Tips on Connecting with Foundations via Social Media

I received two comments from separate blog entries recently that were essentially asking the same question: Can I use social media to develop relationships with foundations?

One was from Joe Waters, director of cause marketing for a Boston hospital and author of the always interesting blog Selfish Giving.

Joe asks:

Do you have some examples of HOW foundations are using social media to interact with nonprofits? I work for a hospital and I’m a big advocate for using social media and I want to make the case that being on social media is another way to appeal and communicate with Foundations. These are important to us as we raise most of our money from them!

Moments later, MReiss posed a similar question:

Any thoughts on using social media to start a conversation with foundation and corporate donors (current and/or prospective)?

Can you use social media to develop or improve your relationship with funders? The answer is yes. And no.

Yes, because social media does offer an opportunity to gain visibility with foundations that are interested in your cause. No, because social media is about relationships, and if it becomes about you asking for funding—when the foundation/community is asking for a different kind of help—you undermine the longer-term goal and do more harm than good. (No question social media has extraordinary uses for fundraising. You just don’t want to mix purposes.)

With that in mind, here are some tips for using social media to strengthen your relationship with current and potential funders:

Get active on Twitter
Over 100 foundations are now on Twitter. Kris Putnam-Walkerly has been maintaining an extensive list at her wonderful Philanthropy411 blog. Some (although not as many as there should be) are actively listening to the conversation in their areas of interest. You want to be a part of that conversation. Follow the foundations working on the same issues as you. Respond when they ask for feedback. Retweet their stuff, if you find it appropriate for your followers. If you tweet enough about interesting stuff from your own feed, they’ll start to notice you. Just make sure it is genuine and about the issues, not blatantly self-promotional. You are trying to help your audience (including foundations) better understand the issues and how they can help.

Comment on foundation blogs
A number of foundations have active blogs. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has several including its core blog on health reform and its active Pioneering Ideas blog. The Case Foundation, which has social media in its DNA, offers an active blog as well. So does the Knight Foundation. That is less than the tip of the iceberg. The list is long and growing. Check out the Web sites of foundations funding in your area of interest. Look for their blogs. Here’s the dirty little secret about these blogs. Very few receive comments or offers for strong guest blogs. Get busy. All bloggers welcome (some might say live for) thoughtful comments. They also generally love guest blogging attempts, if they are on topic and you can show you know how to write an interesting blog post.

Join Facebook discussions
A growing number of foundations have Facebook pages. Here are just a few: Commonwealth FundGates Foundation. Case Foundation. C.S. Mott Foundation. Join the conversation on these pages. It may get you noticed. And no need to limit yourself to foundation pages. You can join groups on Facebook and LinkedIn that focus on your issues. Be visible there. A foundation staff member may be following the same group. You never know.

Subscribe to their YouTube pages
Same as Facebook. Foundations use YouTube to post their videos. Subscribe to them. Favorite their videos—if you think they deserve it—on your YouTube page, if you have one. Remember, you are trying to build a relationship and relationships mean being there for the other party. Helping when you can. Helping even if it is not asked for. Helping without a specific reward for yourself in mind.

Volunteer your expertise
Ashoka’s Changemakers, Idea Crossing, other groups run regular competitions. Try to become a judge. Offer your ideas in the competition. Plunge into the conversation. As foundations begin to open the decision process to a broader audience (and this is coming, although slowly), nonprofits will have more and more opportunity to contribute visibly. Take advantage of those.

Grab the reigns in your topic area
One of the most amazing things about social media is that anyone can position themselves as a thought leader in their space (provided they really are a thought leader). Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith and Tribes by Seth Godin make the case eloquently. If you are willing to commit the time—and it will take time—you can become visible as someone doing interesting work and providing leadership to your area. Social media makes that possible. It is a democratic process with few gatekeepers. If you and/or your organization have something to add, put it out there and see what happens. One of the challenges for program officers at foundations is finding potential grantees with good ideas and the means to implement them. Be visible. Make it easy for them to find you. If you already have a relationship, stay in their face—not about getting money—but about your passion for the issue. Social media gives you an accessible means to get noticed and stay visible. Good things will come, if you get out there.

Be selfless
One of the unwritten rules of social media is that it is about helping others. You are not there solely to promote yourself. If you have interesting information to add to the mix, please do. But you also want to spend a lot of your time promoting work by others, including foundations funding in your field. Foundations tend to produce lots of research reports and issue briefs. Help them share content that you think is valuable. Answer questions. Respond to comments. Keep looking for ways to be helpful. Just be authentic and genuine at the same time. Nobody respects a suck up, and foundations can spot them a mile away. Ultimately, you are trying to provide some value to your readers. If you do that, the visibility and the relationships will follow.

I don’t want to get too carried away here. It is still early in the dawning of social media, and we are all learning together. The percentage of foundations and corporate donors paying attention to social media remains small. Much of the work on social media in philanthropy is being done by communications and marketing departments, not the program staff you want to connect with. Still, it is growing and it is an opportunity you should be experimenting with.

What about you? Any other suggestions for using social media to build relationships with funders? Success stories to share?

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  1. #1 by philanthropy411 on April 19, 2010 - 8:26 pm

    Larry -This is a terrific post!! I will share some of your ideas and this post during an upcoming speech I am giving on the use of social media for organizational learning.

    Kris Putnam-Walkerly
    Putnam Community Investment Consulting

  2. #2 by Joe Waters on April 18, 2010 - 10:44 pm

    Hi Larry,

    Thanks for answering my question. This is very helpful! And I’ll be sure to share this with the foundations team!


  3. #3 by Mark Petersen on April 17, 2010 - 4:02 pm

    Great post with some very helpful suggestions… thanks. The “be selfless” caveat is especially good.

    I’ve found social media to be a useful tool that bridges the gap between between funder and charity. There is awkwardness in cold calling – whether done in person, or through a proposal or concept paper. But getting out there using social media allows for relationships to organically mature. Many foundations are fearful of pulling back the curtain, but I’ve found doing so enhances the effectiveness of my philanthropy. I’ve found my natural suspicion and barriers to people doing a sales job begins to dissipate if we’ve connected virtually first.

    • #4 by Larry Blumenthal on April 18, 2010 - 10:21 am

      Great points, Mark. Thanks for your comments. Let’s hope all program officers learn the same lesson. Once you get out there and join the conversation all kinds of great things can happen.

  1. 20 Social Media Resources for Nonprofits | Putnam Consulting Group
  2. 20 Social Media Resources for Nonprofits « Philanthropy411 Blog

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