Baby Steps and Other Lessons Learned Implementing Social Media at a Foundation

I can still see it in my mind all these years later.

My oldest son was starting to walk. We were upstairs in the tiny house we lived in at the time. My mind wandered for a second, and, before I knew it, he was standing at the top of the stairs with a goofy smile on his face. I ran to catch him, but was too late. He took a big step, and then his chubby body rolled down about 15 carpeted stairs, plopping onto the landing on the first floor. I was right behind trying to catch him, but he stayed just out of reach. Like in the movies, it felt as though it was happening in slow motion. He wasn’t hurt. He was crying, though, and suddenly had a full load in his diaper. I learned an important lesson. Babies (and drunk people) are good fallers because they don’t try to stop themselves. They just go with it. I also learned that a gate at the top of the steps might be a good idea. My son learned a pretty good lesson that day about how stairways work and how that first step can be a doozy. You learn new and useful things every day, especially when you are trying something new—like walking … or social media.

I certainly learned my share of lessons during my years working on social media at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Earlier this week, I shared some of those lessons at the Grantmakers in Health annual meeting. (My partners in the session were Len Bartel from the Maine Health Access Foundation and Elizabeth Krause of the Connecticut Health Foundation. Len has been piloting an effort to get feedback on grant proposals using Facebook. Elizabeth is involved in a fascinating initiative to use social media to advance the issue of disparities in health care. I hope to provide more on that in the future. Stay tuned. )

Here are my seven lessons. (I hope they help you take those first cautious steps.)

LESSON 1. Start with a strategy in mind
Seems obvious, but a lot of times people just leap to the tool—“We should have a Twitter feed.”—without thinking through the big picture of their strategy first and whether a Twitter feed fits with that strategy. At RWJF, the mission is pretty straightforward. The foundation wants to make a difference on the issues it is working on. (You hear a lot at the foundation that it is not in the grantmaking business, it is in the social change business.) When we launched social media tools it was because the tools flowed out of that strategy of making a difference on the issues. Some examples:

  • About four years ago, the Pioneer team wanted to share the progress it was making on its work and generate some conversation in the field around that work. It decided to launch a blog.
  • Last year, the group working on health reform knew it would be important to get the foundation’s research and other materials into the conversation as the government worked through reform efforts. It also needed a flexible means of sharing that information and the thinking behind it. Once again, a blog looked like the right tool.
  • This year, the Vulnerable Populations team wanted to get some feedback from the field to shape its work. For that team, a forum where they could pose questions and generate discussion made sense.

Bottom line: Your social media efforts should flow out of your overall mission and strategy. Sort those out first.

LESSON 2. Baby steps are OK
One of the questions I get a lot is, “How did you convince the foundation to do all this.” The answer is, “We did it a little at a time.” At RWJF, we were lucky that social media had strong support from the president. As interest grew, we pushed out of our comfort zone in baby steps—a little more cautiously than my son did. Before the Pioneer team received approval to launch its blog, senior management and the legal people wanted a careful process for moderating all comments before they could appear on the site. The big worry? People would use this forum to attack the foundation. In the first three years, guess how many people used the Pioneer blog to criticize the foundation. None. Senior management saw that and began to breath easier. When the health reform blog was launched, comments were allowed to appear without moderation. (We just kept a close eye on them and quickly removed the occasional inappropriate entry.)

Bottom line: Push out of your comfort zone a little at a time (especially if you don’t have support from senior people, yet).

LESSON 3. Embrace failure
This is all one big experiment right now. Everybody is learning together. Look at everything you do as a pilot. You are just trying to see what works.

We launched a Year in Research poll two years ago. We wanted to find out what our audience thought were the 10 most influential research articles of the year (from work we funded). The biggest worry? What if nobody votes? Guess what? Some 1,400 people voted across 48 states. That worked.

On the other hand, this year we decided to announce the results on the health reform blog and invite people to suggest articles we missed. We even e-mailed all of the winning authors asking them to provide other articles of interest in their field. We didn’t get one comment that was on topic. Not one. That was a learning experience. We saw how difficult it can be to generate comments.

Bottom line: If you look at things as an experiment, everything becomes an opportunity to learn.

LESSON 4. It is all about conversation
Put down the megaphone. Broadcasting is dying. This is another one that seems simple on the surface, but it truly takes a shift to a different mind set to do this well. Whatever the tool, social media is ultimately about building a community of people with a shared interest.

