Transparency Talk

Category: "Twitter" (23 posts)

Social Networking as a Learning Tool: A Q&A with Jane Lowe
August 8, 2012

Jane Lowe is Senior Program Officer and Team Director for the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Jane LoweAt 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 grantmakers have about developing and assessing 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.

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 Team Director of the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio? How is it changing your relationship with grantees and the wider community you serve?

Jane Lowe (JL): It's been my experience that using social media has enabled me to get glimmers of ideas that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. And these ideas are coming from lots of different sources I wouldn't have heard from or necessarily known about in the past because they're outside my professional network. In general, I feel like I'm in the position to see a greater diversity of viewpoints than I have in the past.

For example, we recently hosted a gathering of foundations and practitioners all committed to improving the lives of young men of color and it was valuable to watch the stream of tweets coming from the event. Reading them in real time and seeing the range of things participants were thinking and worried about really added to the experience for me and will ultimately inform my approach to the work.

TT: We have all seen and heard many examples in recent years about how social media is a perfect vehicle for collective learning. What initiative or project comes to mind that is an exemplary case of using social media for collective learning? Share a brief background about the project with us and how it unfolded.

JL: Earlier this year we hosted a webinar that was a follow up to poll results we had released late last year. One of the findings from that poll was that physicians felt as if they're not prepared or able to address the social needs of their patients—having enough to eat, a place to live, a job to go to—and that this is getting in the way of positive health outcomes. The intention of the webinar was to bring people together to move the conversation further along: if physicians don't feel like they are capable, what specifically needs to be done?

Once the webinar wrapped up, we directed participants and the wider field to an online discussion forum to explore these ideas in greater depth and pose new ones. It was great to see such diverse engagement from people who work in medical care, public health, transportation, housing and other fields. We used Twitter to spread particularly interesting ideas and insights and invite new voices in to the discussion, and ultimately heard many perspectives we might not otherwise have uncovered.

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?

JL: While we've been hosting webinars for quite a while now, it and the forum were really excellent vehicles to have a meaningful dialogue with people who are ready to do something, who recognize there's a problem, but who might be unsure about what can be done to address it.

It was a chance to share information about a program we currently support—Health Leads—but also to think about other solutions and to call on others to consider how they could be addressing this gap in their own work. And as I mentioned earlier, it was an opportunity to identify new people and organizations that we may not have known about in the past, but that are informed and committed to addressing an issue that's core to our work at the Foundation. The Vulnerable Populations Portfolio, in particular, relies on developing partnerships with individuals and organizations outside of the traditional worlds of health and health care—including those who work in social services, transportation, urban planning, criminal justice, and more. Social media is an important part of our strategy to learn about, reach, and engage these diverse networks.

TT: That sounds like a very positive experience.  Have you actually uncovered new grantees as a result of these kinds of convenings?  Or other critical partners?   And what, if anything, surprised you most about the experience?

JL: I don't think that I was necessarily surprised, but I think it's notable that the webinar and forum focused on an issue that's going to require a multi-sector approach to be solved. Social media is helping all of us to make connections that could not have happened in the past, to break down silos that serve as obstacles to progress. It makes me hopeful about the solutions that could result from these new relationships and connections.

TT: What advice would you offer to foundation colleagues interested in pursuing similar work?

JL: I use Twitter more than anything. One of the things I like to do is to monitor the hashtag #violence because so much of the work my team supports deals with the topic. It's fascinating to me to see the wide range of issues being discussed as well as the types of people who are participating. By monitoring it at my desk when I have a few minutes, I can understand trends, identify new research and resources, and discover new thinkers.

I tend to read more than I post because I am primarily interested in using social media to discover new thinking and to understand trends in what people are discussing. So, the best advice I can give is to tell my colleagues to go ahead and jump in, but start by listening. Identify the groups and people you want to connect with and then build your comfort level as a content contributor—but never stop listening.

