Transparency Talk

Category: "Community Engagement" (25 posts)

Big Philanthropy’s Social Impact Depends on Its Social License
January 14, 2016

(Krystian Seibert is the Policy & Research Manager at Philanthropy Australia and tweets at @KSeibertAu.)

KSeibert2Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s recent pledge to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) quickly became the subject of criticism from some quarters of the not-for-profit sector.

Some of this criticism focused on how Zuckerberg and Chan decided to establish the CZI as a “Limited Liability Company” (LLC), rather than as a traditional foundation.

There are some advantages to doing this – a LLC has much more flexibility to contribute to the common good by investing in for-profit companies as well as by donating to not-for-profits.

But because a LLC isn’t subject to the same regulatory requirements as a traditional foundation, in theory it could fund things which don’t necessarily further charitable purposes.

“Legitimacy is critical to philanthropy.”

Criticism has also focused on how such a massive pledge, combined with the use of a “less accountable” LLC, could lead to a further concentration of power in the hands of wealthy people such as Zuckerberg and Chan.

This debate has opened up an opportunity to have an important discussion about how philanthropy, particularly “big philanthropy,” relates to the broader community – and what kinds of actions can enhance this relationship in order to maximize both philanthropy’s social impact and the community’s support for its work.

In this context, the concept of a “Social License to Operate” is very relevant. This concept has received more attention within the private sector, particularly within the mining industry, but has received little attention within the not-for-profit sector.

It reflects an increasingly common view that private companies can’t just do what they want and ignore the needs of communities. 

Rather, they need to acquire and maintain a Social License to Operate – which is the level of acceptance or approval continually granted to an organization’s operations or projects by the community and other stakeholders.

Defining the Social License to Operate

It’s not a license in a formal sense – you don’t apply for it and if you tick the right boxes you get it. It’s something a company earns through its actions – it’s an intangible asset which a company builds up and must work to maintain, in a similar way to a company’s reputation (although it’s different to a company’s reputation).

Therefore, Social License is a type of “informal” or “soft” regulation, as opposed to “formal” or “hard” regulation which is determined and enforced by governments and regulators.

It essentially revolves around a question of legitimacy – whether a company’s actions are viewed as “right” – not just by their shareholders, but by stakeholders more broadly. It has various levels, as shown in the diagram below.[1]

 

Krystian Graphic

It’s therefore equally relevant to philanthropy. That’s because legitimacy is critical to philanthropy – if philanthropy is not seen to be contributing to the common good, or acts in a manner which is inconsistent with community expectations and norms, then it will lose its legitimacy. Ultimately that means that philanthropy will stop being philanthropy.

Philanthropy’s Social License to Operate

That’s why it’s important for there to be conscious attention to what philanthropic organizations need to do in order to acquire and maintain a Social License.

Arguably, Social License is easier to acquire and maintain for smaller foundations – for them it could simply come down to adopting a conscientious approach to grantmaking which involves supportive engagement with grant recipients, and being responsive to the needs of the community as they change over time.

It’s particularly important in the case of “big” or “mega” philanthropy such as the CZI – and for these philanthropic organizations the bar will be set higher.

That’s because “big philanthropy” does vest a large amount of power in philanthropists to direct what outcomes are funded. Despite widespread apathy about government, government does still derive legitimacy from the ballot box – but “big philanthropy” isn’t subject to elections or term limits.

Because of its size, the actions of “big philanthropy” will be scrutinized by other organizations within the philanthropic sector, not-for-profits, the media, as well as the communities in which it operates. Therefore, if “big philanthropy” lacks a conscious focus on its Social License, its actions could result in a loss of legitimacy.

So what does acquiring and maintaining a Social License actually require of “big philanthropy”? There are no hard and fast rules, and each philanthropic organization which recognizes the importance of its Social License should examine for itself what it needs to do in its own particular situation.

Transparency

However, operating in a manner which is transparent and shares power would be particularly important in the case of the CZI and other large philanthropic organizations.

“The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will need to both be open about its work and also share power.”

Transparency means being open about how a philanthropic organization such as the CZI is governed, what it funds, how it funds and what the outcomes are.

If the community doesn’t know what the CZI is doing, how will they be able to make an assessment of that work and its merits in terms of furthering the common good? If the community is unable to do that, then it’s impossible to establish and maintain legitimacy.

A culture of secrecy tends to breed skepticism. On the other hand, by being and transparent and open, a philanthropic organization such as the CZI can actively demonstrate its commitment to the common good, and establish a relationship with the community based on mutual trust and respect.

A good first step would be for the CZI to commit to meeting the full range of transparency measures which are set out as part of the Foundation Center’s Glasspockets initiative.

Sharing Power

The next step would be to think about ways to share power, which means directly engaging with the communities in which a philanthropic organization such as the CZI will be active. Engaging doesn’t mean just listening – it means working in genuine partnership with stakeholders.

Again, there are no hard and fast rules – but at one end of the spectrum, such engagement would involve consulting stakeholders and using their feedback to inform a foundation’s strategy and key decisions. At the other end of the spectrum it could involve more directly including stakeholders in the decision making process, which is what one small foundation in Indiana has done.

I would expect that the CZI will be trying to address some really complex and multi-faceted problems – to do this effectively, it will need to both be open about its work and also share power with subject matter experts, community leaders, not-for-profits and other philanthropic organizations.

Sharing power is an opportunity to leverage expertise, secure stakeholder buy-in and also share responsibility for outcomes.

Ultimately these are just two examples of how philanthropy can go about establishing and/or maintaining its Social License – however every philanthropic organization’s legitimacy will depend on a variety of factors. It’s something “big philanthropy” certainly needs to focus on, but also something which all philanthropic organizations should turn their minds to.

What do you think philanthropic organizations need to do to establish and maintain their Social License?

--Krystian Seibert

 [1] Adapted from: Ian Thomson, Robert G. Boutilier, Modelling and Measuring The Social License To Operate: Fruits Of A Dialogue Between Theory And Practice, 2011. This paper, along with other resources on the topic of Social License, is available at this website.

Grantmaker Transparency: The Dawn of a New Age in Philanthropy
November 16, 2015

(Aaron Lester is demand generation manager at Fluxx.  This blog post first ran in PhilanTopic.)

Aaron_lester_for_PhilanTopic"People tend to be private about love and money, and in philanthropy, it's both," says Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center.

It's only natural that, traditionally, philanthropy has unfolded behind closed doors. On the one hand, the freedom to make personal funding choices gives grantmakers the ability to stay above the fray, uninfluenced by both market and political pressures. On the other hand, it doesn't allow the public to understand, learn from, or think critically about philanthropy.

