Learning From Foundation Tweets

Beth Kanter (currently a visiting scholar at the Packard Foundation), recently analyzed the list of “foundations that tweet” on the Philanthropy411 blog. Beth gives a really interesting breakdown of the various ways the foundations are using Twitter as well as takes a look at the “profiles” the use.

She breaks the profiles into four types:

  1. Pure Foundation Brand
  2. Foundation with Personality
  3. Employee with Foundation Association
  4. Pure Personal Account

Personally, I generally think options 1 and 4 are boring. Profile 1 types tend to be versions of press release distributors. Profile 4 types tend to tweet about their cats, what happen on a TV show last night and other personal conversation that doesn’t interest me (I’m not referring to the profiles that Beth uses as examples, just making a generalization).

But Profile 2 and 3 types are really interesting. These are either foundation branded Twitter profiles that clearly are authored by a real person writing like a normal human does or individual branded Twitter profiles where the person’s connection to a foundation is clearly noted.

I think the lesson to be drawn here is that in the search for how best to share knowledge, the key thing is to put humans at the center. Knowledge is not some sort of physical element that we can stack in a room somewhere and index easily. Knowledge is a concept that is rooted in the very fact that we are human.

Information we can stick into databases and take humans out of the equation. Knowledge on the other hand (or dare we say wisdom?) cannot be separated from the human element in which it is rooted.

As we strive to build a more effective philanthropy, to share knowledge and support what works, let’s not become disconnected from the human element that drives philanthropy. Any hope we have to build a philanthropic field that is high performing and high impact must be built on a framework that embraces our humanity rather than tries to overcome it.

It is a messy world out there. But humans are uniquely good at organizing, contextualizing and identifying patterns in messy information landscapes.


  1. Beth Kanter says:

    Thanks for expressing a point of view on this. I wanted to look at the options objectively – and understand what the pros/cons were. I can see why nonprofits (and foundations) make certain choices.

    I love your points about humanness and the way you wrote it – just have to quote:

    I think the lesson to be drawn here is that in the search for how best to share knowledge, the key thing is to put humans at the center. Knowledge is not some sort of physical element that we can stack in a room somewhere and index easily. Knowledge is a concept that is rooted in the very fact that we are human.

    Information we can stick into databases and take humans out of the equation. Knowledge on the other hand (or dare we say wisdom?) cannot be separated from the human element in which it is rooted.

    My question: Why are we concerned or scared about expressing our humanness?

  2. I think it has to do with the professionalization of our sector. For-profit companies struggle with the same thing, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out yesterday.

    In many ways, being “professional” in our culture is about stripping yourself of personality. But I think that’s a mistake.

    Another aspect is the fetishization of technology. Where we think that we can almost do away with “low efficiency” humans and let computers do all the work.

    Personally, I think that technology and social media in particular is best used when it helps us more fully express those things that make us uniquely human.

  3. Carrie Varoquiers says:

    Interesting post, and I’m not sure where I fit in to Beth’s four categories. I only post my personal thoughts (although I mainly RT), and I am not representing my employer on Twitter. However, I do not post about my cat, so I don’t think I fit into #4. I am interested in and passionate about my profession, so my personal posts tend to be work-related, or at least industry-related. I do reveal my real name and picture on Twitter, so I must take into account that (a) my employer can read my Tweets and (b) that some people will think my views represent my employer, therefore I post with those parameters in mind. Besides, the only other person that will listen to me chat about my dog is my husband!

  4. Carrie, I think you’re describing a 5th profile type. Purely personal accounts (no organizational affiliation), who tweet primarily about their industry. I follow you on Twitter because you tweet about philanthropy stuff.

    I think you make an important argument for a new profile type that Beth should add to her list. I would suggest that it go between #3 and #4 and be something like “Personal Account w/ Industry focus”.

  5. Beth Kanter says:

    Just a quick word .. the initial profile types came from a corporate framework tht I adapted from Jeremiah Owyang.

    It sounds close to #3 — a personal account but the person is a staff person at Foundation who tweets about their professional area which might include the industry and identifies that they work for the Foundation. And also tweets about their cat or dog or enjoying the beach – just sprinkles in a little bit of personality!

  6. I think Carrie represents a different profile type than Stephanie McAuliffe who you use as an example of a #3 profile type. Stephanie lists the Packard Foundation website on her Twitter profile. Carrie links to her own LinkedIn profile. Carrie is at least trying to present herself as an individual whereas Stephanie is presenting herself as an employee of Packard.

    However, Carrie, I do have to admit that I still think of you as someone who tweets with an organization affiliation simply because you tweet about work related stuff and I know where you work (and it is listed on your LinkedIn profile).

  7. Beth Kanter says:

    So, you’re making a distinction between how overtly a personal/professional presence identifies their profile with their employer?

    There’s how this all links to the organizational overall strategy ..

