Bringing the “social” back to social media

It should be pretty clear by now that one of the most valuable assets of social media is that it is inherently social. Or at least, it should be.

I’ve been closely watching how foundations are embracing social media.

A recent convening hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation brought together sector leaders to brainstorm how to better evaluate social media’s impact on philanthropic outcomes. More and more, we’re seeing foundations use it to share their learning, encourage their networks to #befearless and crowdsource their grantmaking.

Yet, in the hectic rush to promote our own content, it’s easy to forget one of the basic tenets of what it actually means to be social. The dictionary defines the adjective as “seeking or enjoying the companionship of others, friendly, gregarious.”

If philanthropy wants to get the most value out of social media, we collectively need to do a better job of using it to engage with others in meaningful ways.

Of course, this isn’t easy, but if we want to succeed, we’re left with no choice. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but luckily each provided learning moments.

Here are a few ideas that may help funders leverage their more social side:

  1. Don’t be afraid to engage with your networks. Ask questions of your followers, answer theirs and share their content. Pipe in on conversations that are relevant to you and what you fund. If you’re a grantmaking organization, you are what you fund. Be open and transparent about it: sharing what’s working and what isn’t can go a long way toward building your own voice. People want to know what you fund and why you fund it, and what programs you support and their collective impact. You’ll undoubtedly discover new ideas, new people and new projects along the way that can help you accomplish your goals.
  2. Authenticity matters: On social media and in real life, being true to your identity as an organization is paramount. Every funder and non-profit is unique. Celebrate what makes your organization you. We’re more accountable to our audiences than ever before, and now, that accountability happens in real time. It can be scary to put yourself out there – for example, many foundations aren’t sure how to react to criticism or want to talk openly about their failures. But it can also be rewarding. It’s more likely that you’ll find like-minded funders, grantees and partners if you’re consistent about who you are and what you do.
  3. Be prepared for blowback. I’m not necessarily talking about all-out Twitter wars, though, let’s be honest, that can happen if you’re funding in a field that can be controversial, like health care or immigration. Kickstarter quickly learned this lesson earlier this year, and handled the situation well with a straightforward apology. Funders need to know that not everyone is going to agree with you all the time, and that’s all right. This is true offline as much as online; however, the online social world amplifies those voices. It’s important, even necessary, to engage in dialogue or converse with people who have different viewpoints than you. It will help you strengthen your work.
  4. Learn when it’s OK not to be social. Not every piece of criticism or comment deserves a response. For example, if you receive a negative comment on a blog or on Facebook, sometimes it’s good to wait it out (which in the land of social media may only be a few hours) to see if a complaint gains traction, or if other people come to your defense. Loop in program staff early to get their advice on how to handle specific issues and questions. It’s important to take into account who made the comment and why. It’s also OK to respond offline to someone; not every criticism can be answered in 140 characters. Figure out what method works best: a blog post; a phone call to someone; or sometimes nothing at all. One of the biggest challenges can be learning when to let things go.

We’re all in this together; that’s what makes it fun. Through our grantmaking, we want to make the world a better place. We won’t accomplish that via a one-way conversation. It will require regular ongoing dialogue and constant feedback; by definition, being more social.

Social media is an invaluable tool. If we can find more ways to indulge its communal nature, we’ll make better grants and have more impact.

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