Suppose a foundation is organizing a casual meeting for its grantees. The idea is to bring about 100 nonprofit leaders together to network with the foundation staff and with each other. Everyone at the foundation helps with planning—for the point person, the arrangements take up half of her busy days. The day comes, and the staff wait eagerly at the doors. Eventually one person slips in. The carefully arranged refreshments on a side table start to perspire. After ten minutes another few people enter. In the end, only 16 chairs are filled.
According to a new report by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, foundations’ social media efforts are like this meeting. Only 16 percent of grantees surveyed reported using social media created by the foundation funding them or its staff. One third of them didn’t even know the foundations were using social media. Facebook pages fared better than Twitter, blogs, or videos in attracting attention, but still only 10 percent of grantees are using them. The explanation for the low numbers doesn’t seem to be that the grantee organizations are unfamiliar with social media—about 80 percent of them use it in their own operation. More than a lack of awareness, the numbers seem to point to a lack of interest.
Also worrisome is that those 16 percent of grantees who use foundations’ social media don’t find it particularly useful. Publications, websites, individual communication, and group meetings were all reported to be more helpful than social media for learning about a foundation. Individual communication fared best on a usefulness scale of 1 to 7 with a 6.5, compared to social media’s 5.1. And though a key benefit of social media is supposed to be its ability to enable interactions, grantees rated the usefulness of foundations’ social media for interacting and sharing ideas as even worse than its usefulness for learning about the foundation.
Meanwhile, most foundations are embracing social media. Of the foundations studied in the report, 71 percent have posted videos or have a Twitter or Facebook account or a blog. More than half have activities on at least three of those four platforms. The authors of Grantees’ Limited Engagement with Foundations’ Social Media note that the intended audience of these efforts isn’t clear (maybe even to the foundations themselves), but it seems likely that at least some of the content is aimed at the nonprofits they fund and through which most of their impact is made.
What are we to make of this gap between what foundations are providing through social media and what their grantees are getting from it? The authors suggest some basic questions foundations should be asking about social media, including how social media fits into their goals and who its audiences are, in what priority. The ultimate question is whether foundations’ activities in social media are worth it.
The problem is that time spent on social media may be time taken away from other important things foundations do. While the technology itself is more or less free, the time it takes to effectively engage in social media conversations can be considerable. As many of us work with lean staffs and lofty goals, can we justify spending time (i.e., money) on something that yields such meager results? Should 71 percent of foundations really be making a significant investment in social media participation?
With this report in hand, the answer could be an easy “no”…if it weren’t for the fact that the world of social media is still new. It may well be that foundations just haven’t found the best way to use it yet. Clearly, evaluation and change need to happen. But how? Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram—online content-sharing communities are ubiquitous and exciting, but how do we figure out what part, if any, they have to play in furthering our real-world goals?
Foundations aren’t the only ones asking this question. The Rita Allen Foundation invests in innovative approaches to social problems, and social media is often a part of our grantees’ plans—or part of what they think should be in their plans. We recently funded a capacity-building project to help six diverse nonprofits create strategic plans for social media. During the course of the project, we saw the importance of carefully considering underlying goals targeted by social media efforts, of understanding the needs of the communities they’re meant to engage, of determining and tracking markers of success, and of engaging in ongoing experimentation and evaluation to find what works better. Educators 4 Excellence, for instance, shifted tactics when they saw that online conversations promoted by their social media were not nearly as lively as those at the live events they hosted. So they started using social media to boost attendance at events, to keep teachers connected between meetings, and to circulate petitions—a different, but effective, approach to social media. (Read more about the project’s findings in “Tweeting for a Better World.”)
At the Rita Allen Foundation, we’re in a stage of eager observation and self-examination to see how social media might fit with our organization. As we consider whether and how to jump into social media platforms, studies like this one from the Center for Effective Philanthropy are invaluable to us. So is watching how the nonprofits we support, led by amazingly innovative young leaders, are navigating this territory and evolving along the way.
We also find ourselves learning through social media. Learning is one of the things that social media allows people to do differently. If you know what you’re looking for, and if the answer already exists, a website or a publication will probably be more helpful to you than a Twitter feed or debates in the comments section of a blog. But if the end point is not yet known, if what’s needed is a forum for more voices with diverse experiences and knowledge to exchange information, social media might be just the right way to get closer to the answers. This is one of those cases.
So tell us, which foundations are using social media in different and exciting ways? What have you seen work in social media…or what did you expect to work that didn’t? Can social media, in all of its informal immediacy, create an intersection between foundations’ goals and grantees’ work to foster deeper engagement? Most importantly, what can we learn from each other to make social media a more powerful and effective tool?
Elizabeth Christopherson is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Rita Allen Foundation, which provided grant funding for this research.
Join the conversation about these findings on Twitter using the hashtag #cepsocialmedia.
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