Need Wider Feedback on Grant Proposals? Try Facebook

Bartel4When Maine Health Access Foundation launched its Fund for the Future initiative in May it sent a request for proposals through its usual channels. Then it added a new twist. It launched a Facebook page to get  broader feedback into the process.

Program Officer Len Bartel (left) explains:

“My intention was to really try to tap into that local knowledge and wisdom of other people on the ground—the boots on the ground in those communities—that might have a better sense of what relationships might work in a project and might not. Or other communities that have tried a similar project and would know, ‘Oh, this worked or this didn’t work with us.’  It would help grantees craft a stronger final proposal and, hopefully, have a better possibility of doing successful work. “

The Fund for the Future is intended to improve outcomes around a specific health issue for a population within a given community.  Bartel says the goal is to “work upstream on the issues that affect and influence our health.” It was important to have a “place-based” strategy behind the projects, so local feedback was critical.

As soon as the RFP went out, MeHAF tried to generate some conversation on Facebook in the hopes of strengthening the initial letters of inquiry.

“We were constantly posting items of interest,” Bartel says. “We would post articles and briefs to try to seed thoughts and thinking for people that these were the kind of projects that we were thinking of: education, food, farm to school stuff, walkable communities. Just to try to spark conversation and thinking about projects.”

MeHAF spent a couple of hours a week trying to get some discussion going, but Bartel says it was tough slog early on.

“I don’t know if it was the way we were phrasing questions, if we weren’t being directive enough, or if people were just getting use to the technology and the public space,” Bartel says. “That was a bit frustrating.”

Things didn’t pick up much after the foundation approved seven letters of inquiry and posted them for public feedback on the Facebook page. Two weeks into the public comment period, there had been little activity, so the foundation extended it for two more weeks. That is when the conversation started to gather a head of steam.

Bartel attributes the increase mostly to work by the applicants to publicize their letters and encourage feedback. He says some applicants received feedback verbally or by e-mail, but it was harder to get people to post comments on Facebook. Applicants posted comments they received via e-mail onto Facebook themselves.

In the end, the foundation received 100-150 comments, which Bartel e-mailed to the applicants so they could incorporate the feedback into their final proposals.

“We got a lot of useful comments,” Bartel says. “I think the real proof of the pudding will be in the final proposals that we receive. One of the specific questions in the application is how they incorporated the Facebook comments, if they did, into their proposal and how they think that may have improved it.”

Bartel is pleased with the experiment so far.

“I think it is a good first step for us to really broaden the net of engaging the public in new ways. Hopefully that can translate into sharing the knowledge and lessons learned from the applicants who do get funded with those who didn’t get funded. I really want to try to find ways where we can do that because I think a greater impact lies outside of the grant cohort with how we diffuse that knowledge that is learned within it.”

He offers three key lessons for others looking to use social media to broaden input:

  • It helps to have some knowledge in-house of the tools you are using. For MeHAF, that came from staff who had used Facebook extensively for personal purposes.
  • Make sure the Facebook page is centered around the discussion and the project, not as a promotional vehicle for the foundation. Bartel says there is no mention of MeHAF on the page.
  • Most important, make the use of social media integral to the program and process. Build this work into the project from the beginning. That will help avoid the perception that the social media component is an extra work flow.

Bartel is already thinking about ways to ensure that what is learned from the funded work is shared beyond the grantees, perhaps a Facebook page for the three grantees. Whatever the method, his mission is to ensure that the conversation continues whether the foundation is present or not.

“I think the real power of social media is for us to begin those conversations with one-to-one and one-to-many, but then to step away and have the many-to-many—the public within the public—start to really build and carry that conversation, and generate and build movements. The ability for these platforms to connect, to coordinate and to drive collaboration has huge potential.”

Social media can be a powerful tool in breaking down the traditional walls foundation staff tend to build between ourselves, our grantees and the rest of the field. I would love to hear other examples of foundations that are encouraging input from a broader audience and at an earlier stage in the process. Please feel free to share stories below.

MeHAF provides about $5 million in grants each year aimed at promoting affordable and timely access to health care and improving the health of Maine residents.

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  1. #1 by Dvd Home Theater on April 20, 2011 - 1:37 pm

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