I noticed something a little unusual at a workshop earlier this month.

I’ve been doing a lot of speaking recently on social media and philanthropy, and I often start presentations with some questions to gauge the mindset of the group. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to uncover a lot of skepticism among foundation folks–especially program staff–about social media.

But I heard a different response while presenting at the Grantmakers In Health annual meeting. I was doing a breakout session on social media tools along with 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.

When I asked for reasons why people were reluctant to get involved with social media, the group listed some fairly typical concerns about adopting this approach, including a lack of resources, a daunting learning curve, skepticism among senior management, and uncertainty about how to measure success. However, when I asked how many people didn’t think social media was relevant to their work, no one raised their hand. Not one. That was a first for me. This group didn’t seem to need convincing. They had already begun to get their feet wet, or at least their toes. I don’t want to leap to the conclusion that philanthropy has undergone a sea change that will alter life as we know it (although I think that would be a good thing). But I did take that as a healthy sign that social media tools are steadily making their way into the foundation world. The first blooms of spring are peeking up through the snow, and it is a beautiful sight.

I spent a lot of years overseeing Web and social media strategy at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We’ve been pretty active with social media recently—launching eight Twitter feeds, several blogs, a YouTube page, a presence on Facebook, user comments and communities, among other things. It has not been without its bumps along the way, but bumps make for great learning opportunities. I shared with the group at GIH some lessons learned while implementing social media at RWJF. Among the lessons:

  • Make sure social media efforts flow from the organization’s broader mission. Think about how they fit into the strategy upfront.
  • Moving in baby steps is OK. Push out of your comfort zone a little at a time, if that is what it takes to get you going.
  • Embrace your failures. We are all learning this stuff together, so you should approach social media as a learning opportunity.
  • Emphasize conversation/discussion over one-way broadcasting of information. It is a different mindset, but you’ll figure it out.
  • Be realistic upfront about committing resources. This stuff is harder than it looks.
  • Don’t let a lack of clear metrics for measuring success stop you from getting started. The metrics will catch up.
  • Social media isn’t just a tool for communications. Program staff should be looking at this as well.

Some of the most interesting work I’ve seen lately is coming from foundations who are integrating social media tools —and the principles behind them—into their program work. The work of my fellow panelists is a good example. RWJF has a lot going on as well. The Pioneer team has been working on ways to open grant-making decisions to a broader community. The Vulnerable Populations team recently launched a forum to pose questions to the field as a way of targeting its work more effectively. The Human Capital team is developing an online community for the more than 2,000 people who have come through its scholars and fellows programs. Although it is intended to help scholars and fellows work more closely together, it also will help the foundation tap into all that expertise to improve its program efforts. More is in the works, and RWJF is not alone.

If you are interested, you can see more details on the lessons I’ve learned on my own blog. I’m having a blast watching these initiatives take hold, but I’m supposed to. It is my job.

What do you think? Are you happy to see social media taking hold in the world of philanthropy? Or are you not convinced, yet?

Are you working on something interesting you want to share?