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Foundations use social media to open up

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Allison Fine

Allison Fine

Ret Boney

PJ’s Ret Boney spoke with Allison Fine, co-author of The Networked Nonprofit, about how foundations are using and benefitting from social-media technologies.

Question: How are foundations making use of social media?

Answer: The exciting news, over just the past year, is that foundations are finally taking down the walls and blurring the lines between the inside and the outside just a little bit.

Through blogs and Twitter, they are starting to share more of their stories – what they’re working on and what they’re seeing. That’s a way for the public and grantees to learn more about what foundations are thinking about and funding.

And they are opening up their thinking about grantmaking programs to include input from experts or grantees.

The Packard Foundation, for example, is using a wiki site to invite experts to help them think about what to fund in the area of reducing nitrogen pollution, which is harmful to agriculture.

And that used to be the black hole of foundations — how their strategies for grantmaking were developed.

Now they can begin to open up that process — first just to invited people, but hopefully someday to the public at large.

And some foundations are posting information about grants – what they funded and how much. The Ford Foundation has a new iteration of its website and is providing more information about grants.

Question: What is the potential? How could or should foundations be using social media?

Answer: I would love to see senior executives at foundations having more regular and open conversations with their communities. Not just about their grantmaking, but about the issues they care about, about problems they’re working on, and simply to connect with people.

Terri Lee Freeman, president of the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region, has begun that two-way conversation by both blogging and Tweeting.

In our book, we use the metaphor of closed organizations as “fortresses.” That applies to many foundations.

There’s an opportunity to open themselves up and build much stronger communities. But that has to by choice, because foundations are free to work any way they want.

Question: What benefits can foundations realize from using social media?

Answer: The number-one benefit is crowd-sourcing ideas to fund. That allows foundations to learn about opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have heard about.

When you’re working in that fortress, the number of people and ideas that are allowed in is very limited. That means ideas typically come from the “usual suspects.”

By opening up, foundations can find unusual suspects, smaller organizations and new ideas they did not know about before.

Question: If there’s so much upside potential, what’s holding foundations back from using social-media tools?

Answer: It’s the fear of being accessible, which feels overwhelming. It’s the fear of being criticized for who they fund and why.

Opening up to the outside world can mean an absolute loss of control of the environment and the conversation.

And they might have negative interactions with people. When you say “no” 90 percent of the time, then you’ve got the potential for 90 percent of people to be angry at you.

Yet, case studies show that foundations that have taken the walls down have had a greater impact.

Ultimately, it will take the telling of those stories to make foundations open up. And it will take peer pressure. When they see their peers using social-media tools, they’ll be more likely to try.

When they see another foundation CEO blogging, then they’ll think, “Maybe I can do that.”

Question: What pitfalls do foundations need to be aware of before diving in?

The criticism exists, even if they’ve chosen not to listen to it over the years.

So the first dose of cold water may not feel great. But the critics likely are not as vocal and vociferous as foundations fear.

People are generally very polite to grantmakers. If they have an ounce of common sense, they’re going to be polite.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s much downside to them working in this way.

What will feel different is the time commitment that working with social media requires.

It does take a lot of time. But it’s not an additional thing to be added to a to-do list; it’s a reshaping of the way one works.

For example, if you add blogging, you might take away something else. And when you take away the number of things executives do to maintain their control, you free up some time.

This is really the most exciting development around social media for the coming year – foundations themselves embracing more social ways of working.

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