    Anyway, lots to link about

  8. Not only are #1 and #4 more boring options, but I also don’t think they generate the kind of trust that nonprofits need to build up among their followers. If you think about knowledge or wisdom coming from looking at information and experiences from a certain perspective, then I think we need to see some of that human side to really appreciate that perspective and to trust it – if that makes sense. I need to know where you are coming from, and some personal details, however frivolous they may seem on their own, do contribute to that bigger picture of you.

    P.S. I’m guilty of cat-tweeting in the last week, but it was a very high drama event that consumed a lot of my time. I’ve also tweeted about food every now and then, although I’m generally annoyed when other people do it. I hope people don’t get too twisted up about what’s OK to tweet and not on the personal side. I think setting too many rules about the kind of personal information to include in a mostly professional profile (other than the “don’t embarrass your mother” variety) would be shame. It defeats the whole purpose: Be yourself!

  9. Kivi, the “cat tweeting” comment I made was dumb. The most constant request I get from people when I ask what I could do to make the blog better is to be more personal. A year a half ago I posted a note that my winter vacation had ended with colds for me, my wife and both of our kids. I was my most popular post in terms of the emails it generated from readers.

    So I’m in no position to tell people to be less personal. Frankly, I should learn to be more personal!

  10. I don’t think it was dumb – hey, it tells us more about what you like and don’t like personally! 🙂

    I think it’s really more a question of balance than of actual content. People are into what they are into (and not). Same goes with friends offline. The point is to share some of yourself, whatever that is.

  11. Beth Kanter says:


    My most popular post was about my 22nd wedding anniversary – combined with advice about how to pitch bloghers

    Kivi: I love the “don’t embarrass your mother” rule. It was Wendy Harman who said it to give credit.

    I tend to tweet mostly work related stuff, but also share tweets that show my personality — something someone might hear or see if they met me face-to-face.

  12. Paul Putman says:

    Just joining the conversation, I wanted to go back for a moment to Beth’s question from her first comment “Why are we concerned or scared about expressing our humanness?”

    I’m a fairly new program officer, and I tweet (@paultofu) probably from category #5, personal account tweeting primarily philanthropy and nonprofit info, with small amounts of personality.

    I think the concern/fear for me possibly stems from 1) only hearing about negative consequences from the wrong tweets or posts – I haven’t seen any posts or news items that read “I sent this tweet and got a promotion…” and 2) I take my job and organization’s mission very seriously and do not want to send a message that might be misinterpreted. Since I work with a community foundation, there are a lot of connections to the work we do throughout the entire local community, and I am concerned about expressing opinions related to organizations or even topics that might be interpreted as influencing a funding decision. I believe this has kept me from fully embracing the personal side of things – but I’m working on it .

    So I’ve started out with sharing information via tweets and blog posts – and am slowly working up to a comfort level around expressing more personal thoughts/ humanness as well.

  13. I think your approach makes a lot of sense Paul. You make an interesting point that you’ve never seen a headline about something good that came from an employee tweeting.

    I would guess that’s because the bad things can could happen are more immediate (employee says something negative about grantee) where as the good things happen over time (foundation’s influence in their program areas grow as tweeting employees build trust and credibility with the public).

    Glad you’re trying it out. Good luck!

  14. Beth Kanter says:


    Thanks for your thoughtful comment and insight. Your concerns are shared by others who work at foundations. One approach a foundation is taking:
    -developing a social media philosophy that encourages participation, but provides general guidelines
    -the philosophy is linked to the strategy
    -having operational information that gets into specific examples (not as a thou shalt do x, but more to lead to understanding).
    -hands-on training and provide resources to help raise comfort levels and understanding.

  15. Diana says:

    I agree with Paul. I got into Twitter as a way to share industry info and connect with like-minded professionals. However, the foundation I work for prefers to operate anonymously, and I take our founders’ preferences quite seriously. In a relatively small community, it could be easy for my Twitter profile to become confused with the “voice of the foundation” were I to tweet as foundation staff, as opposed to myself–who happens to be interested in many topics, including philanthropy, etc. So I have ended up using Twitter to keep up with a variety of personal interests, of which philanthropy, organizational development, international development, etc tend to be the primary focus.

    And, interestingly, the posts that got the most responses were about how I was having a bad day and needed ice creamg from a great local ice cream shop.

  16. Nathaniel Nakashima says:

    At what point does humanizing your Twitter profile become a distraction from the main objective or topic of discussion? I think we’re all familiar with website forums that contain discussions completely unrelated to the main objective of the forum. I think some people don’t mind these distractions, yet others do because they joined the forum to talk about an important issue – instead of talking about that issue, people are talking about what type of coffee they’re drinking or that they had a bad day and needed ice cream. If you follow this road, the forum transforms into something that is quite useless to the people who want to seriously discuss important issues. Is there a solution that can appease everyone? I think there is and that it involves creating, standardizing, and subscribing to #hashtags.

