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Thursday, January 18, 2018

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Why would a foundation tweet?
Lucy Bernholz

February, 2011

A few days ago I checked my Twitter stream and saw a few items tagged #JIFLAB. I could tell that these tweets were coming from staff of The James Irvine Foundation. I pinged the people I knew and asked "What's #JIFLAB? What's going on?"

I've been asked this question "Why should my foundation tweet?" 1,000 times. My usual answer has to do with listening. Chances are some of the people you want to learn from are using Twitter. Chances are they are using it to be part of interesting/important/relevant/useful/though-provoking conversations. If your job requires you to know what the key people in a certain field are talking about, then listening to and being part of the conversations on Twitter is part of that.

One of the people in the#JIFLAB conversation was the Foundation's CEO, Jim Canales. I asked Jim (on Twitter, of course) if I could interview him for this blog on why the Foundation was tweeting and what they hoped to learn.

We tried the interview by Twitter but switched to email. Here's the quick-and-dirty back and forth. Here is why one Foundation is trying out Twitter.

LB) Why is JIF staff tweeting? Is it part of an emergent strategy (on social media? listening? transparency? something else?) and, if so, what other practices are part of that strategy?

JC) In setting out the Foundation's goals for 2011 (I do this annually for both board and staff to align our work and set key institutional priorities), I described that we should actively explore the ways in which social media might serve to advance our Foundation's programmatic goals. More specifically, we are interested in exploring ways to use social media to: (1) share what we are learning more rapidly and broadly; (2) listen more actively to our partners and key stakeholders, building greater two-way exchange instead of one-way transmission of information; (3) build alliances and broader networks of support to advance our program goals; and (4) demonstrate Irvine's continued commitment to transparency and openness.

In setting this priority, I have consciously noted that 2011 is a time for active learning, broad exploration and selective experimentation. I don't want us using social media for the sake of using social media alone, and we are focused on identifying staff who are interested in being early adopters and users (I put myself in this category). The training that you spotted on the #JIFLAB stream was focused on staff who had the most interest and wanted to learn more.

LB) What do you hope to learn? How will you and individual staff know if its "worth it?"

JC) Many others have been active in this space (you included), and we hope to learn from you and them how they are using social media to improve and enhance the work of philanthropy.

One way to understand "worthiness" will be to answer these kinds of questions:
  • Did we find ways where the use of social media served as an effective complement to our grantmaking strategies?
  • Did social media lead us to be more effective at sharing lessons learned, results achieved, and our shortcomings?
  • How does social media help us to stay "closer to the ground" in understanding the trends and current issues on the minds of our partners and stakeholders?
  • Has the substance of what we learned from engagement with social media influenced our work, especially in ways different from more traditional approaches to "scan the landscape"?
  • Does social media contribute to a more authentic and less formal relationship between Irvine and its various partners?
  • Does the use of social media link us to new voices and perspectives that we might not otherwise engage with?
  • And, perhaps most importantly, can we point to ways where social media helped Irvine to have greater impact toward our program goals?
LB) Can I check back in in with you in August, December to see how its going?

JC) Absolutely. This is a work in progress, and we are eager to share what we are learning at the same time as we want others to teach us what we don't know."

Thanks Jim, for giving us one CEO's view of what a foundation can learn from social media. I think Jim has set out an important range of goals - mostly about listening and learning. As this blog post itself reveals, being part of different conversations can change what you learn about, who you talk to and what you know. I simply "overheard" the #JIFLAB conversation, there was no formal inquiry or outreach.

Even if the Foundation can't prove a substantive difference in its knowledgebase, conversational style or level of access I think the experiment is worthy. Linking those kinds of change to achieving the Foundation's mission will be tough, but not impossible. Smart philanthropy requires using good information well. Social media offers several new tools for doing so.

I wish the Foundation staff well in their adventures in listening and learning. I'll check back in with Jim and #JIF in a few months. In the meantime, please welcome the Foundation to the conversation.

Information on foundations use of social media can be found at - a Foundation Center Initiative. Check out their cool new heat map.

Lucy Bernholz may be found at


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