--Jane Lowe

Evaluating the Impact of Social Media: Are We Wasting Our Time?
June 27, 2012

(Claire Gibbons, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a senior program officer in the Research & Evaluation Unit at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She spends most of her time managing R&E projects for the Quality/Equality team.)

Gibbons_100Last month Steve Downs and I discussed some of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) experiences using social media and our first steps towards evaluating the impact of RWJF’s social media use in a webinar for Council on Foundation members (you can view the slides here). In response to our evaluation discussion, a webinar participant asked whether it makes any sense to evaluate something as spontaneous and fun as social media. This was also a question raised by Allison Fine in her blog

Allison expresses concern that a logic model “…misses the essence of what makes social media so unique, the serendipity and fun that are essential parts of “being” social”. This is an interesting and valid question- by creating a stodgy old logic model do we defeat the purpose of social media?

Before I share some thoughts on this question, let me describe briefly what we’ve been doing at RWJF. The staff at the Foundation is using social media, and many are enthusiastic about its potential to increase our impact, but until recently, no one had sat down to elicit exactly what we expect social media to impact. In fact, we engaged in a fairly lengthy period of discussion and experimentation before we began to plan for evaluation. One of RWJF’s initial steps was to form a working group to consider how the Foundation could best take advantage of Web 2.0 tools, and what it would mean for the Foundation if it did use these tools. This working group released a report internally to all Foundation staff in December of 2009. This began a period in which all staff was strongly encouraged to experiment with social media. Just signing up for Twitter and listening to the conversation by following others was encouraged, for example. A second Web 2.0 group was formed after some time passed that was charged with getting some sense of whether RWJF was moving forward with its use of social media and sharing lessons across program areas. It was at this point that we began to focus our attention on evaluation.

We decided that the first step in evaluating our use of social media should be to develop a logic model. We did this, with the help of consultant Victoria Dougherty, based on interviews with staff that were knowledgeable and involved in our social media efforts and on review of documents about our social media philosophy.

Rwjf-logic-model-6-27-graphic.470

RWJF created a logic model to help evaluate the impact of social media.

View a PDF of the logic model »

The logic model has two pathways: the first describes how RWJF can approach its work over the next five years and the second describes some of the outcomes of the work. For RWJF to realize the potential of social media and eventually reach its long-term goals for being a more effective agent of change, and being a connector and facilitator that spurs broad participation in our work it must first position itself as a Web 2.0 organization and work to become more open and nimble. Social media use may also lead to creating new connections outside the Foundation and in turn lead to a greater ability to gather information from a broad network that can result in more effective programming. See my earlier blog post here for a more in-depth discussion of this logic model.

So, back to our earlier question: Does creating a logic model to drive an evaluation of the impact of social media defeat the whole purpose?

I don’t think so. But I’m pretty sure you guessed I was going to say that, given that I’m a Research & Evaluation Officer! So let me share my thinking.

  1. Yes, social media in many cases is driven by spontaneity. Videos that go viral on YouTube are completely driven by spontaneous interest. But not all social media use is purely spontaneous. We believe that social media can be used strategically to further our programmatic goals. That means we can plan ahead to use a social media tool or tools. For example, staff at RWJF used a virtual forum to create an open platform for discussion and idea-gathering about teen dating violence prevention. They received thoughtful input from people working in the field, teens who had experienced dating violence and parents who lost a child due to dating violence, as well as many others. Read more here.
  2. A logic model does not squash innovation! It describes it. Logic models are made to be broken and expanded and changed over time. The presence of a logic model is not meant to limit anyone’s activities to something that happens to be featured in a little box in the model. The logic model doesn’t dictate our programming- it’s simply a way to describe what we are doing and what we think the result will be.
  3. RWJF’s use of social media in the workplace is predicated on the idea that it will help us achieve our goals. We could be wrong. We won’t know if social media is getting us anywhere good, or anywhere good faster, unless we measure some outcomes that we think are related to our programming activities. And one very useful tool for eliciting expected programmatic and policy outcomes is a logic model.

