COF: Social Media-Are You Sure It’s For You?

From May 2 – May 7, the Tactical Philanthropy Blog Team will be covering the Council on Foundations conference from Atlanta. The individual blog team members represent a range of opinions and have been given no editorial directions. The opinions expressed in these posts do not necessarily represent the opinions of Sean Stannard-Stockton.

By Molly Alexander, Acumen Fund

I am one of about 12 individuals sitting around the conference breakout table. We are a diverse mix of organizations, foundations and generations but we’re all asking Scott Harrison of charity:water and Donna Callejon of GlobalGiving the same question: how do we use social media to get our message ‘out there’. Just because we can, should all foundations and charitable organizations be creating social media strategies?

When asked how to measure the cost benefit of investing in a social media strategy, our own Tactical Philanthropy panelist Sean Stannard-Stockton responded to this question by asking “Does your foundation have a unique approach to poverty alleviation?”  If you believe you have a unique method to influence change, you increase your impact merely by spreading that idea.

The problem with this, especially for the more traditional charities and foundations here at the Council on Foundations conference, is that when you decide to leverage social media tools (and that’s all they are, tools) to spread your idea, you relinquish full control of that message.

Scott Harrison uses this to his advantage. charity:water uses a powerful media strategy to engage people by telling stories which drive interest in their work and communities. By partnering with major media outlets they’ve managed to ‘get the word out’ but not to always control the direction of the message. But hey, 25million viewers via American Idol is pretty unbeatable. This method only works when you have strong, compelling content to begin with, something many non-profits struggle with. 

“It’s easier to be a two year old organization launching into the social media space, they’ve come in on the wave” Donna reminds us. As I look around the table of staff from more established foundations searching for ways to leverage social media tools to connect with the next generation or turn interest into donations or to connect donors to the recipients on the ground I think: enlist the next generation to teach you about your message and how they want to be engaged; find your community’s evangelists and give them something specific to share; and finally tell stories, real stories of true impact. Hopefully then the myth around how to use social media tools becomes trumped with the knowledge of why you want to get your message out there. Or just don’t do it at all.

Molly Alexander is business development manager at Acumen Fund.