If you are launching a blog, remember that you are the host and your goal is to seed interesting discussions not hog the limelight. If you want to get conversation going at a dinner party, you don’t ask some blowhard to lecture for 30 minutes. You carefully drop conversational nuggets around the room and watch them take root. On Twitter, make sure you pose questions to your followers and ask for their help. Tap into their wisdom. The point of having those followers is so that you can learn from them. Throw ideas out to the field on a Wiki or blog or forum or Facebook before they are fully cooked. Asking for help is the best way to generate conversation. One last thought on this topic. Don’t worry that you might lose control of “the message.” Guess what? You never really had control of it, anyway. And a conversation where you think you already know all the answers is pretty dull stuff. It is OK to let go of the idea that you or your CEO or whoever you are working with is the expert expounding wisdom from on high. It is freeing to say, “I had this idea, but sure could use some help making it better.”

Bottom line: Social media is not about dominating the conversation. It is about generating discussion that we can all learn from.

LESSON 5. This is much harder than it looks
This is a key lesson that a lot of organizations learn the hard way. It is easy to get started with social media. It is much harder to do it effectively. I’m not looking to scare you, but good blogs take a large chunk of time. Aside from the time spent writing, editing, soliciting guest blog entries, there is all of the effort that goes into generating and managing comments. Plus, if you are doing it right, you should be spending time commenting on other blogs and offering guest blogs there. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, user comments on your site, they all place demands on your time and resources. Be realistic. If you don’t have the resources to launch a blog, start with a Twitter feed. Don’t launch a community if you are not ready to dedicate some serious time to building it and managing engagement. Look for an existing community on the topic (maybe on Facebook) and join the conversation there.

Bottom line: Be realistic upfront about committing the resources to do this well. The world doesn’t need another blog that nobody reads or a community that feels lonelier than a hobo at Christmas.

LESSON 6. Don’t let a lack of clear metrics prevent you from getting started
I’ve produced my share of dashboards (and am working on an upcoming post on measuring social media success in the foundation world), so am a big believer in analytics. But go back to lesson three. We are all figuring this stuff out together. It is a grand experiment. At some point, you need to sort out how to measure progress toward your goals. Over the last few years at RWJF, we launched three or four blogs, five or six Twitter feeds, a couple of YouTube pages, a Facebook presence, and much more. When I left , we were still figuring out how to measure progress. That is OK. The foundation will get there.

Bottom line: Think about your strategy, then get out there and get your feet wet. The analytics will come.

LESSON 7. Social media isn’t just about communications
I was in the communications department at RWJF. That is where a lot of social media got started. But I think the real sweet spot is using these tools and the principles behind them—transparency, experimentation, openness to feedback, a willingness to share work that is only half baked—to change the way foundations do program work. If we truly want to make a difference on the issues we care about, shouldn’t we be trying everything we can to increase our impact? Isn’t that what this is all about?

Bottom line: Think of ways to use social media tools and principles throughout your organization to be more effective at what you do.

Those are my seven lessons. Like my son, I learned some by taking a good size fall. Others by taking careful baby steps. The one thing I’m sure of is that I have lots more to learn. What do you think? Do you have any other lessons to share? Do any of these resonate with you?

Photo credit: Sean Dreilinger. Attribution.


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  1. #1 by marta@designerstoffe on September 26, 2010 - 5:23 pm

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge, it was really helpful!

  2. #2 by marta@designerstoffe on September 26, 2010 - 5:21 pm

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge, it was really helpful for me!

  3. #3 by Leah on March 23, 2010 - 8:02 am

    Great post, Larry. This absolutely speaks true to my experience so far in online communications. It was also especially comforting to read #5 and be reminded that, yeah, this stuff (blogging in particular) does take up a lot of time and that’s okay!

    • #4 by Larry Blumenthal on March 23, 2010 - 10:45 am

      Glad you found it helpful, Leah. Thanks for reinforcing lesson 5. It is a lot of work to do social media well, and important to understand that going in.

  4. #5 by Dawn Reid on March 19, 2010 - 10:42 pm

    Wonderful suggestions for ways to ease into the social media world. I too see these tips as applicable to fields beyond Foundations. Thank you for sharing.

  5. #6 by Courtney Hunt on March 19, 2010 - 7:41 pm

    Great post, Larry. It echoes many of the same arguments I make with folks about approaching social media.

    Your guidelines are relevant to organizations of all types, not just foundations, so I’m sharing this piece with the members of the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community via LI, Twitter, and FB.


    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs)

    • #7 by Larry Blumenthal on March 20, 2010 - 9:11 am

      Thanks for your thoughts and for sharing this, Courtney and Dawn. I’m glad the lessons are useful beyond the world of foundations.


