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September 2012 (5 posts)

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

New Eye on the Giving Pledge Profiles Added to Glasspockets
September 20, 2012

Eye on the Giving Pledge

Following this week’s announcement of the latest signatories to the Giving Pledge, Glasspockets has added eleven new profiles to our Eye on the Giving Pledge feature; there are now 92 updated profiles available.  Each profile details the participant's net worth, primary industry affiliation, giving interests, related foundations, charitable board service, and philanthropic press coverage. The new Pledger profiles include:

Since August 2012, Glasspockets has been keeping an Eye on the Giving Pledge, providing an in-depth picture of the participants and their publicly known charitable activities.

Explore the Eye on the Giving Pledge»

-- Daniel Matz

Glasspockets Find: Giving Pledge Adds Eleven Signatories
September 18, 2012

Eye on the Giving PledgeThe Giving Pledge, in a press release issued today, announced the addition of eleven families to the effort launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in 2010 to encourage the wealthiest Americans to commit the majority of their assets to philanthropic causes. This brings the number of signatories to 92 individuals, spouses and their families. The new pledgers include:

  • Manoj Bhargava
  • Charles R. Bronfman
  • Dan and Jennifer Gilbert
  • Reed Hastings and Patty Quillin
  • Peter B. Lewis
  • Gordon and Betty Moore
  • Jonathan M. Nelson
  • Jorge M. and Darlene Perez
  • Claire and Leonard Tow
  • Albert Lee Ueltschi
  • Dr. Romesh and Kathleen Wadhwani

Since August 2012, Glasspockets has been keeping an Eye on the Giving Pledge, providing an in-depth picture of the participants and their publicly known charitable activities. Profiles for the new signatories will be posted soon.

Explore the Eye on the Giving Pledge»

-- Daniel Matz

Are Chinese Foundations More Transparent than American Foundations?
September 13, 2012

(Bradford K. Smith is the president of the Foundation Center.)

Brad SmithOn August 29, the China Foundation Center launched its online Foundation Transparency Index a "proactive solution to set a new standard for the ethical conduct of foundations in China." Many people are surprised to learn there are foundations in China, let alone that they might be held to higher standards of transparency than their American counterparts. Could that really be the case?

First of all, there are foundations in China -- more than twenty-seven hundred of them, according to the China Foundation Center. China Foundation Transparency IndexLaunched in 2010, the CFC was created as a public information service at a time when China's economic growth increasing wealth concentration and strained social safety net were catalyzing a surge in the number of new foundations. The vision of its founders is not unlike the vision of John Gardner and others who, in 1956, created the (U.S.) Foundation Center to provide greater transparency to a rapidly expanding foundation sector in this country. In 1956, that meant stuffing the paper records of seven thousand foundations into filing cabinets. Today it means online databases, data visualization, video, social media, and digitized research reports covering some ninety thousand U.S. grantmakers and millions of their grants, research reports, news stories, and tweets. In contrast, the China Foundation Center was born digital and in just two short years has created online databases, interactive graphics, and research reports that take into account every grantmaker in China.

The CFC's Foundation Transparency Index is comprehensive, having already rated close to 70 percent of Chinese foundations.

Second, the CFC's Foundation Transparency Index is an elaborate one, carefully crafted with technical assistance from an advisory group of experts from some of China's leading universities with backgrounds in public policy, "anti-corruption studies," law, and nonprofit studies. The index comprises a checklist of sixty transparency indicators grouped into four categories: basic information, financial information, projects information, and donor information.  An elaborate algorithm produces a weighted composite score, with a maximum score of 129.4. Foundations' positions change in the rankings as their scores are adjusted weekly depending on the information they publicly disclose.  Just to be sure you don't miss the dynamic nature of the rankings, the tables for each foundation show their previous rankings, whether they are moving up or down, and their twelve-week range.  For the 1,831 foundations currently included in the index, only two (this week) get a perfect score of 129.4, while the average for all foundations (this week) is 52.98.

Third, foundations in China are regulated by the Chinese government, making the index a kind of complementary mechanism designed to further enhance voluntary transparency among Chinese foundations. If a foundation chooses not to publicly disclose the information via its own Web site, it will end up with a lower ranking. That is where a crucial difference between the Chinese and American contexts comes into play. In China, the term "foundation" is applied to both "public foundations," which are more like what we would call public charities, and "private foundations," which are akin to private operating foundations in the U.S. The former have every motivation to earn a high score in the Foundation Transparency Index because they solicit and depend on contributions from the public to carry out their work. The latter, though not technically endowed, are established with "registration capital" provided by an individual donor or corporation. Both, however, are concerned about the negative impact of scandal on the sector and know they can benefit from a positive image and general societal appreciation of their role.  Thus, the CFC' s Foundation Transparency Index is part Charity Navigator and part "Who Has Glasspockets?" -- a cross between a rating system and a transparency framework.

Fourth, American foundations, like their Chinese counterparts, are required to comply with government disclosure requirements by filing Form 990 or 990-PF. That information is made publicly available by the Internal Revenue Service in the form of unwieldy image files.  Organizations like the Foundation Center take millions of those forms and make them searchable in their entirety or, cleaned and coded, in tools like Foundation Directory Online. The cleaning and coding compensates for the missing, inconsistent, and limited information often found on those forms, but no one has ever had the temerity to actually score and rate American foundations on the information provided in the forms. Conventional wisdom has always assumed that, as endowed institutions, American foundations would be relatively impervious to any pressure a rating system might generate and, perhaps more importantly, unlikely to provide grants to whoever created and maintained such a system.

