Guest Post: Communicating ideas and innovation through social media

The following guest post is by Stacey Thomas, Myer Family Company.

One of the strengths of the philanthropic sector is its ability to be flexible and respond quickly to needs and trends within the community.  However when it comes to communication, the methods employed by the philanthropic sector have been, until quite recently, limited and unchanging.

The sector relies on not-for-profit organisations and yet has historically offered a very one-sided and austere method of communication.  For those foundations who have engaged in public communication it has tended to be through a formal publication such as an annual report, and in recent times through a more casual newsletter.  And then of course there are many more foundations who have not engaged in any kind of communication.

The last couple of years have seen a slow change in the way the philanthropic sector engages with those organisations they seek to support.  With the explosion of the social media revolution there are now a growing number of foundations using this as an opportunity to link with others who have an interest in philanthropy.  Whether it is The Ian Potter Foundation’s Facebook page, or The Myer Foundation’s twitter account we are seeing some of Australia’s biggest philanthropic institutions opening themselves up to a more two-sided dialogue with those that they fund.

There is also a growing number of ‘philanthrocrats’, or the staff of foundations, deliberately trying to engage with the not-for-profit sector around topics from basic information sharing to seeking opinions on operational aspects.  In a recent Three Eggs blog (an Australian philanthropy blog 26 Australian philanthropy tweeters were identified.

While a lot of people think that twitter is just about posting random thoughts, or descriptions of eating habits, for the world to follow, there are a large number of people using it to network, share ideas and garner information.

An example of this is the weekly pop quiz that I run.  Every Tuesday I post a five question online pop quiz on twitter on a topic that is relevant to Australian philanthropy.  By capturing some basic demographics I know that there is generally an equal mixture of people working in the philanthropic, not-for-profit and private sectors responding.  And that to me is one of the most important aspects of the pop quiz.  It is not a closed door activity only open to a select few – I am interested in getting the views of anyone and everyone that has a regard for the philanthropic sector.

The purpose of doing these weekly pop quizzes is to not have an academic, statistical data trove at the end but rather to start conversations, public conversations, around issues of importance to our sector.  It hopefully provides an interesting morning debate around the coffee machine, or offers an idea on how a particular foundation or not-for-profit may focus on an issue.

A very pertinent example of this pop quiz was one back in May on the topic of information exchange.  In this 73% of respondents said that there isn’t enough opportunity to share information on issues relevant to the philanthropic sector.  Furthermore, 45% identified that finding the time to participate in information exchanges is also challenging.

What does this information tell us?  There is definitely room for the philanthropic sector to develop a new way of communicating.  A way that effectively gives everyone the opportunity to share and learn from what others are doing.  People don’t have the time to sit down and read multiple annual reports and publications and likewise aren’t able to attend weekly roundtable meetings to share information face to face.  Philanthropy needs to get smart and efficient when it comes to communication.

At The Myer Family Company we are also looking at the role communication plays for our clients and their foundations.  Teaching the importance of not only having a network of peers to learn from, but a diverse network of stakeholders has been paramount to these foundations receiving a steady flow of relevant and useful information to inform their grant making.

So how do we, as a sector, address this?  One of the best quotes I have read recently, which came from a philanthrocrat colleague in a pop quiz, was ‘those of us who work in philanthropy should remember our place in the NFP sector, we are a part of it, not above it’.  I think that this quote sums up how philanthropy can, and should, approach its communication.  It is not about philanthropy or grant making on its own, we are but a single cog in a much larger machine.

The method of communication that we use, the audience we are trying to reach and the message we attempt to impart needs to differ greatly.  Like the organisations that we seek to support vary widely, our communication needs to also offer diversity that is often times lacking elsewhere across the philanthropic sector.

Annual reports and closed sector round tables are useful and have their place, however, we also need to open up and enter into a two-way conversation with those we seek to support and those we seek to influence.  Social media is one such way to do this that is easy, relevant and cost effective.

A common misconception about using social media is that only young people use, or are interested in using, it.  Therefore if you are serious about engaging key decision makers and influential people that aren’t ‘Gen Y’s’ social media isn’t important.  Similarly, if you do want to engage with young people, all you need to do is use the latest social media fad. 

I started using social media because I have an interest in technology and also in communication and different ways to share information.  What I have found is not that I have connected with a large group of young people, but rather I have connected with a large group of people that also have an interest in technology and different modes of communication.

For people wanting to engage with young people in particular, social media is not a panacea that will give you instant access to younger generations.  Engaging young people, is quite like engaging anyone – you need to focus on interests and relevance.  Is the topic on which you are trying to engage of interest to young people and is it relevant to young people?

The Myer Family Company recently held several philanthropic forums on the topic of Young People – The Importance of Participation and Engagement.  With guest speakers representing both young people, and an organisation working directly with them, what was clearly articulated was that communication needs to have substance.  Young people don’t want to be consulted or engaged in a tokenistic fashion, just like they don’t want to be pigeon-holed into the false idea that they are the only people using social media.

Social media is not for everyone.  I don’t know that it will replace the more traditional forms of communication in the near future (I still operate an email list for the pop quizzes rather than relying solely on Twitter!).  But it is very relevant, very complimentary and is a good way of diversifying messages so that it gets out to largest possible audience.  As the not-for-profit sector continues to embrace this technology we will also see a rise in the number of foundations and their staff utilising what it has to offer.

Wouldn’t it be excellent to see this new and open style of communication continue?  Perhaps Philanthropy Australia can create their own YouTube channel for members to post videos of their ‘aha’ moments inspiring others to give and build a culture of giving.  Or, rather than a Foundation undertaking an online stakeholder engagement survey with closed questioning on how applicants found their application process, they can extend it to be a dialogue on what their challenges are and what ideas community organisations have to combat these.  Utilising social media with two-way communication could see some really exciting initiatives for our sector in the future.

When it comes to communication, the opportunities are endless and philanthropy has a real opportunity to showcase its innovation through leading by example.


Stacey Thomas is Manager Research, Philanthropic Services at Myer Family Company.

Follow Stacey on Twitter: @Thomstac.

Follow Myer Family Company on Twitter: @MF_Philanthropy

[Ed: Philanthropy Australia does now have a YouTube channel! Click here to take a look - and please send us video recommendations to] or leave us a comment on our channel.]

Nov. 21, 2011

 Tags: what's new, topical issues, stories, statistics, research & information, nonprofit blogs, it, guest post, general, advocacy

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