My father tells me the story of when he was a very young boy and his much older sister worked as an operator for the phone company. She called home, her voice traveling through a wire on a new contraption called a telephone, and my Dad answered. When she told him to “hang up” he asked, “What does that mean?”
Fast forward to my own childhood and I recall the briefcase-sized cell phone my Mom used to carry around.
When each of these modes of communication was new, who knew how integral they would become to our daily lives? Who knew how much we would come to depend on them? That briefcase-sized cell phone has now become a palm-sized personal computer that many of us carry everywhere we go.
Each new mode of communication has its early adopters and its skeptics. We all know family members and colleagues who refuse to get caught up in using social media, for fear of wasting hours in the day, or losing even more of their privacy in our increasingly big brother culture. I, too, had been a social media skeptic…until I started using Twitter.
Nothing can replace the resource that Twitter has become for me. I learn about new initiatives relevant to CEP’s work, opinions I wouldn’t otherwise come across in what I typically read, and information about people’s job changes, all in one place. I follow some of CEP’s funders, including the James Irvine Foundation and Jim Canales, the foundation’s president and CEO. I follow David Colby of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an avid tweeter of widely relevant information, as well as some of our program officers including Jacob Harold from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Victoria Vrana from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
But a new research study from CEP, co-authored by me and my colleague Andrea Brock, indicates that few grantees are following their funders (including funders’ staff members) on Twitter, reading their funders’ blogs, watching videos posted by their funders, or visiting their funders’ Facebook pages. Although 70 percent of the funders in our research are using social media tools, their grantees are not necessarily paying attention. It’s not as though nonprofits aren’t on Twitter or Facebook. Many nonprofits are avid social media users, but not when it comes to social media offered by their funders.
Like any communication tool, people will only engage with social media to the extent that it serves a useful purpose. Are grantees aware of their funders’ presence on social media? Do they care about the content foundations are communicating through social media tools?
To be sure, not all grantmaking foundations would say that it’s their goal to reach their grantees through social media. Some would. Last September, I wrote on CEP’s blog about how Chris Langston of the John A. Hartford Foundation was using his foundation’s blog to seek suggestions from “grantees, stakeholders, peers, and older persons themselves” about how the Foundation could “make the biggest difference in the lives of older adults” with the $100 million it plans to spend between 2013 and 2017. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation has also undertaken efforts to engage their stakeholders, including grantees, through online media. The Rita Allen Foundation, which funded CEP’s new research on social media, uses space on its homepage to highlight the work of one of its grantees, Generation Citizen, through a video.
Using social media tools requires some degree of investment by foundations. It takes time to update Facebook, tweet, create and edit videos, and write blog posts—quite a bit of time, in fact. And the contrast between the input, in terms of staff time, and the outcome, when it comes to grantees’ engagement, raises critical questions beyond the scope of our survey: What are foundations’ goals for using social media? How do social media tools fit into their communication strategies, or programmatic strategies? For those venturing to incorporate social media tools into the way they work, it is important to engage these questions.
I invite you to share your perspectives on this research, or on how your foundation uses social media, on CEP’s blog. For the next few weeks we will be featuring posts from foundations and communication experts. For a summary of our research findings, you can view a video of my co-author Andrea discussing our research with CEP’s president Phil Buchanan. On August 9, we will be hosting a webinar with the Communications Network to discuss the implications of our survey—you can register here.
- Data Point: Importance of Social Networks to Donors
- Social Media, Foundations, and Grantees: What Works, What Doesn’t?
- The Risks Posed by a Sector’s Silence: Toward a Forceful and Positive Articulation of the Nonprofit Sector
- A Relaunch for the CEP Blog
- Wearing it Proudly: Clarity on Being Nonprofit