"Giving and charitable acts are such private, emotional transactions," says Suki O'Kane, director of administration at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. "How do you come from such strong traditions of privacy and intimacy, and bring that out into the open?"

Where do things stand?

Indeed ­– how do we as a sector make the switch from a traditionally opaque business model to an enterprise that embraces more transparency? It all comes down to the following questions: What am I funding? Why am I funding what I'm funding? Is my funding making an impact? And perhaps most importantly, how do we improve?

How do we as a (philanthropic) sector make the switch from a traditionally opaque business model to an enterprise that embraces more transparency?

There is good news: transparency in philanthropy is happening, there's no denying it. In fact, it's well under way, with large foundations like Gates, Ford, and Getty, sharing their endeavors with the public, surveying their grantees (and sharing the results), and creating searchable grants databases. Still, transparency can be difficult.

As a grantmaker, you know that sometimes your investments fail, sometimes grantees don't perform the way you expected, and sometimes, despite your best intentions, you can't pull off a new initiative or program. "Philanthropy isn't venture capital," says Christine Maulhardt, director of communications and public affairs at the Blue Shield of California Foundation. "Big losses aren't typical in our sector. We want everything to work out perfectly."

Regardless of the perceived risks, transparency in philanthropy is here to stay. And yes, it can be scary and hard to figure out how to get started. But the rewards for embracing transparency far outweigh the risk of turning your back on it.

Time for Transparency ImageWhere are we headed?

 

As we look to the (not so distant) future, we're particularly excited about the potential for grantmakers and grantees alike to have the ability to track incoming evaluation data, to understand in real time their organization's short- and long-term impact, and to be able to respond to that data and take action to ensure continued progress.

In the past, there was no common language used to talk about impact evaluation. Now, for the first time, technology can help create that common language. It is possible for foundations to not only track their own progress toward a goal, but also to compare results with other groups working toward the same end. The intelligence learned creates a greater potential for real needle-moving impact.

Becoming Transparent: Best Practices

If your foundation is just beginning the journey toward greater transparency, Camarena has suggestions for working in league with your peers. First, there's no need to be revolutionary. "Rather than creating something custom for your foundation, really look across the field to some standard practices," she says. "When it comes to creating the application process, look at grants management systems that exist already, and look at taxonomy so that you're not inventing a language that won't make sense field-wide." Her key takeaways:

  • Look to other foundations for standard practices on transparency; don't reinvent the wheel
  • Take advantage of modern grants management systems to help guide your application process and to create a common taxonomy.
  • Join a regional association of grantmakers so you can network with your peers and share ideas, successes, failures, and best practices. If you're using a grantmaking solution, join the community of users.
  • Participate in field-wide movements like the Who Has Glasspockets initiative and Foundation Center's Get on the Map campaign.

As daunting as it may be to open your foundation's doors to the public, transparency has far more benefits than drawbacks. Not only will you be moving in step with a growing movement, you'll also be in great company. It's time we started to share the why and how of our giving. All of us stand to benefit.

--Aaron Lester

Living Up to a Legacy of Glass Pockets
November 5, 2015

(Deanna Lee is chief communications and digital strategies officer at Carnegie Corporation of New York.)

Deanna LeeWhat does a website redesign have to do with “glass pockets?” For Carnegie Corporation of New York—whose mission is to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding—it goes far beyond a general use of the Internet to transmit information. “Glass pockets” is a defining principle of who we are, and thus a defining principle that has guided our entire web redesign process.

First, some background. In the 1950s,  Carnegie Corporation chair Russell Leffingwell testified before Congress that “foundation[s] should have glass pockets,” allowing anyone to easily look inside them and understand their value to society.  A legacy of transparency connected to dissemination continued through Corporation president John Gardner, who advocated for energetic dissemination of activities, to current president Vartan Gregorian, who has emphasized our “legacy of glass pockets” as an ideal and a guidepost for “communicating as clearly and in as much depth as possible how the Corporation conceives of its mission.”

Today’s digital landscape means that we can realize this—reaching and engaging more people, with more information about what we do—as never before. We think of web channels, tools, and design, not as new, “disruptive” technologies, but rather as evolving (and exciting!) opportunities to realize a 100-plus year-old mission.

And so, the redesign process for Carnegie.org began with a largely internal branding exercise to further define our longstanding mission. With the great folks at Story Worldwide, we articulated a core narrative with “pillars” or key principles, including a sense of stewardship to the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, a focus on expert knowledge, a “selfless” emphasis on program grantees and their work, and a commitment to serving as a convener of grantees in like areas of knowledge, and of knowledge-based communities.  These organizational principles were central to how design firm Blenderbox went on to imagine and develop the website layout and user experience.

At the same time, we conducted surveys and interviews with multiple stakeholders and audiences about the old site. As Chris Cardona of the Ford Foundation has written on the Glasspockets blog, we have to be open to failure, and be willing to look at what works and what doesn’t.  Also important, as emphasized in Glasspockets’ transparency indicators, is sharing the results.

What wasn’t working? People said they did not have a clear sense of our program areas.  With information and stories ranging from international peace and security to voting rights to standards in K-16 education all “mixed together,” they found it difficult to delve into their areas of interest.  Also, grantees wanted to be able to connect with peers, and to learn about each other’s activities.

This is why the new Carnegie.org immediately presents a clear depiction of our core program areas (arranged, in homage to Andrew Carnegie, like library book spines). 

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Each program folds out into a preview of a mini-site, with separate subdomains or “hubs” for Education…Democracy…International Peace and Security…and Higher Education and Research in Africa. 

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Enter a program hub, and a simple layout shows the overarching goal of the program and its focus areas (or, in terms of Glasspockets indicators, grantmaking priorities).

Beyond that, each program boasts its own flavor and kinds of content that emphasize those mission pillars—expert knowledge, convening, an emphasis on grantees, and stewardship of our history:

3-600pxInternational Peace and Security currently features commentary on this policy question of the day: Should the U.S. cooperate with Russia on Syria and ISIS? Answers are “convened” as a compendium of multiple grantee experts, scholars, and policymakers—a forum bringing together leading worldwide thinkers and opinions. 

Education features an interactive, multimedia presentation (we call it a Fable) on STEM education—showcasing our historical work on math and science education, including Carnegie Commission reports that set the framework for today’s Next Generation Science Standards, and visual case studies of grantees like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Democracy’s Fable takes an extensive look at the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Plus, at a time when nearly one in four Americans is not registered to vote, we wanted to convene communities and engage the public with our grantees’ work.

4-600px“Your Vote—Your Voice” showcases tiles of leaders of the New Americans Campaign weighing in on why it's important for recently naturalized citizens to vote. 