So getting back to the question that inspired this post, the answer is "maybe." The CFC's Transparency Index is geared more toward measuring to what degree Chinese foundations are disclosing compliance information, a good portion of which (43 of the 60 indicators) they are supposed to be providing to the government anyway. In addition to other types of information the CFC has deemed conducive to transparency (e.g., social media profiles, bios of board members, the foundation president's resume), a Chinese foundation wishing to attain a higher index score needs to go the extra mile by making the information available on its own Web site.

The Foundation Center's "Who Has Glasspockets?" transparency profile mixes a few compliance elements with governance indicators and features -- things like grants databases, knowledge centers, and performance assessments -- that help to illustrate a foundation's efforts to openly promote deeper understanding of the nature, impact, and quality of its work. At the same time, the FC transparency profile presumes that transparency in the digital age starts with a Web presence, thereby excluding the 74 percent of U.S. foundations that have no Web site at all. Foundations that are online can work voluntarily with Foundation Center staff to develop their individual "Who Has Glasspockets?" profiles. There is no scoring or ranking.

The CFC's Foundation Transparency Index is comprehensive, having already rated close to 70 percent of Chinese foundations, while the Foundation Center has painstakingly convinced forty-three foundations to voluntarily post transparency profiles on Glasspockets.

Philanthropy has long been a global phenomenon. But today technology gives us near real-time information by which to understand ourselves through comparison with others.  American foundations may be different than Chinese foundations in some ways, but in facing growing demands for transparency from government, media, and the public we are more alike than we realize.

-- Brad Smith

Taking the Foundation Annual Report Exercise to the Next Level: Blue Shield of California Foundation’s Experience
September 12, 2012

(Peter Long, Ph.D. is the President of Blue Shield of California Foundation and Christine Maulhardt is its Communications Manager.)

Peter LongChristine Maulhardt

A strange thing happened this year when we kicked off planning for our new annual report - everyone got excited. In the past, annual report planning generated multiple meetings and produced groans around the office. Repackaging numbers and grant descriptions and flattening our programs, grantees, and impact into two dimensions was never a popular exercise. We can all agree that making audited financial statements have pizzazz is nearly impossible. Annual reports should do more than simply report numbers of grants, dollars provided, and laundry lists of accomplishments. Annual reports should share the data, stories, and vision of an organization.

At Blue Shield of California Foundation, we use our annual report to simultaneously reflect on our work and share our vision for the future. While we’re doing these things, we also want our viewers to have a unique experience. This is why we’ve transitioned from a traditional print annual report to online interactive reports. Not only are we saving trees and embracing technology, we’re also attempting to draw our audiences into an experience that will stay with them much longer. By using pictures, videos, interactive maps, and links, we want viewers to get a holistic and authentic look at what we do and understand why we do it.

2011 Annual ReportToo often, foundations present metrics and data and use jargon to explain our work. For foundation staff, it can seem normal to talk about a 57 percent increase in organizational capacity and a 114 percent return on investment. These data are impressive when given in the context of grant investments, yet remain abstract to the vast majority of people. Data are only numbers until you provide meaning and context. As part of our transparency, foundations need to be authentic and accessible. Grant dollars and evaluation statistics are clearer when they are supported by the stories of people and communities.

Our goal for this year’s annual report was to turn the abstract into the authentic. We used photos to put a face to the hundreds of thousands of Californians who gained health care coverage over the year. We showed the health center, school, and community organization staff collaborating to prevent violence in their community. And we showed how a victim of domestic violence regained her confidence and her community. Working in the domestic violence and health care fields can create challenges to authenticity when telling the stories of those benefitting from our funding. Privacy of service recipients is both a legal and safety issue for our grantees (community health centers and domestic violence service providers). In our annual report we created characters that are composites of the clients served by these organizations every day. These composites were developed in consultation with our program staff who, through site visits, meetings, and long-standing relationships with grantees, have a deep understanding of the realities of our clients in a wide array of communities. Some may find irony in creating authenticity through made-up characters, but protecting individuals’ privacy and safety is our utmost concern.

Most importantly, our annual report looked at the experiences of an entire community and showed how our foundation is tackling a slice of their reality. Communities have needs that are bigger and different than what one foundation’s theory of change can accomplish. Foundations must be willing to be part of an eco-system that is dynamic and accept that grants will have successes and challenges that you may never foresee. We put forth a story of a community in 2015 - a date that is just around the corner. Inevitably the story will change between now and then, but we felt that was a risk worth taking to show our vision.

Transparency isn't a once a year exercise accomplished by an annual report. Stories and numbers of impact should be assessed impartially and shared regularly. Social media has helped our foundation give life to data for real-time impact. This allows us to make our annual report a narrative that is more memorable and focuses attention on the broader vision of our organization. Storytelling unlocks the meaning of data and keeps the focus on the end result - how foundations can improve lives and communities.

-- Peter Long & Christine Maulhardt

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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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