One Year Later, What Is the State of Grantees’ Use of Foundations’ Social Media?

Social media has become ubiquitous, as news stories and infographics show. Many of us regularly use these communications vehicles—you are reading CEP’s blog right now, after all—as do many of our colleagues and friends. But when CEP undertook a research study to understand grantees’ use of social media, the findings didn’t seem to align with common perceptions.

CEP’s July 2012 report, Grantees’ Limited Engagement with Foundations’ Social Media, revealed that very few nonprofits were using their foundation funders’ social media—although the overwhelming majority of nonprofits were using social media at their own organizations. The message was clear: foundations may be using social media, but grantees either weren’t aware or weren’t much interested.

It’s been a little over a year since CEP published that research and we wondered if grantees’ use of foundations’ social media had changed. Overall in this country, use of social media certainly has changed. The year 2012 saw an increase in the number of social media tools available and an increase of 8 million people in America using these tools.

To find out if this trend was mirrored among grantees, we compared data collected in 2012 through CEP’s Grantee Perception Report on their use of their foundation funders’ social media to data collected from the same survey in 2011. The 2012 data was collected from almost 8,000 grantees of 35 foundations.

What we found is that not much has changed. In 2012, few grantees were using their funders’ social media, just as in the year before. Additionally, the helpfulness of funders’ social media for grantees did not improve.

Change over time—or lack thereof

First, looking at the proportion of grantees using social media at their own organization, we found little meaningful change: 89 percent of grantees surveyed said that they used a blog, had a Facebook page, managed a Twitter account, or posted videos at their own organization in 2012, compared to 81 percent the year before.

We also found that there was hardly any change in grantees’ use of their foundation funders’ social media. Only 18 percent of grantees in 2012 said they used their foundation funders’ or their funders’ staff members’ blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, or videos compared to 16 percent of grantees in 2011. The proportion of grantees using their funders’ social media was not related to whether the funder employed any communications staff.

In fact, 38 percent of grantees said they didn’t know if their foundation funders or their funders’ staff members utilized social media. And, of that subset, the percent of grantees that said they would use it, if their funder made it available, remained fairly steady at 79 percent in 2012 compared to 75 percent in 2011. These grantees seemed to believe that they could get value out of using their foundation funders’ social media.

Are grantees continuing to miss out by not using their funders’ social media?

In response to CEP’s research report last year, David Crowley provided 8 reasons why grantees should be using their funders’ social media. Examples included using social media to keep up with the field in which their nonprofit works and to maintain existing relationships with foundation funders. In theory, social media seems like a great opportunity for grantees to learn from and interact with funders.

Yet perceptions from grantees that are already using their funders’ social media do not support this theory. Grantees in 2012 continued to find their funders’ social media significantly less helpful for learning about the foundation than all other foundation resources, including a website, annual report, and individual communication and group meetings with foundation staff.

The data also show that there has been no meaningful change in grantees’ ratings of the helpfulness of foundations’ social media resources for any purpose.

Overall, our data indicate that there has been very little change in the use of, and no change in the value of, foundations’ social media to their grantees.

Theories about the data

Why is this still the case? When CEP published our report last year, we invited several philanthropic leaders to discuss the findings on CEP’s blog. Many of the guest bloggers raised interesting hypotheses to explain why grantees may not be using funders’ social media and what funders can learn from this.

Bruce Trachtenberg, executive director of The Communications Network, said:

“I tend to think of social media as a tool that’s more effective at helping establish relationships with audiences that aren’t necessarily ‘us’ or part of ‘us,’ but people who are more than one step removed.”

Perhaps Bruce was right — perhaps the most popular social media tools that we had asked about in our survey simply aren’t tailored to help foundations and their grantees maintain their existing relationships.

Or maybe social media is evolving to be more useful for grantees to learn or interact with foundations, but very slowly. Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation offered this prediction:

“I fully expect that over time, more of our partners will look to social media—whatever the next version may be—for more information.”

Perhaps if we check back in a few years, we may find that social media has evolved to become more useful for grantees to engage with their foundation funders.


Ramya Gopal is a Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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