Good digital strategy also employs community, in the form of partnerships. We’re pleased to have worked with TINT to convene live social media compilations, including the feeds of more than 40 partners of National Voter Registration Day. And, a Genius version of the Voting Rights Act allows for annotations by experts at the Brennan Center for Justice and others.

Finally, we at the Corporation are, first and foremost, stewards of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy. Nearly 10 percent of visitors to our old site came for biographical information about him. To meet their needs more fully and to meet our mission, our Andrew Carnegie Fable includes embeddable elements key for students preparing multimedia presentations, with timelines, quotations, audio and film of Carnegie, infographics on his wealth, and connections to our family of 26 Carnegie institutions worldwide.

This is just the beginning. We’ll soon unveil features allowing program officers to share their experiences, video forums, and more.  It all comes down to glass pockets—using information and the presentation of information to openly share how we meet our mission responsibilities of serving as convener and champion of expert knowledge and change-making grantees. Carnegie.org aims to clearly present our intent, our priorities, and our work, and most of all to be a living—and evolving—expression of our mission to advance and diffuse knowledge and understanding.

--Deanna Lee

Mission: Critical Transparency in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina
June 4, 2014

(G. Albert Ruesga is the president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.)

Ruesga-150Next year we mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I can’t say it will be a defining moment for our city or for our foundation—so many of these occurred shortly after the storm. But it will be an important time to reflect on what’s changed and what hasn’t changed over the past decade.

Katrina’s landfall in August of 2005 was a wake-up call for the city’s leadership. Clearly, whatever the Foundation had done to serve New Orleans and the region before Katrina needed to be re-imagined.

Early in the aftermath of the storm, the Greater New Orleans Foundation worked in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to help lead a planning process for the city called the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP). This planning process, which sought input from as many residents and neighborhoods as possible, identified affordable housing as a top priority. This was not surprising in light of the colossal destruction of the storm.

This was a big step for the Greater New Orleans Foundation, an opening up, the beginning of a commitment to draw our knowledge and strength from outside our walls.

The Foundation got to work. Not long after the UNOP plan, the Foundation designed and implemented a $25 million initiative to support the creation of mixed-income, mixed-used affordable housing and also, initially, to help city government, community development corporations, and other agencies get back on their feet. Twenty-one local and national foundations contributed to the fund and worked together to share data, knowledge, and expertise. The initiative was enormously successful, helping over 9,000 residents find affordable homes and strengthening key housing organizations in the city.

Since that time, the Foundation has remained committed to ever-greater community engagement in its work. We’ve done this in small steps.

We began convening our grantees and other stakeholders to help us shape our grantmaking work, tapping their expertise to determine the content of our discretionary grantmaking guidelines.

Early on, for example, we began convening our grantees and other stakeholders to help us shape our grantmaking work, tapping their expertise to determine the content of our discretionary grantmaking guidelines. We used a design team composed of grantees to determine the form and content of our emerging work in organizational effectiveness (a.k.a. “capacity building”). Now in its fourth year, our organizational effectiveness work often uses “communities of practice,” cohorts of grantees who act as co-designers and co-leaders of these learning communities. We were one of the first foundations to open key pages of our website to comments and criticism from community members, committing to respond to these in no less than 48 hours.

Our commitment to increased community engagement extended to our donors as well. For several years we hosted a program called “Circle Talks” in which members of our donor community were invited to learn about our work and to push back, suggesting new approaches for rebuilding the region and holding us accountable to our mission.

We’ve also done something I believe few other foundations have: in our discretionary grantmaking guidelines we describe not only what we fund, but why; we provide a rationale for what we include in our guidelines as well as what we exclude. This is an invitation for grantees and others to challenge and thereby improve our thinking.

We’re still learning how to make our organization more transparent, more porous, more open to the influence of our stakeholders. We aim for what we call “mission-appropriate” transparency, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because without it our work would clearly suffer.

 -- G. Albert Ruesga

Gripes and Grievances: How An Applicant and Grantee “Complaint” Policy Improves Relationships
April 14, 2014

(Rebecca H. Donham is senior program officer at the MetroWest Health Foundation, an independent health philanthropy addressing the unmet health needs of the 25-town MetroWest region of Massachusetts.)

Rebecca Donham headshotThe MetroWest Health Foundation was created from the sale of a community asset – a two-campus suburban hospital.  As such, we feel a tremendous responsibility to the residents of the 25 towns we serve.  We’ve been entrusted with funds and seek to invest them wisely, both in terms of revenue generation as well as the grant distribution side.

We also embrace best practices. As a health funder, we understand there are programs and interventions that are evidence based, and therefore known to work. Since our founding 15 years ago, we’ve worked to encourage applicants to embrace best practices.

We welcome potential applicants and community members to meet with staff at any time, either before or after grant decisions. Our board meetings are even open to the public, including free dinner!

There are best practices for funders in terms of transparency and we have incorporated those into our work. We have a searchable grant database that allows anyone to see all the grants we’ve made and for what purposes. We post our financials, board and committee members, performance dashboards, strategic plans and other information on our website. We welcome potential applicants and community members to meet with staff at any time, either before or after grant decisions. Our board meetings are even open to the public, including free dinner!

Given the organization’s historical commitment to transparency, it makes sense that in 2007 the foundation’s board of trustees adopted a policy for handling complaints by applicants and grantees. The trustees viewed it as a way of walking the walk and fostering good community relations. The policy makes clear that grant and scholarship decisions are final and not subject to appeal, but that if there are complaints about the foundation’s grant process or work, we have a formal procedure to address them.

We post this policy on our website (http://www.mwhealth.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Public/Key_Policies/Complaints.pdf), along with ones addressing conflicts of interest, compensation, whistle blowing, site visits and sustainability. The last two go even further than what Glasspockets recommends and they speak to our strong commitment to transparency. Foundations can be seen as secretive and arbitrary, and we frequently are praised for being so up-front about how we do our work.

The foundation recently completed its third iteration of the Grantee Perception Report, the results of which (not surprisingly) are published on our web site. I think it is no coincidence that the foundation was rated higher than 90% of foundations in terms of our relationship with grantees. The results were similar in terms of how fairly grantees felt we treated them (>92%) and how comfortable they felt approaching us if a problem arose (>97%).

I would argue that there is zero downside to having a complaint policy. We’ve never had a complaint filed and having the policy publicly available on our website sends a message to the community that we care about fairness and transparency. Some might think this means grantee complaint and response mechanisms are not worth the investment, but quite to the contrary we find it supports and complements our organizational culture that prizes treating everyone respectfully and professionally. Maybe it’s because we’re a health funder, but we think it holds true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

-- Rebecca H. Donham

Transparency, Inclusion and Collaboration: Three Ways Philanthropy Can Take Its Own Medicine
March 20, 2014

Shauna Nep is the social innovation manager at the Goldhirsh Foundation. She has a background in program development, and in mobilizing online and offline engagement with various organizations in Los Angeles. This blog was re-posted with permission from Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy. This post represents Shauna’s own opinions.