    I think that throughout the course of this conversation, many have forgotten about the use of #hashtags and their ability to help solve some of the discourse over what type of twitter profile to choose from (i.e. option 1, 2, 3, or 4; humanizing vs. non-humanizing). Instead, I think we should be focusing our efforts on which #hashtags to create, standardize, and subscribe to across the philanthropic/non-profit industry. For those of you who do not know yet, a #hashtag essentially categorizes tweets from all over the Twitter network by topic – effectively sorting all the “noise” into relevant specific streams of interest. A #hashtag stream could theoretically consist of tweets from all types of Twitter profiles (e.g. pure foundation brand, foundations with personality, employees with foundation associations, and pure personal accounts). Therefore, it wouldn’t matter what type of Twitter profile you had – as long as you use a #hashtag in your tweet, people subscribed to that particular #hashtag will see your relevant tweet without seeing all the other “noise” in your Twitter stream. In this way, less attention is put on individual accounts and more attention is put on the #hashtagged topic of interest – which should be the focus anyway right? So in essence, those of you who want to have a more “humanizing” Twitter profile can have your cake and tweet about it too – though if you decide to also tweet about the important issues facing the philanthropy/non-profit industry, you can just #hashtag the topic.

    After doing some research on Philanthropy411’s blogpost of the “90 Foundations that Tweet”, I found that less than 50% were using #hashtags. On top of that even less were using industry-relevant #hashtags. Below is a list of common #hashtags that are being used by the Foundations to “catergorize” their tweets into general areas interest.


    As you can see, most of the #hashtags listed above are really way way too general to be of any use. If for instance, you tagged a tweet about your Foundation’s performing arts program with #arts, your tweet would be amongst tweets about all kinds of topics in the art world – even tweets about Paula Abdul leaving American Idol. If, however, there was a standard #hashtag for philanthropy/non-profit art like #philart (stands for philanthropy art) or #npart (stands for non-profit art), then I think we would see everyone in this industry getting a lot more out of Twitter (e.g. engaging in conversation, finding it more useful as a social media tool). As a result, I see a need for the philanthropy/non-profit world to create, standardize, and subscribe to #hashtags. The sooner this happens, the sooner everyone can stop stressing about what type of profile to choose (humanizing vs. non-humanizing) and start communicating effectively.

  17. Very valid points Nathaniel. I think this can be a useful mechanism. But hashtags put the power in the hands of the viewer. Meaning even if I am your business customer, I can still see your tweets with personal hashtags. From the foundation or corporate perspective, it wouldn’t be enough for an employee to tag their tweets about their favorite TV shows with something indicating that they were personal.

    Hashtags are great filtering tools, but they help followers filter rather than help user protect who sees what.

  18. Nathaniel Nakashima says:

    Very true, Sean, though I wasn’t talking about tagging personal tweets – just industry-relevant tweets.

    Back to your comment about giving power to the viewer, I think that’s exactly right. After all, Twitter is essentially just a bunch of noise that only becomes useful when you sort through it. Sorting through the noise is essentially what you are doing when you select people to follow. Personal tweets are going to occur – that’s a given on a site like Twitter. I think the variables are whether the viewer has the option to tune them out (while still following you) and whether the viewer chooses to tune them out. I think #hashtags give viewers that option.

    Side Note: If you don’t follow anybody on Twitter, but subscribe to the industry-relevant #hashtag feeds, you can still see people’s tweets about the topic. You won’t, however, see their personal tweets.

    In any event, I think #hashtags would help make industry tweets more useful and open the doors to productive industry conversation and community-building.

  19. I agree 100% on Twitter as a filter. See the post I wrote on the subject here.

  20. Beth Kanter says:


    Thanks for posting this comment on my blog as well.

    Hashtags can create an ad hoc community of practice or a channel for people in a field to informally share resources or conversation.

    Tagging communities or unbounded networks that might come to life around a tag are not new. The Nonprofit Technology community has used a special tag, nptech, created by Marnie Webb in 2004. In those days, we were using delicious, blogs, and technorati to share.

    Here’s an article and slide deck on tagging communities of practice.


    The #nptech tag still continues to be used on Twitter as well as other places. Although this was before Twitter, the advice about what makes an effective tagging community still resonates and are applicable to effective Twitter hashtags

    Some of the #hashtag communities are ongoing and unstructured like the #nptech tag community. Others are more formal, structured conversations that happen weekly at a particular time. #4change is a regular chat about social media change. Another example, although not totally nonprofit focused is #blogchat. #blogchat which is facilitated by @mackcollier and uses wthashtag to aggregate the conversation.

    I think it takes more a unique tag. You need to publicize the tag and encourage conversation around the tag. Also, having weekly summaries that can distill the key points is very important when volume increases. It can also make the information accessible to others who don’t want to participate on Twitter that deeply.

    I think using #hashtags on Twitter for filtering are great – but then you miss out on the people, interaction, and deeper insights.