This isn’t to say that we think all possible pathways between use of social media and some good outcome are contained in our logic model. Absolutely not! This is just the best picture we could come up with at this point in time. New tools will become available, and we will use them. Staff will continue to innovate in ways that we haven’t imagined yet, and we welcome that innovation.

We still have a long ways to go in our journey to use social media in a way that helps us reach our strategic objectives, and in measuring and evaluating our use of social media. We certainly don’t have many answers, but think we’re on the right track. What do you think?

-- Claire Gibbons

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.

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

View a bigger map »

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.

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 washfunders.org 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.

RWJF: Thoughts on Putting the Social in Social Networking
March 12, 2012

(Erin Kelly is the social media manager at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Follow her on Twitter.)

Erin Kelly

As my colleague Steve Downs indicated in a January post here on Transparency Talk, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is "a couple of years into our journey and we reap the benefits of being more open and engaged every day." How serendipitous that as I started to draft an outline for this post, I stumbled upon "The Promise of Social Media" on Forbes, where the authors surmise, "Based on our extensive field research--we believe social media is likely to be one of the most significant forces reshaping management and business over the next decade and more." Here's my perspective on how one philanthropy is navigating this vast ocean and a few early observations from these efforts in the pursuit of making new things possible.

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Participate

Philanthropy can embrace this networked age to work collectively to reach our shared goals.

Many of us (staff at RWJF) are engaged on social media platforms sharing research and insights into the areas we work, revealing the results of grantmaking and evaluations, and touting the efforts of our grantees and partners. Steve affirmed this last month, as "a fundamental part of any RWJF staff member's job [is] to remain up to date with the latest developments in the field." Web 2.0, the introduction of social tools, has offered us greater opportunity for two-way lines of communication and engagement. When I want to gather intel, I share an update on my LinkedIn wall, or post a status update on Google+ or Facebook, soliciting input on my half-baked idea or venting the latest dilemma stumping me. When the Vice President of Research and Evaluation wants to learn what research really resonated with the public, without an internal bias, he invited "the people formerly known as the audience" to RWJF's web site to vote and comment. (words in quotation taken from @chiefmaven's visit to the Foundation in October 2011.

What have we learned? Set aside time to practice using the platforms to demonstrate the value of such efforts first-hand. "It sounds really simple," Steve says, "but it's very hard to know what social media really means until you do it. Conducting small, focused online experiments allow staff to learn about the potential for social media within their work." Staff members are encouraged to tweet during "learning sessions." These sessions have been part of our DNA for a long time; outside experts are invited to speak at the Foundation to share a dialogue with staff about a subject matter related to our mission. Our physical walls no longer hold back wisdom; at the same time this helps serve as a wading pool to help us, particularly new staff, build more confidence in these tools and mindset.

Be Vocal; Encourage Others to Join In

The Vulnerable Populations Portfolio was just beginning to investigate the area of trauma. Instead of approaching this through more traditional avenues, such as commissioning a scan, Program Officer Kristin Schubert hosted an online discussion to gain a better understanding of how different stakeholders viewed chronic trauma, particularly its impact on healthy development among adolescents. The program work is still being developed, but the discussion forum affirmed for Schubert that various audiences were thinking about and approaching trauma very differently and that no one at present is approaching trauma in a holistic way. While this effort provided an opportunity for RWJF staff and current grantees that work within adolescent systems to uncover real-time research, models and practice in the field, it also facilitated a network weaving opportunity for anyone involved in the issue to connect with peer-experts in youth neuroscience research.

What have we learned? To do our work better--e.g. develop strong, impactful programs--we need to be honest about what we know and what we don't know about a new area of interest. And when soliciting the input of others, it is critically important to be as specific as possible in the requests for engagement. Be clear about the information you are seeking and what you want others to contribute, so everyone involved walks away more knowledgeable and you attain the goal you set out to accomplish.