Goldhirsh-shauna-1-150x150In philanthropy, we are working each day to make the world a more open, inclusive, and participatory place. A place where marginalized voices are heard and smart solutions that work rise to the top. But, we have lagged behind in modeling the behavior we want to see in the rest of society. With some notable exceptions, the way we as philanthropic institutions currently engage is not only inconsistent with our current values, but also behind the times in which we live.

This is nobody’s fault. Foundations today are primarily top-down institutions, and changing “the way it’s always been” is hard. In many cases, foundations desperately want to engage but don’t really know how, or feel they lack the appropriate tools.

As a social change advocate who grew up in a time when most platforms are expected to be crowd-powered and open-source, I want nothing less for my field. The good news is that the field is constantly developing new tools and capabilities to help philanthropy put these values into practice.

Let’s talk about some of these values and opportunities to advance them in our own work.

Transparency

As funders, we ask for full transparency from our grantees—impact reports and financial records at the very least. At the Goldhirsh Foundation, we ask our grantees to tell us about roadblocks early on, so that we can help. We want to be considered partners, and expect honesty. What would happen if we all held ourselves to these same standards for impact and disclosure?

Ways to change it

New tools and platforms allow philanthropy to embrace transparency more easily than it could in the past. IssueLab—a project of the Foundation Center—allows foundations to upload case studies, evaluations, white papers, and issue briefs, and ensures that the content is both archived and accessible. GlassPockets, another initiative of the Foundation Center, champions philanthropic transparency by inspiring private foundations to adopt openness in their communications and by highlighting where philanthropic dollars are going. Tools like these make philanthropy more transparent and streamline access to knowledge generated by philanthropy.

One action step

Check out the many transparency tools available on the Glasspockets website and share your publications on IssueLab.

Inclusion

A fundamental issue seems to be that as foundations, our funding strategies are developed in isolation rather than in consultation with the people and organizations we seek to benefit. As a result, the impact is piecemeal, and not nearly as lasting or transformative as it could be.

Ways to change it

There are great examples of foundations who are dramatically embracing inclusion in their grantmaking. The Vancouver Foundation youth grants are administered by their Youth Philanthropy Council—made up of Vancouver youth from diverse backgrounds. The youth not only decide who gets the grants, but also, how much. Their youth are actively engaged and strong advocates for the work of the foundation.

Other great examples include the Durfee Foundation in California, who consistently rely on former grantees to help decide which individuals and projects to fund today, or the Raymond John Wean Foundation in Ohio, whose board includes a diverse mix of community voices.

One action step

Review this comprehensive report by Grantmakers For Effective Organizations on the benefits and types of grantee and public engagement, and find one action your institution might put into practice.

Collaboration does not have to be a large effort. There are low-touch ways for foundations to learn from one another and develop solutions together to make all of our work more streamlined and more effective.

Collaboration

One area in which philanthropy is getting stronger is collaboration. Funders increasingly encourage and/or require collaboration amongst their grantees, and are also starting to adopt the practice themselves, with an eye towards leveraging greater impact in the ecosystems in which they work. Over the past few years several funders collaboratives have formed, and Collective Impact (which had its third birthday this January) is gaining traction.

Ways to keep the momentum going

Collaboration does not have to be a large effort. There are low-touch ways for foundations to learn from one another and develop solutions together to make all of our work more streamlined and more effective. The field is making progress in developing better feedback loops with other funders and grantees, and efforts like the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership are even making progress in establishing common performance measurements and sharing data. New advances in Big Data and data visualization and analysis should only accelerate this trend.

Putting these values into practice: my own experience

At the foundation where I work, the Goldhirsh Foundation, we sought to create through our LA2050 initiative a shared vision for the future of Los Angeles, and to track and drive progress toward that vision.

To create this shared vision we wanted and needed public participation, but did not have the capacity to conduct a large-scale public deliberation. So, we played to our team’s strengths: We built a brand that people wanted to engage with; we used digital media to collect thousands of visions for the future; we crowdsourced $1,000,000 in grants; and we brought together leaders in business, government, and the social sector to talk about how we are going to change the future of Los Angeles, together. And, demonstrating their willingness to collaborate, the Annenberg Foundation even pooled some of their own resources and funded an additional ten projects to move LA2050 forward.

We celebrate the successes we’ve had with our incredible partners thus far, but also recognize that (1) our approach is one of many possible ones, and (2) our efforts so far are only a tiny portion of what’s needed to make change at the scale we’d like to see, and it’s going to require much more collaboration and inclusion with Angelenos to really move the needle. But, if we are able to embrace the medicine we’ve so often prescribed to our grantees, we are optimistic that we’ll get there.

What can your foundation do to catch up with the times, and emulate the society we are trying to build? And what can we do together?

-- Shauna Nep

Part 2: Top 10 Lessons Learned on the Path to Community Change
June 25, 2013

(Robert K. Ross, M.D. is President and CEO of The California Endowment. Yesterday he shared three aha moments from the Endowment’s first two years of work in its Building Healthy Communities plan.)

Ross-100Okay, at times I step back and look at the BHC initiative and wonder—could we have made it more complicated? 14 sites. Multiple grantees in each site. A core set of multiple health issues. Multiple state-level grantees. And the expectation that the parts will add up to something greater and catalyze a convergence that builds more power and leads to greater impact.

But then again, supporting an agenda for social and community change does require multiple strategies, operating in alignment: the use of data, message framing and story-telling; innovative models; a variety of influential messengers; convening and facilitating champions; “grassroots and treetops” and coordination; meaningful community engagement. Power-building requires multiple, aligned investments.

Our Top Ten Lessons for Philanthropy

Finally, I want to share some lessons with partners in philanthropy regarding planning and implementing a community-change initiative. As we engaged in the planning process of BHC, we tried in earnest to stick by a key aphorism, one I learned from colleague and mentor Ralph Smith at the Annie E. Casey Foundation: make new mistakes.

The track record of community change work by philanthropy is not a work of art. Tapping into the wisdom of institutions such as the Aspen Institute, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Skillman Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and the Northwest Area Foundation, we incorporated the lessons of success and struggle from our colleagues in the field. Learning from these and other colleagues, we were able to avoid hitting major rocks as our BHC ship sailed out of harbor. So, we learned the following:

Community engagement in planning processes will be simultaneously exhilarating and messy.

