Enable Foundation Staff to Speak in Their Own Voice: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has been a pioneer in the use of social media to communicate its work in clear, timely, and acces- sible ways. While some foundations may seek to tightly control staff blogging, tweeting, and other social media activity through a centralized com- munications office, RWJF does just the opposite. “Our first social media policy—and it’s the one we largely have today—starts with the words ‘We encourage you to use social media,’” says Stephen J. Downs, chief technology and information officer at RWJF. “We’ve pushed really hard to have our staff engaged as individuals, and not purely as foundation mouthpieces, but to be real and to be human and to be curious.” The foundation has few guidelines around the use of social media, other than essentially, “Don’t write something you don’t know about and don’t be a jerk,” Downs says.

Three quarters of the 75 person program staff have individual Twitter accounts, with many posting regularly to ask questions of followers or to share something they’ve learned. Foundation staff also make regular use of blogging to explain what they are thinking, what they hope to accomplish, or to signal an interest in an upcoming area. Downs, who regularly blogs, notes that the blog format lends itself well to transparency.

It can be hard to leave the safe confines of calls for proposals and annual reports to write more conversationally through blogging. Downs remembers clearly the fear he felt the first time he set out to write a blog. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to get ridiculed for this.’ Or people are going to say, ‘Oh my God, he knows so little. He doesn’t even under- stand the basics of X and Y. And then I remember having that moment where I thought ‘I will just embrace all of this.’ It’s actually quite liberating. You can start to feel like you don’t have to be right, you just have to be committed to the truth.”

RWJF also monitors social media as another way to gain feedback on its programs, and at times, make changes. For example, Project HealthDesign, a program around personal health records and patient-generated data, received a blistering critique from a blogger. The blogger said that the program was too divorced from what was happening in the private sector, and that it was too academic. As a result, in the second round of grantmaking, RWJF put a stronger emphasis on working with compa- nies that had already built personal health records as opposed to funding more universities designing new systems.

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