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Becoming a "Web 2.0 Philanthropy" at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
January 10, 2012

(Steve Downs is Chief Technology and Information Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

Steve Downs Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), like many philanthropies today, has embraced social media. We have a Facebook page, YouTube channels, blogs and multiple official Twitter feeds. Our staff also participate directly: more than 40 of my colleagues are regular Twitter users and many have contributed blog posts to popular sites within their fields. Our CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey (@risalavizzo), sets the tone with her regular activity on Twitter.

Like many philanthropies, we're still finding our way and doing our best to learn from our collective experiences and from the experiences of others. For RWJF, engagement in social media is rooted in a context – a context about who we are as an organization and what we seek to become.

The first part of that context comes from our history with transparency. Since RWJF's beginnings, we have emphasized independent evaluation of our programs. As David Colby (@DavidCColby) and his colleagues have detailed, RWJF chose to make public the results of those evaluations so others could learn whether the interventions had (or had not) been effective. In addition, since 2007, we have made public an annual assessment that examines a number of dimensions of our organizational performance. (You can download these reports on our website.)

The second part starts in 2008, when RWJF underwent a strategic planning exercise where we began by looking at the world around us. We saw innovations in philanthropy coming from newer, smaller foundations -- like the Steve and Jean Case Foundation and the Omidyar Network -- that were leveraging new technologies to cast a wider net as an effort to stimulate conversation and engage people more widely. We saw new models for the sector like Kiva and DonorsChoose -- platforms that enabled more direct connections between donors and their impact. And we also saw the amazing, disruptive accomplishments of services like Wikipedia and Craigslist that were run by organizations employing only a few dozen staff by but drawing their power from vast networks of engaged users. We came away from this effort with a sense -- still very impressionistic -- that we should explore what it would mean for us to become a "Web 2.0 Philanthropy."

"Web 2.0" is becoming an increasingly archaic term as it is regularly supplanted by the term "social media," but for us, the distinction has meaning. Where "social media" is often associated with services like Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr, we see "Web 2.0" as running deeper. It is the collection of tools that harness the collective creativity and knowledge of and promote interaction among the Web's many users. It is based on an "architecture of participation," which enables the users of a service to add value to that service. Beyond social media, it can be expressed in many other ways, ranging from the user who improves on a cooking magazine's recipe by adding an unexpected spice to the protester during the Arab Spring posting a cell phone video of a beating on YouTube for the world to see. It is the seller rating system of eBay, in which the experiences of hundreds of other buyers give a potential buyer confidence in the seller. It is about the blurring of the lines between producer and consumer, the blurring of the lines between expert and non-expert and the aggregation of many small contributions into something of great value.

We knew that as a relatively large and relatively middle-aged foundation (we celebrate our 40th anniversary this year) with our traditions, habits and engrained practices – we would have to consciously push ourselves to evolve in this direction. We needed first to flesh out the vision, which we did through a combination of research (i.e. small "r" research like reading case studies and talking with folks at other organizations) and experiential learning. Those of us tasked with working on the vision felt we couldn't do so unless we were actively engaging in Web 2.0 experiences, so we started experimenting with Twitter and Facebook -- and experiencing their cultures and experiencing their value to our day-to-day work. It wasn't long before we concluded that becoming a Web 2.0 philanthropy was not so much about adopting new social media than it was about embracing the underlying values of Web 2.0 and weaving them in to our work. We honed in on three principal values:

  • Openness, at one level, implies transparency–letting others see into the organization and how it works. But in Web 2.0, openness goes beyond organizational transparency and represents humility and a willingness to learn, to be surprised, and to hear and accept criticism.

  • Participation refers to a style of engagement in the professional communities of which we are a part. It requires asking questions, listening, responding and contributing where we can add value–whether expertise, research and other materials, or connections.

  • Decentralization is a natural consequence of distributed participation and inherently requires a ceding of some control. So much information is now created and shared collaboratively, and the path and shape that such information takes cannot be controlled by any one entity or group. However, a tremendous upside of the emergence of Web 2.0 is the potential for countless unseen contributors to augment and amplify one's own contributions.

Building on these values, the research and our early experiences, we sketched out a vision of how RWJF could embrace Web 2.0. The vision included a number of elements, ranging from using social media to be better informed about our fields and the work of our grantees, to cultivating our networks of people and organizations who care about our issues, to crowdsourcing expertise, to seeking feedback and criticism and ultimately, to using using Web 2.0 principles to design programs that work at very large scales. The vision, along with a strategy to evolve toward it, gave the organization a context and a rationale for our embrace of social media, which was beginning to play out.

One might be tempted to think that with all of this Web 2.0 strategy development going on, we approached social media with a deliberate, carefully planned strategy, but in fact, we took a much more organic approach. Previous to the Web 2.0 work, we had done some limited blogging and had gotten over the usual jitters about all the things that could go wrong. Later, as a few intrepid staff began testing the waters at Twitter and Facebook, we consciously took a supportive stance. We came up with social media guidelines that, while putting up some guardrails to limit the likelihood of unfortunate events, actually encouraged staff to experiment and to develop their own, individual personalities online. We wanted them to explore how it could provide value and we wanted to learn from their experiences. The context of our overall push to become a Web 2.0 philanthropy informed the development of our social media guidelines, provided a strong incentive for staff to participate and, by connecting it to a set of values, also influences how staff participate in social media.

