, and accepting that failure might be an option. She commented, “If you fail, fail fast and fail forward. Make sure that those around you learn from your failure. As you’re talking about it, you’re transparent. Particularly in the philanthropic and public sector, this is much, much needed.”

 

 

Watch the video»

As part of the same discussion, Daryn Dodson of Ben and Jerry’s spoke about the importance of sharing best practices and failures: “I think that is 100 years of hard, hard work of sharing across generations.” He also noted that he would like to see more representation at the conference from those under 20 and those over 60, “with as diverse balance sheets as possible… I think the intergenerational conversation may bring about the solutions to a lot of the problems that we’re really struggling with.”

It’s great to hear people talk openly about this challenging work, so let’s continue to share ideas, success and failures to increase impact over the long haul.

-- Rebecca Herman

Glasspockets Find: Learn Foundation Law Pools Resources to Offer Legal Training to Private Foundations
September 3, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Remember all those group projects in school that were supposed to help us work together as a team? The main lesson we learned from the process was that group assignments are never easy. In the grown-up world of philanthropy, “collaboration,” “resource-sharing,” and “knowledge-building” are buzzwords that frequently show up in our benchmarks for success. Foundations often ask nonprofits if they can pool resources and share information with their colleagues, and we all know this can be just as difficult as when we were teenagers.

GrantCraft Advocacy GuideThankfully, there are online tools to facilitate both collaboration and transparency, thereby increasing our efficiency and reducing duplication of effort. Wouldn’t you like to know if someone else has already tackled any complex issues your organization is facing? The Learn Foundation Law website is an example of teamwork by a group of foundations who have created training materials on legal issues in the field of philanthropy. The legal staff at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation created Learn Foundation Law in 2010 as an online instructional resource, so that any foundation can jump-start their legal education.

The website is also a wonderful instance of foundations being more open about seldom-discussed issues in philanthropy. Course topics include legal rules for private foundations on advocacy, lobbying, and anti-bribery/anti-corruption. You can find a commentary on the content of Learn Foundation Law’s online training materials on the blog of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

For more information about advocacy funding in particular, check out this guide on GrantCraft, the Foundation Center’s own online resource and knowledge center for grantmakers. There is even a GrantCraft guide about funder collaboratives! At Glasspockets, we advocate for transparency in philanthropy, and we see one of the benefits of greater openness is to make it easier for the field as a whole to earn an A+ in collaboration.

-- Rebecca Herman

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