In 2009, the blog “Philanthropy 411” identified 90 foundations with a Twitter presence. Fast forward to 2013, where a Twitter search reveals hundreds of foundations that tweet. The early adopters have been joined by many peer organizations, with a large number of philanthropic organizations absent.
Social networking has a much deeper role than simply spreading news and creating shareable content. If a foundation wants to nurture trust, transparency, relationship building, and credibility, then what prevents them from using a social network? How might your particular foundation serve its audience best?
Questions like this are some of the first to ask when the topic of social media comes up in conversation. Social media and traditional media all contribute to a healthy communications continuum for any nonprofit or grantmaking organization.
Foundations are in a prominent position to be influencers, advocates, and champions for the causes they believe in and organizations that they fund. Not every grantmaking organization will find it practical to participate in social media, but for those that do, it’s crucial to create a plan for social networking that aligns with the strategic influence, objectives of the organization, philanthropic initiatives, and the directives of the board.
- Private foundations represent the interests and giving priorities of the founders and the board. A social media presence may be a good indicator of how inspired and enthusiastic the board is about giving voice to their mission.
- Family foundations represent the interests and giving priorities of the founders and the board. This may pose a challenge for staff to gain editorial content approval, and provide a perspective that accurately reflects the culture and voice of the family and trustees. Geographic dispersion of the family and trustees may also affect how a family foundation participates in social media, even if one of the goals of social media is to share philanthropic impact with the family and trustees.
- Community foundations represent the community, their grantees, and broader interests that align with the philanthropic strategy of the organization. Their leadership roles are well served by social media.
- Corporate foundations represent giving initiatives and causes that align with the broader interests of the corporation, its board, and its workforce. Social media can be an effective tool for communicating with their local communities about their commitment and involvement.
Why is there such a reluctance to use social media? From conversation and experience, there are two typical responses to the idea of social media. The first is reluctance, rooted in a lack of understanding, of how it will be managed, and of how it will be measured.
The second response is enthusiastic: foundations are curious about the medium—excited for new opportunities for engaging trustees, grantees, peers, and the communities they serve—and want to embrace its potential.
Either way, a sensible approach to social media is based on your objectives, your audience, and your voice. Don’t begin by trying to copy the success or practices of peers, and don’t try to be all things to all people. Begin strategically, and plan for a managed, focused voice that speaks on behalf of your organization and the causes it represents.
Simply keep in mind: it’s not just about your organization. It’s about your audience—the ambassadors, donors, advocates, champions and community you’re seeking to attract, inspire, inform and engage. Putting them first makes them part of your narrative, and not simply an observer of it.
Because of our action-oriented nature as human beings, our tendency is to jump to the tactical. We want to jump in, set up a Twitter account, and start tweeting. We’re more interested in the “how do we do this?” before we think about the “why should we do this?” Let’s start with the why, and then move to the how.
There are four key reasons why any philanthropic organization should participate in social media: Strategic (for what purpose are we doing this?), inspirational (motivating our peers and followers), relational (building and stewarding relationships), and aspirational (as a voice of visionary and courageous leadership).
Think of your purpose by beginning with the end in mind. Why should you be participating, and what networks should you be using? The most prominent networks, Twitter and Facebook, have specific strengths and weaknesses, as well as common features (such as hashtags). Pinterest (image sharing) and Instagram (image and video sharing) allow you to share visual media, but are you able to create that type of media, and is your audience interested in it? Should you even consider Google+?
Don’t jump into the social media pool just because everybody else is doing it. Be strategic. Plan how you will you be using social media, and consider how your followers may interact with it and your content. These strategic considerations aren’t exclusive of each other. If you begin with the idea that you want to be engaging, then your use of social media will be as much (or more!) about your audience and others as it will be about your own organization.
Your strategy should consider the role that your organization will serve. You’ll also want to pay very close attention to your audience. Seek to understand why they are interested in following, what they want to share, how they can help you fundraise and be a part of your community. Make these audience-specific actions part of your strategic thinking. Use research that details what is motivating different generations of potential followers.
Social media can be a place for inspiring your followers. Think of how you will use it as a means to raise your voice, and speak on behalf of the causes that you champion. Your organizational voice is based on your organization’s purpose, character, and cultural attributes of who you are, what you value, and why you matter.
Your voice will build trust and credibility. Your roles may include acting as an:
- Influencer: Sharing content that advances the cause of philanthropy and how others think about it. To funnel followers to content and motivate them to action. This strategy requires that you have a content-rich web site, or reliable and credible content sources to drive traffic to.
- Convener: For posting events, sharing news and information, and sharing other organizations’ content.
- Champion: Highlighting grantee successes, and sharing the impact of grantmaking from your grantees’ perspective.
Be Relational: Understand Your Followers to Nurture Relationships
- Be human. A philanthropic organization is not a robot. It has an identity, and a voice. Allow that unique voice to show through.
- Who is your audience? peers, community, grantees, grant seekers, trustees, board? What does each expect of you, and the information you want to share with them?
- What networks does your audience use? What social media platform is most appropriate for your organization, and what can you effectively manage, given time, talent, and resources?
What motivates your followers? Meaning and connectedness. Social media creates the illusion of relationship, and a sense of community without the commitment. Your followers find meaning in connecting with you on a social network when they are able to share and respond with content that aligns with what is important to them. There is a sense of belonging when an individual chooses to follow.
When your content is positive, powerful, and courageous, it is possible to transcend the illusion of community, as followers connect with your leadership and find meaning in what you are sharing. It’s at that point they begin to believe in what you’re saying and begin to build trust.
Don’t Forget to Be Insightful
When is the best time to post? It’s not when you might think – depending on the social network, weekends and later in the week are some of the most effective times to post, which means that your audience may be interacting more at times when you’re not at the office. After all, it is all about them, and not your organization. Share when they are going to read!
Your voice on social media will reflect your organization’s character and culture. The role of any communication, especially in the philanthropic sector, is to nurture trust, transparency, and credibility.
Be Courageous with Social Media
So many philanthropies have not, or have tentatively, ventured into this area of communications. There is nothing to fear, just questions to answer:
- Where is your audience? What networks intersect with them?
- Is your content primarily words, images, video, or all three?
- Is your content informative, inspirational, or engaging?
- If your goal is to engage, post content that your followers will share. Do you understand what their values are, what interests them, and what motivates them?
- What are the key networks you should consider (if at all), and why should you consider them: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+. How many networks can you realistically manage?
- What is your board’s position on social media? How can you assure the board that your content will align with their oversight and reflect the best interests of the foundation?
Be courageous – your audience is looking for more ways to engage with your organization – you need to provide them the opportunity, and content worth sharing. n