Is Anybody Listening? One Funder’s Foray into Social Media

Malcolm Macleod

At the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, where I serve as president, we decided to get into the social media business three years ago. Prior to that, the foundation’s only communication interest was transparency. We maintained a website and published an annual report. The work spoke for itself.

The foundation was created in 1991 with a mission to assist disadvantaged people to obtain education and employment, and our work focusses on people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, and economically disadvantaged people. If the work was speaking for itself, the message was low-key and found a very limited audience.

When we decided to grow our communications efforts, the objective was to increase the impact of the foundation’s grantmaking. We would target existing and former grantees, potential grantees, other grantmakers, and anyone else who would listen. We would write about the good work of our grantees, and the need for their work, and try to build a larger community of people interested in the foundation and its mission. This, we hoped, would bring people together to learn, compare, and discuss their work.

To do this, we hired an ad agency to revise our website (which was long overdue). We dedicated part of a staff position to social media, set up a Facebook page, and began to create and publish regular Facebook posts. Then we established a blog, Giving Matters, and later a monthly electronic newsletter. Our number of “likes” gradually grew and we experimented with content on each of these platforms to learn what people would read.

The results were interesting and, looking back on it, entirely predictable. We quickly learned that our social media communication should involve more listening than talking. Facebook would not be a megaphone for us to tell the world about the good things that we do. Rather, it would be a place for conversation with grantees and their peers about events and ideas in their fields of work. Our newsletter would follow a similar vein. Our blog would be managed by foundation staff, but much of the content would come from guest writers from other organizations.

Two years into our communication initiative, it seemed to be unfolding well, if not spectacularly. We didn’t have much evidence to assess this work, however, apart from the numbers generated by our website and social media platforms. We wondered, is anybody actually listening?

Our question took on more urgency when we consulted the findings of CEP’s research on social media. Based on analysis of survey responses from more than 6,000 grantees of 34 foundations (average size $370 million), the report found that:

  • A majority of foundations use social media tools in their work;
  • Very few grantees use social media from their foundation funders; and
  • Grantees who do use foundations’ social media find those resources less helpful than other communication resources for learning about the foundation.

Why would we be any different from the surveyed foundations, most of which have more money and staff?

To dig deeper, when we commissioned a Grantee Perception Report (GPR) from CEP this February, we customized it to include questions for our grantees about their use of our social media. The results were mixed. We got high marks on the survey questions about our communications with grantees, but the social media results are less comforting: 32 percent of our grantees say they read our newsletter, 32 percent read our blog, and 23 percent use our Facebook page. Only six percent follow us on Twitter.

As anemic as these numbers may seem, the results are in fact better than those for our peer cohort we compared ourselves to in the GPR — and those of the 34 foundations CEP surveyed for its 2012 report. We don’t know for certain why this is, but we think our above average engagement among grantees on these platforms may be bolstered by the strong relationships we have with our grantees. (On the funder-grantee relationship measure of the GPR, our grantees’ ratings put us in the 98th percentile of CEP’s dataset — see page 15 of our GPR, which we have made public).

The fact remains that using social media to add value has proven difficult for us and other foundations, and it brings us back to the question: is it worth the effort

We have done a lot of thinking about this question and whether or not we should keep going with this work. We have resolved to continue our investment in these efforts until we next survey our grantees again through the GPR, probably three years hence.

For now, we see several good reasons for us to keep trying:

  1. The cost is relatively small. The incremental cost of creating content is one half of a staff position, and the cost of distribution is negligible.
  2. This is a new venture for us that is foreign to our old ways. The learning curve is long and steep, and the results should improve as we learn more and get better.
  3. The process of requesting, obtaining, and posting content brings us closer to some of our grantees and potential grantees. These interactions bring us into more contact with them and increase our knowledge of what they are doing. The number of grantees and potential grantees involved in this work will only increase as our reach expands.
  4. As with everything else we do, this is a long game. In our grantmaking, it takes time to build reputation and trust. It will take time to build an audience, and as long as our numbers are increasing, even gradually, we think we are on the right track.
  5. The potential upside is large. If we lead a credible conversation about our grantees and their accomplishments, ideas, and fields of endeavor, this will attract attention and (we hope) more money to the causes that we espouse. And it will help direct qualified potential grantees to the foundation.

We believe in the foundation’s mission to assist disadvantaged people to obtain education and employment. The education and employment of Indigenous Peoples, people with disabilities, and the underserved will make society better. It’s vital, then, that we continually ask ourselves, is anybody listening? 

Malcolm MacLeod is president of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. Follow the foundation on Twitter at @JohnsonScholar.

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