As Web administrator of ScanGrants, a free online database of funding opportunities in the health sciences, I spend hours trying to find grants, fellowships, science prizes, and scholarships in the health sciences to list on the site. I am doing this so that students, physicians, scientists, nurse researchers, public health experts, and health services researchers can find the funding they need to advance science and medicine. The database is provided as a public service by Samaritan Health Services’ Center for Health Research and Quality, in Corvallis, Oregon.

All those hours entering data about such funding opportunities have endowed me with affection and admiration for a certain pool of grantors, and I want to give one of them, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a big public hug.

What do I particularly love about the RWJF? For one thing, I like that it funds fascinating forays into the frontiers of health technologies, such as the use of computer gaming in health education.

 What can other grantors in the health sciences learn from the RWJF? How about the ability to generate excitement among groups we don’t traditionally associate with public and community health, such as Web developers and start-ups? Also, the foundation partners with other grantors (for example, the Markle Foundation) to sponsor competitions such as the Blue Button Challenge

Sponsoring contests and competitions in the tech world offers several advantages. It demonstrates that a grantor is innovative and fosters those who are. It engenders interest in health affairs among new groups such as undergraduates in science and engineering, tech bloggers, and science journalists. It also gets the name of the grantor into the blogosphere and on Twitter and results in product showcases that lead to further innovation and to products and services that eventually actually advance the grantor’s mission. There is nothing wrong with looking cool and cutting edge, and the RWJF is totally cool. 

What else do I like about it? Well, in my opinion, the RWJF is one of the few major grantors that really “gets” social media and social marketing. It uses Twitter very effectively, for example. Say you are a policy wonk interested in public/community health and health policy in general. Then you could subscribe to the RWJF’s main Twitter account

But say you are more of a tools-oriented geek (that’d be me). Then you would want to sign up for the Twitter account of the foundation’s Pioneer program. 

Unlike some funders that create Twitter accounts but then tweet infrequently and boringly, primarily about their own programs, the tweets of the RWJF are intellectually engaging, and they excel at outreach to those in the health field. 

Case in point: I recently looked at the Twitter account of the RWJF’s Pioneer program and saw this tweet, “@RACfunding Could you update your Web site? RWJF accepts unsolicited proposals for the Pioneer Portfolio (@pioneerrwjf).” 

So what is RAC? Its full name is the Rural Assistance Center. On its Web site, I read, “RAC is a collaboration of the University of North Dakota Center for Rural Health (UND-CRH), the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), and the federal Office of Rural Health Policy (ORHP) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and is located at the University of North Dakota.” 

RAC saw the message from the RWJF, updated its site as requested, and tweeted about the RWJF accepting unsolicited proposals for the Pioneer (program’s) Portfolio. I retweeted both of those tweets, and maybe someone will retweet my tweets, and so on. My point is that here we have a funder that is taking the time to encourage technological innovation in the hinterlands and that is using simple, inexpensive social marketing tools like Twitter to do so (save for the fact that it does have to pay the staffers that do the tweeting). 

Another lesson that other grantors could draw from the RWJF’s use of Twitter is to encourage their staffers to maintain their own Twitter accounts. That gives a public face to the funder and personalizes its programs. Let’s say a young technologist has an idea for the Blue Button Challenge or just wants to get a feel for the people at an organization and to be able to communicate with them via the friendly, nonthreatening free-for-all that is Twitter. Isn’t it nice for that person to be able to note that he can direct message or openly tweet someone like Paul Tarini, who is team director and senior program officer, Pioneer Portfolio, at the RWJF? 

Take a look at what Tarini tweets about. I just read, for example, his tweet about an article in Nature; the tweet led me directly to the article, “Peer Review: Trial by Twitter.” 

Lesson for grantors? You can use social media to publicize your own programs, to create alliances with new players, to provide substantive services to the scholarly and philanthropic communities (such as providing links in tweets to serious bits of journalism, think pieces, or white papers of your own, or to ones written by others that you find otherwise noteworthy), and to both talk about social media and use it for the benefit of your own organization. Lee Aase, director of social media at the Mayo Clinic, is a master at this, for instance. I just retweeted his tweet about his use of Quora. (Keep your eye on Quora, in general, as a new social media tool.) 

Take-away for grantors: Innovation in programs and their marketing pays.