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Senior Program Officer, Mike Painter, wondered: Could we provide a social networking site (SNS) for a group of thought leaders working to improve health care across the country--patients, consumers, physicians, policy-makers, employers, health plan leaders, anyone with a genuine interest in improving the quality of care--to have open, honest discussions on a range of quality related topics? In the past, Painter has relied upon being a member of an existing listserv, which may seem limiting and constrictive given the environment we engage in today 24/7 with seemingly limitless platforms that offer farther reaching networking tools. From an original invite to leaders within the Aligning Forces for Quality initiative, the group has welcomed more and more people with similar goals and interests. The collective now has access to new perspectives and ideas, a treasure trove of experts and expertise to learn from, and a means to collaborate with one another. Almost one year in, Transformation has Begun is still going strong with more than 600 members on Facebook.

What have we learned? Find ways to meaningfully engage in existing communities or networks. The right platform may not be the one you build. We tried this when the group launched--we built the platform--but the interaction was not as high as anticipated. Once the space moved to a SNS people were already engaged in (Facebook), membership and engagement catapulted. Also, ensure you have clear terms of use, including general etiquette guidelines, from the beginning. According to a recent PEW Internet report, 85 percent of SNS-using adults say people are mostly kind, but nearly 50 percent have witnessed mean or cruel behavior by others at least occasionally. Offer concrete etiquette guidelines to foster a pleasant and supportive SNS experience.

Be Ready and Willing to Learn

Before letting go of the notion that the platform had to be ours, the Foundation enabled comments on RWJF.org. The Foundation welcomes comments on every piece of content posted, such as press releases, issue briefs, evaluations, and videos. Getting ready for this required significant internal coordination to ensure we had representation from all areas of our operations and a robust framework for moderation. While we were ready (and eager) for a sizable number of comments, it seems that the opportunity for commenting may not be as natural on our site when compared to the more conversational nature of blogging.

What have we learned? Do not assume that a new behavior or means of interaction--e.g. public commenting on your material--will be accepted by your audience. People may not turn out or may be less willing to jump in to offer public comments on an academic article or other published works. While the Foundation was ready for action, the website averages one to two comments a week.

Bundle Your ROI Stories

As Lucy Bernholz and Jim Canales point out in this insightful post, knowing what constituents are focused on or discussing at a given moment is vital to our work. We are no longer limited to having a discussion with those in the room; anyone holding a tablet or smart phone is now part of the conversation. The Foundation is excited to witness the next big, bold breakthrough bound to transpire when multidiscipline thought leaders and unconventional perspectives mingle in the large community.

If you ask staff who lived the activities summarized above, using social technologies has had an overall positive impact on the way we work allowing us to surface a variety of ideas, gain valuable input into team strategies and help disseminate knowledge. Most importantly, these experiences have reinforced the notion that philanthropy can embrace this networked age to work collectively to reach our shared goals. We still have a ways to go. As a learning organization ever focused on assessing impact, we are still tinkering with how to evaluate these investments in social networking.

Do any of these lessons ring true for your organization? Do you see social media reshaping your work? Share your story of how new ways of communicating, convening, or collaborating have galvanized your organization in the comments below.

-- Erin Kelly

Glasspockets Find: 2012 Annual Letter from Bill Gates
February 2, 2012

Gates Foundation Annual LetterBill Gates speaks candidly about his work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in his fourth Annual Letter. As a tool for transparency, the letter is a unique glimpse into the mind of a foundation donor, revealing Gates' critical thinking with respect to the foundation's activity, what has worked, what setbacks have been encountered, and what lessons have been learned by the foundation and its partners and grantees. The need for innovation continues to be a central element to his thinking. This year's letter is an argument for making the choice to keep on helping extremely poor people build self-sufficiency." The foundation will continue to encourage innovation in areas, including agriculture and public health, "where there is less profit opportunity but where the impact for those in need is very high."

