Making the Social Media Leap

January 14, 2013

Last fall, I made a major lifestyle change.  I sold my car. As a suburban-raised youth and former resident of Los Angeles County, I had spent the bulk of my life in the car. I had suspected the benefits of going carless would be great (and they are), but I was still reserved. ‘What if’ scenarios of being unable to visit metro-inaccessible family and clumsily navigating busy streets delayed my decision. That was until I did some research, made a plan and took the leap.

I've noticed a similar hesitation around social media in philanthropy. This could be in part because some are uncertain how a Twitter or Facebook account could benefit their work, or perhaps because of cultural and generational differences. Transparency and rapid responsiveness, two hallmarks of social networking, are not qualities traditionally associated with philanthropy. Adding to that, the majority of funders are over the age of 50, a demographic newer to social media.

However, there are signs that funders are warming up to social media. A 2012 Fenton Communications survey found:

  • Fifty-three percent of foundation officials respondents say they've tried social media with some success.

  • Foundations are using sites to share news, stay connected and support grantee work.

  • Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are the most commonly used platforms.

  • Program Officers lead in social media usage over Chief Executive Officers and Chief Operating Officers.

Additionally, a 2010 Foundation Center survey of foundation leaders reports 73% of those surveyed think social networking tools have been at least somewhat useful to expand philanthropic work.

Overall, philanthropy seems receptive, but cautious.

HEFN shared this feeling not too long ago. Before launching our social media pages and blog, we worried whether social media would be worth the staff time, who we could really reach, and how time diverted to social media efforts would affect our service to funders who aren't using social media. To find out, we begin doing research and building a plan. We started by researching what others had done. We looked to funders and affinity group friends to see what they were saying and how they were engaging with their networks. We wanted to find out where conversations relevant to our issues were happening. We also explored how we could support funders who wanted to use social media to support grantees, many of which are ahead of foundations in adoption of social media tools. Listening to what others were saying, and where they were saying it, gave us a lot of insight into how social media could help us meet our goals.

Then, we leaped.  We launched Giving InSight and began publishing weekly. HEFN now has an active Twitter account and Facebook page. We’re also on LinkedIn.

We’re pleased with what we've learned and seen on social media so far. On Facebook, we’re hearing more frequently about our colleagues’ work and interests. Twitter has helped us find and connect with funder affinity groups in new places. This blog has been growing into a useful tool for sharing insights into grantmaking in HEFN’s issue areas and for bringing new funders to HEFN.  It is giving our members a new vehicle to share their perspectives.   A staff blog post last November got circulated on another affinity group list, prompting a new funder inquiry about HEFN membership.  We think social media tools will complement and improve HEFN’s work to develop funder leadership, strengthen affinity group relationships and reach farther into philanthropy.

So now what? In 2013, we’re planning to expand and deepen investment in environmental health and justice by helping more people access the abundant information and interaction opportunities social media offers. We've already seen that by incorporating Twitter into HEFN’s Annual Meeting last year, we helped spark more interest in social networking among funders. HEFN’s Monthly Media Digests, which offer a snippet of the conversations we’re tuned into on social media, are another way we’re introducing social networking to more funders. Over the next few months, we’ll be launching new tools on using social media in philanthropy, including:

  • An introductory webinar to social media with tips about how funders can  integrate social media into their workday;

  • Q&A blog posts to help answer funders’ social networking quandaries; and

  • Customized lists of social media accounts and bogs to follow on issues areas.

Our adventure into social media is just starting. There’s no doubt our plan will be tweaked and changed to keep up with evolving technology and trends. For those that have made the leap, we’d love to hear how you've used social networking in your grantmaking. And for fellow neophytes, we look forward to sharing our stories and helping you along the way.


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