We're a couple of years into our journey and we reap the benefits of being more open and engaged every day.  Many staff feel as if they're better engaged in their fields, they're learning more and they're expanding their networks.  This being a journey, though, it hasn't always been easy and we've hit our share of potholes.  Staff do wrestle with where to find the time to engage meaningfully in social media and being open and engaged often means having to expose what you don't know -- which can be uncomfortable.  We're also finding that there's a long way between having a vision of how to leverage Web 2.0 to change the world and having the world reliably work like a Wikipedia or a Craigslist.  Just because you ask people's opinions doesn't mean you'll get them -- sometimes the crowd keeps its wisdom to itself.  My colleague Erin Kelly will speak to some of these challenges in a future post on our social media experience.  As we continue this journey, we have lots to learn -- and I'd love to hear how others are finding success or overcoming obstacles to becoming more open, more participatory and more decentralized.

Have you ventured down a similar path? Tell us if/how your organization has embraced these tools to work in a different fashion. Did you to so to become better informed? Build networks? Service a traditional organizational or "consumer" need in a new manner? Let others hear what you have struggled with (or celebrated) to help shape the trajectory of a project you are working on with the contributions of others.

-- Steve Downs


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It's great to see these comments -- thank you all.  I want to pick up on a couple of them specifically.  

Jeff -- your point about trust is quite interesting.  One if the ideas we've discussed at RWJF is earning credibility not by always getting it right the first time but by being committed to getting right.  We're human and will make mistakes (hopefully not too often) but we need to be committed to correcting our work when others find those mistakes.  In that sense, as you suggest, we use the network to build trust.  I agree with you totally about the need for digital-first information products. One of the implications of embracing decentralization is that you design your products with the explicit goal of having people share them, build on them and improve them.  Easier said than done -- and you're the expert on this -- but we hope to be doing more and more of this.  

Lori -- I think the focus on transparency in health care settings highlights another benefit of opening up.  In open source software, there's a saying that "with a thousand eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."  The more people you have paying attention, the more likely they are to spot an error or contribute an idea to make something better.

Keep the comments coming -- I'd love to hear from others who are wrestling with these issues.

Thanks for this detailed post - RWJF makes a great case study.

I retweet your posts often and have used you as an example of effective use of twitter in my social media workshops.

I am here in NJ and hope we get to meet in person someday.


I really appreciate this honest, in-depth analysis of these complicated issues. I hope foundations continue the trend towards transparency, openness and more participation. I'm looking forward to following the conversation moving forward. Thanks again for your insight.

Love this post....because RWJ does such a great job with supporting transparency and patient safety through web technology. This openness and transparency is in line with what many patient safety advocates have been doing 'in the trenches' in their respective states for years. Getting laws passed that support transparency in infection reporting, adverse event reporting, maternal mortality review panels, etc, etc. (data for patients to use so they can make informed decisions). With little to no funding, we have been pushing the system from the outside-in to reduce patient harm.

Can I suggest another way to expand on that idea? Put patient safety advocates on your committees or boards so that patients/consumers can have a voice at the health-policy table. And please consider setting aside some grants each year for patient advocate/consumer orgs. All the funding is flowing to hospitals and orgs that run the system. With more funding, consumer & patient organizations can add to the long list of things we are already doing to empower patients and bring more accountability to improving health care!

Thank you for all that you do.

Very thoughtful and helpful piece. I applaud your leadership and the confidence of RWJF to endorse the values of Openess, Participation and Decentralization. Blurring the lines between expert and non-expert takes guts and you and your colleagues should be congratulated for venturing down this road. I totally believe in the "wisdom of crowds" and have no doubt this journey will be rewarding and enriching for RWJF and all those that participate with you.

Great piece Steve. Lee Rainie of Pew Internet said something at a recent conference that has stuck with me; and others have observed/measured it too -- in the digital era, "trust is moving from institutions to networks." That should be a major light-bulb moment if you're an institution whose primary currency is trust.

What you're describing here sounds like a possible answer to how an institution can establish and maintain trust in a digital setting: behave as a network, or part of a network, a node on it, something composed of the individual experts and practitioners therein that is connected to those outside the institution. To use a technical analogy -- a LAN connected out to the WAN. What you're doing here is a good strategy for transforming an institution into a trusted node in a digital conversation on issues it cares about.

I also like to use the term "digital-first" institution (or philanthropy in this case). By it I mean to include not just the digital-native process (social media participation, etc.), but a digital-native *product* focus as well. Not just how we go about the work, but the form of the material we're supplying to that network. How is the vast amount of information, knowledge, expertise that the field compiles designed for modern digital dissemination? As you know, because you're familiar with CDI, I don't think we're there yet on this front, not by a long stretch. As we shift to the Web 2.0 processes you describe here, we also need to undertake a transformation of the sector's digital products to digital-native form.

(This not unlike the conversations happening around "digital-first" journalism, also legacy institutions built on trust -- a move to digital-native in both process and end product.)

I think Web 2.0/digital-first process and product go hand-in-hand as part of the overall transition of organizations into effective, trusted institutions in a digital society.

Great article. For those of us that have started our Web 2.0 journey know the difficulties of getting everything going, but the rewards are amazing. This sums it up for me: "Web 2.0 openness goes beyond organizational transparency and represents humility and a willingness to learn, to be surprised, and to hear and accept criticism."

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