Gates devotes a significant portion of this year's annual letter to innovation in agriculture. This is clearly an area that he believes holds great promise to improve the lives of billions of people in a relatively short period of time with rather modest commitments of resources. He cites many reasons for optimism, including exciting new understanding of plant genes that should greatly accelerate the pace of agricultural innovation.

Most of the foundation's resources go to global health issues. He shares many positive developments in this area, including a milestone in the fight to eradicate polio: on January 13, 2012, India marked its first anniversary of being polio-free. This was a huge accomplishment, calling for the coordination of many players. The effort reveals many lessons that will hopefully lead to successful campaigns in the three countries where the virus remains endemic-Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

The foundation's domestic work focuses on U.S. education. Here, Gates is impressed by the technique of peer evaluation among teachers that has been tested in the Tampa, Florida, school district and hopes it may serve as a model that can be replicated. Interestingly, the concept of learning from one's peers arises again when Gates later discusses the first of what will be an annual meeting of those who have taken the Giving Pledge. He would like to focus attention on how the web can be used to allow "givers of all sizes to connect to causes and see the results of their giving."

One of the perennial challenges that Gates admits facing is the common belief that development money is wasteful or doesn't produce lasting results. But he is "convinced that when people hear stories of the lives they've helped improve, they want to do more, not less." Given this, Gates attempts to put into perspective the news that some of the money provided to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was diverted for corrupt purposes. The Gates foundation is the largest non-governmental donor to the Global Fund.

Gates concludes by making a plea for continued funding from the world's wealthiest nations, even in challenging economic times, for development that benefits the world's poorest. A "relatively small amount of money invested in development," in his words, "has changed the future prospects of billions of people-and it can do the same for billions more if we make the choice to continue investing in innovation."

To read or download the letter (available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, and Spanish), click here.

Those interested may send feedback about the annual letter to annualletter@gatesfoundation.org.

Tweet using #billsletter to join the conversation. Follow Bill Gates on Twitter: @BillGates.

-- Mark Foley

Open a Window on California Philanthropy

California Foundation Twitter WidgetGates Foundation Annual LetterBill Gates speaks candidly about his work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in his fourth Annual Letter.

Social media tools, like Twitter, allow us all access to the messages institutional philanthropists are highlighting, increasing transparency for philanthropy news and trend data. Thanks to support from the James Irvine Foundation, we are piloting a regional approach to Glasspockets with this California Foundations Twitter widget. Just click on the "Get Widget" button to give your audience a window on California philanthropy on your own web site.

So far we have identified nearly 100 foundations in California who Tweet. Our staff is hard at work uncovering which other online tools California foundations are using to increase their visibility. Check out the online communications platforms used by over 1,300 foundations across the United States at Transparency 2.0.

Do you know of a foundation Twitter feed, or other social media activity, we should include? Send an email to glasspockets@foundationcenter.org.

-- Janet Camarena

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

Glasspockets Find: 2011 Grantee Community Call Hosted by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
November 22, 2011

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation As part of our "Who Has Glass Pockets" transparency and accountability assessments, our Glasspockets team regularly scouts for mechanisms that allow grantmakers to receive ongoing grantee feedback, as well as ways in which grantmakers are using technology to build networks and learning communities.

How does the nation's largest foundation encourage two-way communication and engage with its global grantees? One method is through its second annual Grantee Community Call. I had the opportunity to listen in on the first of two one-hour conference calls (12 hours apart) that were hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on November 21. With more than 600 participants on this call, the session began with CEO Jeff Raikes citing the importance of understanding the perception and the reality of working with the Gates Foundation and the critical role of "smart collaboration" between the foundation and its grantee partners and with other funders. He repeated the foundation's commitment to grantees based on three concepts: quality interaction, clear and consistent communication, and opportunities to provide feedback that will be used to make continuous improvements. Indeed, this Grantee Community Call was a means to put this philosophy into action—and may serve as a good example for other grantmakers with a lot of ground to cover.

