Try it, You’ll Like It: The Promise of Digital Media

Thursday, July 26, 2012
By David Morse, Senior Fellow,
One of the best things that can happen when you participate in an interesting panel is that you learn new things from your colleagues, or have nascent ideas tweaked, tested and maybe even reinforced. In other words, you just don’t impart, but learn. That’s what happened to me recently when I joined with a group of colleagues, convened by Philanthropy New York and led by Edith Asibey of The Atlantic Philanthropies, to talk about how foundations can do better—“discover the promises and avoid the perils”—in using digital media in their advocacy efforts.
I think it’s fair to say that, for the most part, foundations have been generally “behind the curve” in their engagement and comfort level with social media and have been slow adopters of social media tools and strategies. Why that’s the case—and there are lots of reasons why that are endemic to the culture of foundations—is less important than knowing how and why social media are essential elements of a foundation’s advocacy strategy.
My co-panelist Marcia Stepanek of NYU put the “why” most succinctly. Don’t think of social media as an end, but as a means to achieving your strategic goals and to being an effective advocate. Why? Well, networks—and the distributed, often ephemeral and ad hoc networks exemplified in social media—have become more important to advocacy and organizing than are structured organizations (like foundations). Power is more ad hoc and distributed, and it’s harder for organizations to speak ex cathedra (even the original ex cathedra is getting that). The channels of social media are more democratic and participatory than those of traditional advocacy communications (although one has to acknowledge Dan Yankelovich’s admonition about social media becoming an “echo chamber”).
Simply put, what does a foundation, or its grantees and partners, need to achieve, advocacy-wise, when engaging in social media? According to Marcia: (1) prove your bona fides, i.e., build trust; (2) show, don’t just tell, i.e., demonstrate accountability; (3) gently lead or steer the crowd into your community, i.e., create and extend influence.
Finally, as Edith, my co-panelists and other participants who have thought about or begun to dip their toes in the scary, icy waters of social media ask, “how do we know whether it’s working?” When I was chief communications officer at a large foundation, with a big budget, I was constantly asked, “what’s the return on all that money we’re spending on communications?” Good question and not an easy answer, since determining return on social investment is an imperfect science, as is the fairly new field of social network analysis.
But fortunately, there are some recent posts on other blogs that can help us through that muddle. My former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation colleague Claire Gibbons has recently posted a commentary on the Foundation Center’s Glasspockets site on RWJF’s experience with “becoming a Web 2.0 philanthropy” and how it’s assessing progress. And Beth Kanter is curating a terrific! site that has a wealth of valuable insight and sources for foundations and their grantees.
So, foundations—like Mikey in the old Life cereal commercial (who really didn’t like anything), go “try it. You’ll like it.” You can measure it. And it will help get you where you want to go.
David Morse is a Senior Fellow with (formerly Civic Ventures) and former Chief Communications Officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
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