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Transatlantic Exchange: A German Foundation's Social Media Journey, Part One
May 3, 2012

(Anja Adler, a former communication manager for German foundation Stiftung Mercator, is now writing her PhD on the political importance of online communication and social media and works as freelancing social media strategist for the foundation. She has a M.A. degree in Communication and North American Studies from Free University Berlin.)

Anja Adler

Many German foundations are still debating whether or not to engage with social media. Even though some of the larger foundations set up Facebook, Youtube or Twitter accounts, one-way communication is still the rule and dialogue on these new platforms – with few exceptions – oftentimes left to the communication intern. At Stiftung Mercator we believe that social media are not just an add-on. At the end of 2009, we therefore set up a strategy with the aim to integrate these new communication channels in the work of all of our staff, attempting to be more transparent and to help our staff with feedback and new ideas from old and new stakeholders. After the first two years of getting our feet wet, we have successfully set up a social media task force to continuously build our skills, installed a social media newsroom that incorporates channels like Facebook, Flickr, Scribd, and Youtube, and experimented with online campaigning in some of our projects.

While we are proud of the accomplishments, we are still looking for answers to some of the most important strategic questions:

  • Should social media leadership be left to communications or should programs take the same responsibility?
  • How can we inspire more feedback and generate more added value?
  • What are the best “calls to action“ for us and how can our community benefit in return?

With a few more years of a social media head start, we were wondering what the U.S. foundations have to say. So I ventured out to the U.S. this March to speak with nine of them, which included representatives from: Asia Society, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, German Marshall Fund, Knight Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sunlight Foundation, and the Foundation Center.

Click on the blue tags to see location details. Hint: Double click the map to zoom in and see all locations in New York.

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After more than 2,000 miles traveled, and more than  24 hours spent in meetings, with more than 26 people, there were plenty of answers and helpful anecdotes (I put together Storifys on each foundation for more information). As William Bohlen from the German Marshall Fund correctly remarked, "If you know one foundation, you know one foundation." Still, some patterns have emerged and as I reflect on this journey,  two recurring themes  were echoed about lessons learned from philanthropy sector experimentation into social media usage thus far: content is king, and the development of social media champions. In today’s post I will focus on what I heard about content, and in my next post I will share the specifics on what I learned about social media champions.

Content is King

With the growing importance of the internet and the transitional role of journalism, new intermediaries are taking over the public sphere. "For the first time in history, we have the chance to become influential publishers ourselves", Geoff Spencer, Vice President Communications and Marketing at Asia Society, told me. Instead of discussing all the possible social media channels out there (apparently Pinterest is the latest craze in the States, too...), I found myself talking to many foundations about the growing importance of addressing target audiences directly instead of only trying to pitch the media. This new focus on content ownership seems to have increased the foundations' awareness of data and stories in general. The trend of content strategy and rise of content strategist positions at many U.S. foundations might be a reaction to the insight that all social media channels need a good online hub – and in most cases this is the web site.

With an integrated Twitter wall and large image-centered news releases, Knight Foundation's web site, for example, puts stories about grantees and projects first. The Foundation Center's project uses powerful data visualization to coordinate funding efforts of eleven foundations and transparently and visually report about it. Sunlight Foundation even funds a project called Politiwidgets that provides infographics on members of Congress and makes inserting them into a blog post as easy as embedding YouTube videos. Blogs also do the job, as Rachel Hart, Communications Officer, Open Society Foundations, summarized, "I see our blog as our own newspaper. We can’t just wait for others to cover our issues, we need to get the story out there ourselves." And that sometimes leads to stories in the traditional media. One of Open Society Foundation's blog stories has been picked up by CNN, a Knight blog story found its way into a PBS report, and posts from Asia Society's blog are regularly featured in The Atlantic.

For Mercator, this focus on content strategy will mean three things for the future:

  • First, we will be discussing how to increase online editorial content on our grantees and projects to better link our social media story-telling to our online presence. Of course, you can already find all the necessary information (project descriptions, funding data, project partners etc.) on our web site, but apart from news releases we do not yet share success stories and lessons learned.
  • Second, we will also be talking about data visualization. With the help of mapping and infographics we could probably communicate our complex topics - climate change, integration and cultural education – in much more approachable, user-friendly ways.
  • Third, we will be screening the most important blogs for our topics. Even though we might not start our own blog right away, we will definitely be engaging in this new sphere of public debate in the future.

In my next post I will share details about the other theme that emerged from my travels, about finding and supporting internal social media champions. Since I could not meet with every foundation representative who is involved in interesting social media experimentation, please share your thoughts about what you have learned from incorporating social media into your philanthropic work in the comments below.


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

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