  6. #8 by Brigid on March 19, 2010 - 11:25 am

    Really loved this post, and it is applicable to all nonprofits, not just foundations. I’m particularly struck by lesson 4, that social media will lead to a conversation rather than the one-way communication that has been the traditional model. Giving up this control of “the message” would be the most difficult battle I foresee at the organizations I know. Hopefully doing it slowly and learning that your followers’ thoughts can help inform decisions would make it, slowly, successful. Baby steps 😉

    • #9 by Larry Blumenthal on March 20, 2010 - 9:21 am

      Great point, Brigid. I hear the concern about losing control of the message a lot. If they can get past that, organizations will see that it is a lot more effective to join the conversation than try to control it and that you learn a lot more from listening than you do when you are doing all the talking. Let’s hope more begin to learn that lesson.

  7. #10 by Rebecca Leet on March 17, 2010 - 8:20 am

    Terrific sharing, Larry. It’ll help many convince bosses — or clients — why and how to approach social media. I strongly endorse your last point about other primary areas of an organization using social media. Wouldn’t it be great if social media was the lever than finally got “communications” out of being a stand alone department and integrated into all organizational functions — like most of us have been trying to do our whole careers!

  8. #11 by mreiss on March 16, 2010 - 4:35 pm


    Thanks for sharing your expertise and insight. Any thoughts on using social media to start a conversation with foundation and corporate donors (current and/or prospective)?

    Thank you.

  9. #12 by ccrodgers on March 15, 2010 - 1:45 pm

    Thanks for the insights. I am a communications consultant to nonprofit organizations and have found my clients very resistant to using social media to connect with supporters. I now feel I have a much better chance of winning them over!

    • #13 by Larry Blumenthal on March 15, 2010 - 7:54 pm

      Thanks, Caroline. I’m glad this is helpful. I know it can be a challenge convincing nonprofits of the relevance of social media to their work. It is worth fighting the battle, though.


  10. #14 by philanthropy411 on March 14, 2010 - 11:42 am

    Larry – terrific post, very interesting and helpful! Sorry I missed it at GIH.

  11. #15 by Margaret Egan on March 13, 2010 - 12:18 pm


    Funny this came to my inbox this AM. I was just re-reading your PND post from Nov. 2009. I could not agree more with your comments and approach.

    The fact that you were working as a Communications guru was critical as well as interesting because I think it always has to be about communication. Alas sometime Fdns allocate this effort to IT/Web or outsource and do not create buy-in from top management or program folks or grants mgmt. Your “pioneer team” was key as well as engaging as many INTERdepartmental conversations as possible to ‘calm’ the anxiety and get people excited.

    Every little change takes time and a cheer leader/facilitator/vision interpreter is a great engine.

    btw, you turn a great phrase and my two favs are:
    Broadcast is Dead
    a Hobo @Christmas

    Thanks always for your contributions.

    Thanks always for your generous sharing and insights…from your shares to leadership’s eyes to broadened awareness to budgets to S L O W integration.

    • #16 by Larry Blumenthal on March 13, 2010 - 3:55 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Margaret. I definitely agree about creating buy-in from top management and program folks. For social media to truly work it has to include the whole organization, not just communications.


  12. #17 by Jodi Sperber on March 12, 2010 - 4:20 pm


    Thanks for this. As always, a clear and thoughtful presentation of ideas. I echo each of the points you’ve made.

    The only thing I would add, and perhaps it is implicit, is that you can’t avoid social media. Well, you can, but then you lose out on tremendous opportunity. And your audience is most likely expecting it.

    I recently attended a medical conference session on this topic. I’m not a doc, but I’m interested in how health care professionals are using social media. The room was packed – 140 people (one for every character in Twitter. 😉 ). Most of them were practitioners, with some from smaller practices. Even the skeptics in the room were there because they understood the significance of the medium, and they wanted to know how they could dip their toes in the water without immediately drowning.

    Your post addresses this head on, and I’ve forwarded it on to others to share.

    • #18 by Larry Blumenthal on March 13, 2010 - 3:58 pm

      Thanks, Jodi. It will be interesting to see how social media principles play out in health care. Groups like the Mayo Clinic are experimenting with some interesting approaches – docs tweeting from the operating room, patients blogging during treatment. I’m excited to see where this goes.


  13. #19 by Mark Petersen on March 12, 2010 - 3:45 pm

    Excellent post Larry. Many thanks.

    • #20 by Larry Blumenthal on March 13, 2010 - 4:03 pm

      Thanks, Mark. Hope it was helpful.

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