How can foundations use social media to advance their missions?

By Rebekah Seder, Program Coordinator

In the Daily last month, Terri Freeman, President of the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region, kicked off a conversation about the value of social media to philanthropy. A few days later, Larry Blumenthal, a consultant with Open Road Advisors, led a workshop with funders titled Social Media: How and Why Foundations Should Join the Conversation. His baseline: online tools like Twitter and Facebook are invaluable means through which foundations can strengthen the philanthropic sector.

Using these tools allows foundations to be more open in their grantmaking processes; enables them to be better listeners of both their grantees and other organizations working in their areas of interest; and, enhances their role as collaborators, information sharers, and conveners.

In addition to Blumenthal, three WRAG members formed a panel and offered plenty of advice to colleagues considering getting started with social media.

Michael Smith (The Case Foundation) works for a foundation that has been at the forefront of social media for several years. He shared the story of how The Case Foundation came to view social media as the means through which they could best promote their goals of civic engagement and fostering collaboration to solve social problems. Online engagement, however, led the foundation to learn an important lesson about social media:  using these tools means giving up some amount of control over message and content, which requires a real mind-set change for a traditional foundation.

Victoria Vrana (Venture Philanthropy Partners) reminded the audience that whether a foundation is using social media or not, its grantees likely are – and might very well be talking about the foundation. For that reason, outlets like Facebook and Twitter are a good way to both stay up to date with your grantees, as well as to stay informed about what is going on in your issue areas. Vrana also advised the audience to start small. Just as you wouldn’t walk up to a random group chatting at a party and start talking, when getting started on Twitter it’s important to listen before you join the conversation.

Mariah Craven (Washington Area Women’s Foundation) described how using social media has been key to furthering her foundation’s mission. It has enabled WAWF to increase the number of well-informed supporters who both donate to and promote the work of the foundation. Likewise, social media gives the Women’s Foundation a venue to better promote their own programmatic work, as well the work of their grantees. Craven also discussed how she managed the increased workload by planning tweets and Facebook posts in advance. However, she also noted that effectively using these tools requires being flexible enough to recognize opportunities to get involved in or start a conversation.

Each speaker emphasized the importance of starting out slowly with social media and thoughtfully integrating it into an overall communications strategy. While blogs, Twitter, and Facebook may seem to be unlikely communications tools for foundations, at the end of the day they are simply another set of tools in the communications toolbox that have the potential to increase the impact of a foundation’s philanthropy.