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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Its Mastery of Social Media

January 25th, 2011

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.

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3 Responses to “The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Its Mastery of Social Media”

  1. Hope Leman Says:

    Hi, Larry and Steve. Thank you both for your interesting comments. You have demonstrated in your comments here exactly what Steve mentions as a key component of social media, “social media are about listening even more so than talking.” To wit, I am impressed that you took the trouble to comment on my post and to address some of its points. Often, bloggers get no feedback at all from those they are writing about or from readers in general. Thus, you have demonstrated that you follow what is said about the RWJF in various venues and have endeared yourself to the blogger (in this case, moi!).

    I found Larry’s comments here very interesting, “Being willing to open the grantmaking process to more feedback, from a wider audience, early in the process and right on through to the evaluation stage.” That is certainly innovative and very much in line with the drive for Open Access, Open Data, and Open Science in society at large and is very much be to applauded given that the more openness there is about the whole grantmaking process and discussion of results the better for those seeking grants and those they are trying to help via their research and projects. It makes for efficiency and fairness geographically and in other respects.

    I forgot to mention that on your Twitter Feed you all do so well at showcasing the results of the research your grantees have actually done.

    For instance, I just followed the link in Twitter to this roundup
    and thereby learned a lot about and from what your grantees have contributed in recent years to the literature in the health sciences.

    You also excel at tweeting groups in Twitter (e.g., the American Academy of Nurses) to spotlight those of their members who have published reports made possible by funding from the RWJF. And I appreciate hearing about via your Twitter Account fascinating events such as Make It Better, a symposium on art, design and the future of healthcare

    And I had heretofore somehow missed that you have a compilation feed in Twitter of tweets by various of your staffers and am just now exploring that: I encourage those interested in the latest health services and health policy to check out that page. That is a group in the know and well wired. You can subscribe to the entire feed or to the feeds of the individuals closest to your interests.

    And I liked the useful tweet by David C. Colby, “Looking 4 a place 2 publish yr research? Medicare & Medicaid Research Review.” Now that is a real service to researchers—telling them about possible venues for the results of their research, (which incidentally, we try very hard to do here at Samaritan Health Services via ResearchRaven, our free online listing of calls for papers and meeting announcements).

    Anyway, keep up the good work guys!

  2. sdowns Says:


    Thank you for such kind words and it’s great to get the feedback on the particular ways in which we can be helpful. You highlighted a couple of elements of our strategy that we’ve worked hard on – getting staff to tweet and using social media to draw others in. And it’s been a process of culture change that we’re continually working through, as it is for many in philanthropy. As Larry points out – and he played a key role in fostering this understanding – social media are about listening even more so than talking. And for staff, services like Twitter are fantastic vehicles for keeping up with what’s going on in the field, discovering new people and new ideas, getting feedback on the work we support and floating ideas. Rather than just using social media as another vehicle to get our information out, we see it as a vital channel for getting feedback and we believe that feedback will make us better at what we do. And by being approachable as individuals, we hope to invite that feedback.

    We also see social media as a way to draw others into the challenges we take on. While we are relatively large among foundations, our financial resources are tiny compared to the issues – like childhood obesity and improving the quality of health care – that we seek to influence. Thus we need to engage not only our grantees, but all others who share our goals. These might be tech developers who can make personal health data more actionable, as in the case of the Blue Button challenge, or the concerned parents and community activists we hope will join the movement to improve kids’ physical activity and healthy eating through

    Despite your kind headline on your post, I don’t think we’ve really “mastered” anything here yet, but we’re pleased that we’re getting some traction with our social media efforts. As in all of our work, we’re committed to doing better, so I’d love to hear from your readers – how can we improve?

    – Steve Downs (Assistant VP, Health at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation)

  3. Larry Blumenthal Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Hope. As former director of Web and social media strategy at RWJF, I just want to share one key thing that the foundation figured out fairly quickly. Social media tools and the principles behind them are not limited to the communications department. As you point out above, some of the most interesting applications show up when the program staff see the potential and are willing to experiment. Social media isn’t about the tools. It is about adopting a different mindset. It is about being open and transparent. Being willing to share work before it is fully cooked. Being willing to open the grantmaking process to more feedback, from a wider audience, early in the process and right on through to the evaluation stage. Foundations are beginning to figure all this out, and it is a wonderful thing to see.

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