1. Take time to plan, and plan to take the time. We embarked on a 9 month community engagement process in the 14 BHC sites, and we ended up taking 12-15 months. Nobody died, and nobody got fired. Community engagement in planning processes will be simultaneously exhilarating and messy. If it is going too smoothly and too well, then something may be terribly wrong – like the possibility that a foundation is not receiving candid, meaningful input from local leaders. If it is bumpy and messy and getting to consensus, and clarity is taking much longer than originally planned, it may very well mean that you are gaining the trust of leaders to raise thorny, difficult issues. As a general rule, we just took the time that was needed for local leaders to develop their local BHC plans, and we did not pit BHC sites against one another to race by the foundation’s clock. Community leaders want a compass more than they want a clock.

2. Don’t lead with the money. The issue of whether to announce “how much” the dollar commitment is in a foundation initiative is a tricky path. On the one hand, a major dollar-commitment announcement by a foundation can provide excitement, anticipation, and mobilize civic and community support. On the other hand, “leading with the money” can instigate all manner of posturing, control issues, manipulation, and political grantsmanship among potential grantees. We decided to quietly announce the breadth and scope of our commitment -- $1 Billion over a ten-year period in local and statewide policy funding – but veered away from formally announcing precise budget commitments in each site. In other words, we wanted to send a message that our commitment was serious without leading the conversations with grant dollar puppetry.

3. Date logic models, but get married to learning. There is no doubt that engaging in the disciplined exercise of how you think – and how community leaders believe – positive change and results will happen is a sound practice. But it is also important to recognize that community change and positive results in the context of complex social and political systems often defy tidy, linear models. If you want to get married, it is wiser to commit to the process of active, dynamic, real-time learning. We provided logic model training for leaders in the 14 BHC sites, with varying levels of effectiveness across the sites; we have been clear, however that learning is not optional, either for grantees or our own program staff.  

4. Be transparent about desired results. There are written and unwritten axioms about the need for philanthropy to be completely community driven in community-change work. Our experience is that this thinking is a truism without being entirely true. For starters, our foundation is legally chartered as a health foundation, and although we employ a broad definition of the word “health”, there are limitations and constraints about what we can and cannot fund. This issue led to some considerable tensions within the foundation (at the board and staff level), as well as with grantees and stakeholders, about prioritized community needs that were outside the scope of our health mission. The most obvious and recurrent tension-generating themes, in the context of a pervasive economic recession, were issues of economic development, job creation, and mortgage foreclosure across the sites. The battles over if and how we should enter “the space” of economic development as a health foundation were intense and emotional. We ultimately landed on a framework (utilizing mission-investing in our investment portfolio) for how to move forward without “mission drift”, and have been communicating our approach to our own program staff and stakeholders, but it has not been easy. But the worst of all worlds would have been to promise community leaders a course of action that we would either abandon or renege upon later on. We decided to stick to our mission and results (the right move, however discomforting for foundation-community relations).  

5. Be dogmatic about the results, but flexible about the strategies. The work of community change is noble, but funders cannot afford to fall in love with the process of the work at the expense of meaningful results and impact. Once community leaders and funders agree on a set of outcomes, objectives, or results, these must represent the “true north” on the compass. In the BHC planning and early implementation, we gave community leaders and organizations in the BHC planning process a blank slate on strategies, but insisted on being results driven and logic-model supported. The good news is that across our 14 BHC sites, there is community and resident ownership about the priorities and the strategies to achieve healthier community environments for young people. While these strategies vary, we are seeing growing convergence as the sites engage and learn from one another.

6. Listening is a form of leadership. Irish poet David Whyte underscores the importance of “leadership through conversation.” We have been quite intentional about active listening at all stages of the planning and implementation, and being mindful of closing the feedback loop with community leaders and grantees. We utilized a fairly simple “what we said, what they said, what we heard, what we’ll do” format. At the conclusion of the one-year planning process, our past Board Chair (Tessie Guillermo) and I co-authored and co-videotaped messages to the 14 sites summarizing the key themes and priorities we heard from community leaders in the sites, and what to expect in support from our foundation in the months ahead. We have now begun to bring site leaders together twice annually with foundation staff, so that leaders and staff can share stories of progress, struggles, and inspiration. All of this in service of the all-too critical “t-word”: trust. Trust is the mother’s milk of community change efforts by philanthropy, and active, engaged listening is the foundation.

7. Make “patient” grants, and “urgent” grants. Investors engaged in place-based, community change efforts encounter several tensions to manage. Among them is the tension of patience versus urgency. As efforts such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, Market Creek Plaza in Southeast San Diego, the Skillman Foundation’s work in Detroit, and the Dudley Street Initiative in Boston have demonstrated, positive community change takes time. A two- or three-year grant just won’t do it, and most successful efforts require 7, 10, or 12 years of “patient money.” The most thoughtful investments on this front involve leadership development, organizational capacity building, and collaborative efficacy; but “impact” yield from these investments will typically take years to bear fruit. “Urgent” money involves investing in short-term campaigns or capital projects where tangible results are realized within 12-18 months. Community change, place-based philanthropy will require both types of investments, and too heavy a bias or tilt towards “patient” investments will leave the investor and the partnership vulnerable to allegations that some money has been spent, some meetings have occurred, but nothing “tangible” has been produced. As a result, confidence in the effort will dissipate. Our BHC effort in the early going has been appreciative of the need to simultaneously make “patient” and “urgent” (which we also call “early wins”) grants.

8. Story-telling is part of the doing. The two-most under-appreciated and under-invested themes in social-change philanthropy are power-building and story-telling. Having been at the helm of a large-asset foundation for more than a decade, I am guilty-as-charged on this front; in retrospect, I would gladly trade in half of the (often expensive) academic and research-oriented reports we have commissioned in my twelve years as CEO for more compelling, interesting, and impactful “stories” of community-level change that illuminate the path towards a healthy, more vibrant community. Story-telling by community leaders, youth, or community-based organizations can be powerful tools on multiple fronts: local residents and youth experience the power and passion of their own voice; local media are inspired to re-tell the story in a way that scales up the audience; policymakers pay greater heed and attention to the issue being raised; civic engagement and participation is served; cynicism, disengagement, and disempowerment are reduced. Utilizing multiple forms of story-telling, from social media to flip-cam videos to traditional approaches, we have been assertive in support of community leaders and youth on this front, and it has been inspiring to witness.

Why build, preserve, and protect our respective brands and reputations if we are not going to spend it? Spend that damn brand.

