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Transatlantic Exchange: A German Foundation's Social Media Journey, Part Two
May 10, 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

Last time, I blogged about my recent journey to the US to learn about how US grantmakers are incorporating social media networks into their philanthropic efforts to identify models that might be useful for the German-based Stiftung Mercator, where I work. One of the questions I started with was whether social media leadership should be left to communications, or if programs should take up the responsibility? A recurring theme, and a possible answer that emerged throughout my journey, was the importance of cultivating internal social media champions.

Social media networks are fast-paced; organizational change isn't. As Case Foundation's Be Fearless initiative perfectly portrays, social media is just one measure among many towards a more tolerant and open learning culture. It is difficult for an organization to change everything at once. Additionally, every foundation needs to find its own way. But talking to Asia Society, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Knight Foundation, Open Society Foundations and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I heard repeating ideas. No question, CEO and leadership support are central to the successful change of a foundation's communication culture. As Eric Cade Schoenborgn, Community Manger at Knight Foundation, perfectly put it, "We are our CEO." Robert Wood Johnson's Risa Lavizzo-Mourey (@Risalavizzo), Knight's Alberto Ibargüen (@Ibarguen) or Gates' Jeff Raikes (@jeffraikes), for example, are all active opinion leaders on Twitter. Additionally, they informally reward staff's social media engagement through praise and attention and formally by allocating resources or including it in staff performance assessments.

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Even though leadership support is a premise, social media cannot be installed top-down. When it comes to online, two-way communication, each and every member on staff needs to learn how to use these new channels and experience the added value themselves. Here the idea of "social media champions" comes in handy. Instead of "converting" all employees at once, this approach suggests building a coalition of the willing. All of the above mentioned foundations worked with pilot projects, starting with a handful of staff members and helped them become "social media champions." The chosen volunteers received training sessions and were supported by internal or external consultants to work on strategies relevant to their projects and needs.

For Mercator, this approach seems ideal. Giving interviews and speeches, my colleagues are already ambassadors of the foundation. By starting with only a few people, this strategy also formulates smarter goals. It help to keep costs and resources in check by offering training only when it is needed. With this strategy we could make sure that social media is only used when it supports our strategic work. And as a benefit the "social media champions" then spread the word about their social media success, be it the call of a journalist in response to a blog story, the tweeted feedback of a project partner, or the proposal for an online challenge by target audience not reached before. What more can you ask for?

I would be interested in hearing if other foundations have experience with this approach. Also let me know with whom I should visit on my next trip? Please also give me your suggestions or social media links I should see below.

At Mercator, we know we are just at the beginning of our social media journey and my travels in the U.S. have given me a guard railing. Hopefully this first tour was just the beginning of a continuing exchange because we are definitely looking forward to the ride.


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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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