Grantees were reassured that the foundation's priorities will not be changing, despite two new leadership additions and the melding of the Global Health Program with the Global Development Program. The foundation also remains committed to the evolving process of breaking down silos in order to integrate and better coordinate the sharing of information across multiple sectors, both internally and with its grantee partners.

The first half of the community call featured presentations by three program directors: Gary Darmstadt, director, Family Health; Vicki Phillips, director, College Ready; and Sam Dryden, director, Agricultural Development. Each, in turn, reinforced the foundation's commitment to constructive, effective relationships by:

  • encouraging grantees to challenge the foundation to strive for continuous improvement at various levels;
  • working together as thought partners;
  • breaking down internal silos to encourage cross-sectional integration; and
  • promoting transparency and welcoming accountability.

The second half of the session was a time for questions and answers. Participants were able to submit questions before the call via an e-mail address and during the call via a special Twitter hashtag and by queuing up with the conference call operator. There was time for nearly a dozen questions from a representative assortment of grantees, including callers from Asia and Africa.

What was perhaps the most impressive take-away was the seemingly genuine and sincere effort of the Gates Foundation to display respect and gratitude to its grantee partners. As Mr. Raikes said in conclusion, [we strive for] "greater impact together." With multiple opportunities for feedback, grantees should not hesitate to engage with the foundation in their mutual goal of improving lives. One very interesting, and rare, feedback mechanism allows grantees to anonymously report issues that raise ethical concerns to EthicsPoint, a service provided by an independent third party.

Finally, the foundation plans to conduct its next Grantee Perception Report, working with the Center for Effective Philanthropy, in the first quarter of 2013.

Recorded versions of the 2011 Grantee Community Calls are now available on the foundation’s web site.

-- Mark Foley

Glasspockets Find: Spotlight on the James Irvine Foundation
July 14, 2011

 

Kudos to the James Irvine Foundation for two very visible steps designed to increase its grantmaking transparency and participation. This month the Irvine Foundation announced that it will introduce a new grantmaking strategy for its support of the arts in California, effective 2012. After spending the past year gathering input from grantees and other experts, the foundation has identified major shifts in the California arts sector, due primarily to demographic and technological changes, and hopes to address the resulting challenges and opportunities posed to nonprofit arts organizations.

 

Eager to engage the public and to promote the new, still-evolving strategy, the foundation has posted a new video webinar of a public, online presentation made to its grantees and the California arts community on June 27, 2011, and is soliciting feedback on its web site and its Facebook and Twitter pages. The web site also features more than a dozen frequently asked questions that relate to its current and future support of the arts in California.

The foundation's current priorities will continue to guide its grantmaking for the remainder of 2011. As a supporter of the California arts community since its founding in 1937, the James Irvine Foundation is to be commended not only for making a thoughtful review of its existing strategy, but most especially, for its efforts to think out loud and be as inclusive and transparent as possible, with its many communication devices, as it prepares to launch its new strategy.

 

In a separate effort to be more transparent, the Irvine Foundation has taken the traditional features of its annual report and added more detail and analysis of the foundation's performance in order to measure its progress and to hold itself accountable to its long-term goals. The foundation's just-released 2010 Annual Performance Report not only includes such common annual report features as a complete listing of its 2010 grant awards, but also:

 

  • examines progress in each of its grantmaking programs and its effectiveness as a philanthropic institution;
  • allows online viewers to watch an introductory video from Jim Canales, president and CEO;
  • provides a section on "Exercising Leadership" and another on "Constituent Feedback" that includes highlights of its second Grantee Perception Report, commissioned by the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

Please share your thoughts regarding the Irvine Foundation's efforts to be more transparent. All comments are welcome!

-- Mark Foley

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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.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

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    Foundation Center

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