9. Spend the damn brand. Institutional philanthropy is risk-averse. We tend to worry and fret about how our institutional brand, reputation, and civic standing might be sullied by associating with potentially controversial efforts or organizations, and as a general rule, we keep our heads and our profile low. But we have discovered, in the early years of the BHC effort, that thoughtful, surgical application of our civic standing and reputation matters to community leaders – and that they want us to spend “it” on their behalf. Sometimes it comes in the form of convening a meeting, writing and placing an op-ed, placing a phone call to a civic leader, or taking out a full-page ad on an issue in the local newspaper. We have done this with regards to healthy food options for youth and families, health insurance coverage for the uninsured, gang prevention and intervention strategies, and school health efforts. There is a school of thought among philanthropy that our job as funders is “to make the grant and get out of the way.” We would argue that our job is to achieve our respective missions, and by any means necessary. On occasion, this requires stepping out of character on behalf of grantees, and utilizing our voice as well. Why build, preserve, and protect our respective brands and reputations if we are not going to spend it? Spend that damn brand.

10. A Highly Engaged Board. In the earliest planning stages of BHC with our Board of Directors, the Board made it clear that they understood the value and importance of a ten-year commitment, but they also made three points clear. The first was the importance of honesty, candor, and trust about the progress of the effort. The second was a complete commitment to an evaluation approach framed by “learning through impact.” And thirdly, they wanted to be engaged for the purposes of learning, and governance, but not micromanagement. We accomplished the latter by organizing our quarterly Board meetings in or near a BHC community site at least three times a year, and each Board member accepted an assignment of one community site for more in-depth and richer learning. Board members share their observations over dinner at our Board meetings.

In closing, we have found the work of community change to be an exhilarating journey in pursuit of our health mission. We have gained an appreciation of the importance of the “right brain-left brain balance” in this work: having a Theory of Change, and Logic Models, and metrics are important, but trust-building, power-building, and the spiritual dimension of the work constitutes the real glue to hold partners and relationships together over the long haul. And finally, a special note of thanks and appreciation to those foundations who have traversed this path before us, sharing tidbits of lessons and wisdom so that we can “make new mistakes” in the battle for community improvement and health justice.

--Robert K. Ross, M.D.

Part 1: Aha Moments on the Road to Building Healthy Communities
June 24, 2013

(Robert K. Ross, M.D. is President and CEO of The California Endowment.)

Ross-100We are now two-plus years into the implementation of The California Endowment’s 10-Year Building Healthy Communities plan, and I can safely say that it has been the two most exciting years of my career in community and public health. It has already been quite a ride.

This is the first of periodic reports we will produce to share our progress, observations, mistakes, and lessons along the way as we support the efforts of community leaders to create healthier environments for young people in distressed and underserved communities.

Building Healthy Communities – we call it BHC for short – is a commitment of our Board of Directors to a two-pronged strategy. We have “dropped anchor” in fourteen distressed California communities for a 10-year period to work in partnership with community leaders to improve the health and life chances of young people. In addition, we are supporting change at the regional and state levels through funding advocacy, organizational capacity building, and communications on our key health issues.

Watch the video »

It is our intent to have these place-based and "bigger than place" strategies complement one another, and for the moving parts to develop a powerful synergy. At the local level, the BHC communities are engaging multiple sectors to develop innovative efforts to advance health. As these innovative strategies emerge, we’re looking for ways to scale the ideas up through policy change and communications at the state and regional levels. Through acting on multiple levels with complementary strategies, we expect to make a greater contribution than if we were to work only at the place level or only through supporting statewide advocacy. This is central to our theory of change. In a sense, it is fair to consider BHC as a “place-based plus” community change campaign.

In the spirit of the knowledge sharing that is one of the central aspects of Glasspockets and Transparency Talk, I will lift up three “aha” moments we’ve had so far, followed tomorrow by a second post listing key lessons for philanthropy.

Aha #1: The message matters
As we all know, when one talks about the “social determinants” -- the roles that poverty, education, and housing play in health status -- outside the public health world, eyes glaze over. We experienced this communication gap early as local communities strived to decipher our jargon-laden list of 10 targeted outcomes and 4 Big Results. Our communications team, inspired by the engagement of community leaders and residents in the planning process, took this obstacle head-on, and have created what I believe is one of the first successful decodings of the social determinants research: Health Happens Here.

Health-happens-here-250Health doesn’t just happen in a doctor’s office; health happens where we live, work, learn and play.

If you put the phrase Health Happens Here on a photo of a healthy school lunch, or a bike path, or a father and daughter hugging each other, we immediately communicate the norms change we are promoting. We took this message a step further by incorporating it into our internal structures. In looking at our grant-making, we found that 80% of our grants were focused around three areas: neighborhoods, schools and prevention. This led us to create three themes – Health Happens in Neighborhoods, Health Happens in Schools and Health Happens with Prevention – that have become the essential building blocks for our work. In fact, we call them campaigns, another use of language that communicates our intent as a foundation to use our brand to push for policy and systems change. And we are investing in aggressive media strategies to promote this message—through television, radio, print and social networking and through partnerships with influential messengers including First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Oz, and Jamie Oliver. A simple, compelling message carried by influential messengers, can shape a new narrative of change.

Aha #2: Trust young people to lead
Early in our BHC process, we chose to bring young people into leadership roles in BHC. Little did I know that this decision would not only impact community efforts but would impact how we view our work. Young people and adults view health issues differently, and it makes perfect sense to engage young people directly in developing strategies to improve their health. It makes sense but in the past, we didn’t. We operated like most adult organizations and didn’t engage young people in our thinking.

We’ve seen first hand that young people can be powerful leaders for social change. When they tell their stories through the arts, spoken word, social networking and journalism, they compel action. They are not only about our future; they are leaders of today.

Now that we have taken this step, we’re learning a lot. Young people brought to our attention the scandalous epidemic of suspensions and expulsions in our schools, and helped us understand how this issue connects to their health. Young men of color led us to a greater understanding of the role of trauma in the lives of youth growing up in homes and neighborhoods plagued with violence and gangs, and lifted up the need for social/emotional health and healing. And we’ve seen first hand that young people can be powerful leaders for social change. When they tell their stories through the arts, spoken word, social networking and journalism, they compel action. They are not only about our future; they are leaders of today. We’re evolving into an organization informed by adult and youth perspectives.

In addition to the numerous youth organizing and development efforts in the sites, I’ve created a “President’s Youth Council,” consisting of 14 youth leaders across the state, who meet with me at least twice annually in my role as President & CEO. In this way, I have the privilege of  hearing directly from youth leaders themselves about the progress and struggles of BHC, and how our foundation can be more responsive to and supportive of young people’s distressed neighborhoods. I believe this represents a fundamental culture change that will influence our work in the years to come.

As of this writing, BHC youth leaders, working in coalitions with the organizations that support them, have begun to rack up a series of policy victories that will put a check on the epidemic numbers of school suspensions, calling for alternative, common-sense discipline practices (like restorative justice approaches) that keep kids in school. This was an issue, by the way, that was nowhere on our radar screen in the early planning of BHC. It emerged from the youth voices in the BHC sites.

