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.
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?
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
for a year or so, and
recently launched a blog
. We’ve also
been experimenting with Yammer
in-house tool for sharing knowledge. I registered my personal Twitter account
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.)