As part of a Community Foundation that tweets, blogs, posts, and shares, I was intrigued by the CEP study on foundations and social media. It’s a useful snapshot of the interaction between grantees and social media as deployed by some foundations: clearly, social media isn’t reaching our grantees and nonprofit partners to the extent we all hope for.
And it’s another reminder—there can never be too many of these—that as foundations, we too often act as if everything we say is golden, when in reality we sometimes go unheard or ignored.
Having said that, what’s not revealed by this study might be just as important as what it does show. It’s not clear to me that foundations can fully measure the impact of social media with standard metrics or by asking nonprofits whether they “use” what’s shared. In our foundation, the number of followers, friends, reposts, and retweets are engagement—“use”—measures we consider when talking about effectiveness. But do they really indicate effectiveness? Do they capture impact? Or do we seek something more nuanced? Instead of engagement, let’s talk about perception.
In the best case, we hope that our social media helps to provide information to grantees and the philanthropic community about resources and issues in the state. And we hope our use of social media also helps change the perception of the Foundation from “just a grantmaker” to an information hub. In our case, social media in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene helped to do just that.
Tropical Storm Irene affected much of the East Coast in late August 2011 and Vermont in particular was hard-hit. The storm caused the worst flooding in the state since 1927. Thirteen communities were isolated by floodwater as Vermonters turned to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to learn about the damage and to watch bridges, homes, and local businesses being swept away.
As floodwaters receded, many Vermonters worked together in support of recovery. And social media played a big part in sharing information about how and where to help.
Beginning the morning after the storm, we focused our social media efforts on where we, as a community foundation, have a particular expertise: sharing short- and long-term giving guidelines and using our network of partners to share information about recovery resources, events, and opportunities, some hosted by the Foundation and some by others. Yes, the number of our followers and mentions went up, but we noticed other, subtler changes. As the relevance and value of our posts and tweets improved, we were increasingly seen and mentioned by others as a resource—and sometimes a leader—in the recovery.
And months later, when we released a video thank you card—on our website and on YouTube—on behalf of Vermont to all those who helped with Irene recovery, it was addressed to all the donors and volunteers that helped the state. Response to the video made it clear that our work, at least as related to Irene recovery, was better understood by the public.
But shifting perceptions are hard to track, and it’s important to remember that such goals can be achieved without nonprofit partners actively “using” our social media.
The CEP report also confirmed what we know: social media is not THE answer. The report reveals that social media is not as helpful as other communication resources for sharing information about a foundation. In explaining who the Vermont Community Foundation is and what we do, I would not send someone to our Facebook or Twitter pages. Social media is a piece of our communications pie, and when used best, it will whet the appetite of the user to visit our website…or better yet, to sit down and talk with one of our staff members or board members in person. As a place-based community foundation, our work is about relationships. And so it’s that face-to-face contact that is really our stock-in-trade.
Which leads me finally to this: scale and place matter. We believe that grantees find our posts more helpful and relevant than our engagement stats reveal—if only because of the scale we’re working in. We’re a place-based foundation and our “place” is tight-knit. We add value by posting about local resources, events, and information for grantees and those interested in philanthropy; most of our posts are about the work of others. We’ve vastly expanded our uses of social media—blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, videos—in the past year and a half. And we believe in them. But we likewise still believe in a much wider range of engagement tools.
I fully expect that over time, more of our partners will look to social media—whatever the next version may be—for more information. But I also expect that we’ll still be working with our partners offline. And as the CEP report confirms, any evaluation of our use of social media will only be meaningful in the context of that complete communications model.
Stuart Comstock-Gay is President & CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation. You can find him on Twitter
Join the conversation about the findings featured in Grantees’ Limited Engagement with Foundations’ Social Media on Twitter using the hashtag #cepsocialmedia.