Aha #3: Build power, not just knowledge and innovation  
Frederick Douglass said that power concedes nothing without demand. The world doesn’t change because of the release of new data. It responds or concedes when people demand change.

Institutional philanthropy tends to worship at one of two altars: new knowledge, and innovation. Both are overrated, over-hyped, and over-subscribed to in our field.

Institutional philanthropy tends to worship at one of two altars: new knowledge, and innovation. Both are overrated, over-hyped, and over-subscribed to in our field. It can be argued that the primary value of philanthropy to civic society is the issue of problem-solving at scale. In a wonderfully linear, logical, and intellectually-driven world, good data, research, and new knowledge would be king. But that is not the world we live in. Recently, I noted that the state legislature in North Carolina effectively banned the use of scientific projections on global warming-induced tidal changes because they stand to impede the path of business development. More recently, the NRA-led prohibition against gun violence research by the CDC was recently challenged by President Obama after Newtown. I wish these represented isolated events, but history has shown that good science is frequently set aside by political and economic forces to the detriment of civic society.

The best public health example of this issue is the 80-year-plus war against big tobacco. The medical and public health communities have had the science about the detrimental effects of tobacco use since the 1920’s; but big tobacco had the power. We lost the battle decade after decade, and it was not until we discovered the merits of political and grassroots advocacy which, in combination with the science, led to a strategy where we began to rack up some victories.

On a related front, philanthropy seems hopelessly in love with “innovation” as well.  In the corporate, for-profit world, innovation quickly scales through profit – the I-phone being a classic example. In the social sectors, innovation rarely paves the way towards scale on its own merits. Too many politically powerful forces are in play. Power, voice, and advocacy matter, and matter greatly. Data and innovation, without the recognition of political power and advocacy, is in vain. The school suspensions battle was a perfect illustration of this point, as youth leaders and youth advocacy organizations utilized suspension data that demonstrated a disproportionate impact on African-American and Latino young men as a result of the practices.

In Building Healthy Communities we’ve decided to be clear; we want to help community leaders and residents build the power they need to promote healthier places for young people. We want to support people and organizations that think power, act with power and demand change. Power concedes nothing without demand, and as Douglass added, it never has and it never will.

Tomorrow, in part 2 of this series, Dr. Robert Ross discusses 10 lessons learned on the path to community engagement.

--Robert K. Ross, M.D.

Social Media, So What? RWJF Tackles How to Answer the Social Media, So What Question
April 17, 2013

Debra Joy Perez (@djoyperez) is currently serving as Interim Vice President of Research and Evaluation at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Perez-100Last year, after Steve Downs shared an overview of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) social media strategy, we hosted a series of interviews with RWJF staff members about how social media, and more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer, are adding new and critical dimensions to their work. The first case study on social networking as a learning tool is available here. The second on experimenting with different social mediums to serve as a catalyst for collaboration is available here. The third on leveraging social media to expand networks is available here.

The latest post offers perspective on how the use of these tools—which have become essential to our communication efforts—can be measured to reflect the impact of our work and rooted in a context of achieving social change goals.

Q: 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. Why are metrics important to RWJF?
A: RWJF has a 40 year history of developing evidence-based programming. We are known for our research and evaluation work nationally and internationally. Yet, as new ways to advance our goals in health and health care become more reliant on technology, we struggle with measuring success and accountability.

Since 2009, RWJF has been incorporating Web 2.0 technology in our everyday work. That is what people who visit our website  can see since our September redesign, as we have more social sharing facilitation tools across the site. We also invite conversation about how to advance health and health care on Twitter, Facebook, and produce content that can serve the needs of various online communities.

We can clearly see and have made projections about the future value of social media. Social media can help us create social change and build movements around the causes that we care deeply about. We have learned many key lessons from initiating this work guided by our principles of openness, participation, and decentralization. Specific lessons include:

  • Personal outreach matters;
  • Responsiveness to requests for engagement is important;
  • Criticism can lead to healthy dialogue;
  • Make engagement easy and simple; and
  • Engagement takes work and dedicated resources.

These take homes suggest that each of these principles requires concerted efforts and conversations about policies and processes for achieving the intended goals. With each social media campaign, we must be explicit about expectations. Social media metrics is an essential part of our efforts at RWJF. We need measurement to help us achieve those expectations. Measurement also helps us continually improve our use of social media to achieve our broader social change goals.

Social media is another tool to achieve larger goals. While it can be a very powerful tool, it should not be mistaken for an end in itself.

Q: What does an effective and efficient social media campaign look like?
A: So where do you start: well, you might start first with acknowledging what you are already doing in social media and celebrating that. Do you have a Facebook page, an organizational presence on Twitter, operations on Tumblr? Conduct an inventory of what you are doing as an organization, as well as the engagement by individuals. Do staff leverage social media for their job, how have they been able to extend their reach, do we regularly appear on relevant blogs?

As you do this, you might start to recognize how much you don’t know. BUT don’t let the “not-knowing” stop you.

  • Have an explicit dialogue about your goals, what are you trying to accomplish with your social media efforts, e.g. what is the purpose of tweeting something, what is the action you want an individual to take? Although click-through is not itself an outcome, in my view, it is a process measure. 
  • Identify your networks. You probably already have more of a network than you recognize (see The Networked Nonprofit  by Kanter).
  • Schedule a formal discussion about value proposition in-house. Talk to who does it now and who doesn’t. Don’t expect everyone to Tweet. Some are better long-form writers and therefore might be better suited for blogging.
  • Establish data points for measuring impact of what you do.
  • Provide unique URLs for product releases and then test URL placements against each other (AB testing) to see which one is more effective.

Ultimately, discuss to what end are you using social media. Social media is another tool to achieve larger goals. While it can be a very powerful tool, it should not be mistaken for an end in itself.

Q: What is the expected ROI for social media?
A: We believe social media can have a profound effect on expanding our reach, as more people are building trusted networks of individuals and organizations and engaging online. Appropriate use of social media channels help us provide the right information and the right tools into the hands of our health and health care advocates (also known as message evangelists). You then start to see how making data accessible in new ways, such as interactives, data visualizations, and infographics, enables us to illustrate key points for case-making and building awareness.  

Because social media is a vehicle through which ideas can be generated, tested, built upon, and spread, we believe that this is worth measuring. However, while there is a plethora of ready to use analytical tools crowding the market, the challenge will be to avoid the “low-hanging fruit” trap of measuring activity over action. If we do our job correctly, we will be able to say what works and what doesn’t using social media metrics, as well as distinguishing online from offline impact.

Q: What is the current state of the field for measuring social media? Where do we go from here?
A: The potential power of social is undeniable and we are looking for ways to continue to test our assumptions about what we are producing. For example, by watching others comment on Twitter about our work we not only have a better sense of how we are being understood, it also serves as a kind of content analysis of the impact we are having. By monitoring a recurring Twitter chat, we can hear whether our meaning and intention is influencing the discussion in the way we desire it to.

As the unit responsible for measuring the impact of our work, we regularly ask ourselves: What are we using social media for? Who are our target audiences (segmented, as well as aggregated)? (The ability to diversify our networks is a huge value to RWJF; developing metrics that includes demographics of our audiences is an important part of the measurement effort.) What is the expected action/behavior we wish to see? How do we measure behavior change? How can we best go beyond measuring online activity (page views, unique visitors, tweets, and re-tweets) to measuring offline action and policy change? This is the key challenge for philanthropy today: assessing an effective and efficient social media campaign. As a foundation, accountable to our Board and the public, we must have standards for our investments in social media just as we do for our programmatic investments. We ought to be able to answer the so-what question for investing staff time and talent in social media campaigning. As a sector, we are becoming much more sophisticated in our use of communications to advance our work. Looking at ways to measure social media should fit within the framework of measuring communications broadly. Even as the task of identifying communications indicators is challenging, social media lends itself well to being more precise and thus measurable.

In order to engage the field in a dialogue on social media measurement, RWJF is hosting a national convening of experts in three domains: evaluation, communications, and social media. The April convening will produce a set of indicators on five Foundation-focused outcomes:

1. Our foundation is viewed as a valuable information source.

2. Our foundation is viewed as transparent.

3. Lessons are disseminated, multiplying impact beyond our foundation’s reach.

4. Public knowledge, advocacy, influence, and action is increased in strategic areas

5. Our networks strengthen and diversify.

We invite you to help us advance the field of social media measurement. Please follow hashtag #SM_RE on Twitter for conversations stemming from the social media measurement meeting this month, including a live Twitter chat on April 18, 3 p.m. EDT, as we continue to move the field forward in using data to evaluate and assess impact of our work.

-- Debra Joy Perez

Using Social Media to Expand Networks: A Q&A with Susan Promislo
September 27, 2012

Susan Promislo  is Senior Communications Officer for the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Promislo_100At 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 grant makers have about developing and accessing 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. The second on experimenting with different social media to serve as a catalyst for collaboration 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 Communications Officer? How is it changing your relationship with grantees and the wider community you serve?

Susan Promislo (SP): As the former communications officer for the Pioneer Portfolio, I think I was the first staff member at the Foundation to manage a blog and one of the first to use Twitter. In part, it was because of our involvement in conferences like TED and communities like Health 2.0 that are further out in front with technology and social networking. But we also knew that a broadcast strategy was not going to work for Pioneer, which focused on finding transformative ideas from within and outside of health and health care. We had to pursue a networking strategy, had to be learning, had to be open to ideas from all avenues.

It helps affirm that we’re connecting beyond our usual suspects, and that social media has empowered us to build stronger, more diverse networks. It has helped program staff raise their profiles and gain greater presence in new fields, paving the way to build relationships with key thinkers and actors that they might not otherwise have developed.

So I learned by jumping in and feeling my way, listening to what was going on, and learning from others. And social media became not only another way to promote RWJF and our grantees, and engage others in our work, but also a way for me to deepen my learning on key issues and make valuable connections.

Twitter, in particular, has been really instructive. As I began to follow more people and have more people follow me, and see those networks blossom, I became more comfortable as a voice on the issues we care about, and as a connector who could share information that others might find valuable.

As far as our grantees, we provide resources to help them be more effective in their use of social media. But we also leverage RWJF’s platforms, voice, and reach to lend further power to their work.

TT: We have all seen and heard many examples in recent years about how social media is a perfect medium for discovering new ideas and building networks. What initiative or project comes to mind that is an exemplary case of how you have used social media for these purposes? Share a brief background about the project with us and how it unfolded.

SP: Forward Promise is a $9.5 million initiative that we recently launched to improve the health, education, and employment outcomes for boys and young men of color. RWJF believes that health is shaped as powerfully—if not more powerfully—by social factors than by the health care we receive. Things like housing, access to a good education, income, exposure to violence, and access to reliable transportation make a huge impact on your health over your lifetime.

If you look at the challenges facing young men of color in this country, the data are pretty staggering. If we don't act now to give them the opportunity to be healthy and successful, I think we're in danger of undercutting the futures of an entire generation of young men.

In shaping our strategy for Forward Promise, we didn't want to take an insular approach. We wanted to reach out to organizations and stakeholders on the ground in these communities, working on these issues and with these young men, and engage their input in shaping the strategy.

TT: What circumstances do you think made this a successful experiment? And reflecting on the experience, what was the biggest reward or outcome from this experience?

SP: Before we ever put pen to paper on a Call for Proposals, we issued a Call for Ideas to the field, relying heavily on social media. We researched and connected with a number of organizations that never either knew of RWJF, or did not view us as a potential funding source. Ultimately, we received more than 320 ideas from organizations that greatly informed and enriched the conversation and our exploration. And now we’re staying connected to them, keeping them informed of our progress and reaching back out to them with the Call for Proposals.

The Foundation has crafted a larger strategy around becoming a Web 2.0 philanthropy. What this means is that, if we run something like a Call for Ideas, at the end we can’t just thank everybody for their contributions, go back behind the curtain, and deliberate on where we move forward from there. We need to actively stay in touch with the community that we reached out to, and that shared with us so openly, and keep them informed of our progress. We need to shed light on how our strategy is forming, what our challenges might be, where we're struggling, and where their insights could continue to help us. Because I think, in doing that, it engages more people to take part in what’s ultimately a stronger movement to change the future for young men of color.

TT: What surprised you the most about the effort?

SP: What struck me was that, of those 324 groups that responded to our Call for Ideas, more than 300 had no prior funding relationship with the Foundation. It helps affirm that we’re connecting beyond our usual suspects, and that social media has empowered us to build stronger, more diverse networks. It has helped program staff raise their profiles and gain greater presence in new fields, paving the way to build relationships with key thinkers and actors that they might not otherwise have developed.

TT: What advice would you offer to foundation colleagues interested in pursuing similar work?

SP: I think, in general, we’re all pressed for time and it’s easy to see engaging in social media as being less of a priority amidst all of the competing demands; but the time you put into it ultimately does have its payoffs.

There's been a dramatic recognition on the part of the Foundation that we don't have all of the answers, and that it’s key to connect to unexpected partners and networks that might have solutions we never would have surfaced on our own. Occasionally, social media help you harness serendipity, which I love—you just come across different perspectives and resources. And it gives staff a channel for their personalities to shine through, to be more approachable and informal, which is never a bad thing in philanthropy.

--Susan Promislo

About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

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