The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Feb 23, 2011

Get started in media grant making No.3: grow your own digital expertise

Posted by Knight Foundation

This is one in a series of excerpts from our new booklet "Journalism and Media Grant Making."

Five Ways to Get Started: 3. Grow your own digital expertise

Remember: these days, everyone can be a news -and information provider. That means everything your foundation does can be improved if you have greater -communications expertise on your staff, and everything your grantees do will be improved if they- -have greater communications skills. In the digital age, we can literally tell our stories to the world – if we take the time to do it well.

The Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, for example, jump-started its digital information efforts by hiring a director of digital communications. Similarly, five years ago when Knight Foundation wanted to do more in digital media, it too hired a digital media program director. We call these folks “digital lieutenants.” Everyone should have one: you and each of your major grantees. A digital director can do more than help your foundation build and maintain an information website. That’s just the start. Slade Sundar, who served in that role for the Palm Beach foundation, developed an information strategy for its information site, YourPBC, and even coached nonprofit contributors to the site in social media, journalism and cause-related marketing.

“Foundations will operate differently in the future than they do today, and a big part of that difference will come from the Internet and social media. We knew that we didn’t have those capabilities in-house. We learned that hiring someone was critical, but not enough: more of us had to learn digital skills, particularly in social media, to build our capacity and be more effective.” – Leslie Lilly, President and CEO, Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties

A good digital director (or consultant) can also help you avoid common traps if you’re just starting out.

For example, you will want to resist proposals that promise to create a customized, utopian website solving all the problems of your community. First, not even daily newspapers that have been at it for 100 years or more have developed brands that capture all the web traffic in a community. Second, these days content doesn’t like to stay put on just one website anyway. It likes to move around through social networks such as Twitter and Facebook and onto mobile phones.

You also need to figure out how to measure your digital efforts. Web metrics are not difficult to learn. Funders need to know enough about them to require their use both inside and outside their organizations. Once a news or information project has determined whom it is trying to engage, web metrics can help you determine if that’s happening. You can find out what content people are looking at, how often or for how long; where they are coming from and where they are going when they enter and leave a site, and how often they return. All those usage metrics are now being joined by a new set of measurements called “engagement metrics.” You can measure deeper engagement by looking at how many people download content, leave comments, sign petitions or share your web content with others. Once you know an information project’s priorities, you can judge what metrics you will require.

“It is no longer sufficient or effective to simply build a great destination and convince people to come. The social media revolution requires that we go where people are and become part of many conversations. This can mean using Facebook to engage community around story topics; Twitter to link people with new content, and YouTube and Flickr to create broader content distribution paths. These are tools that very effectively empower others to be ambassadors, distributors, promoters and conveners around community journalism. Use of new media platforms is a critical component of success.” – Roberta F. King, Vice President PR and Marketing, Grand Rapids Community Foundation

Tomorrow: 4. Partner with a local news organization


Five things you need to know

1. This is everyone's issue

2. You can build on what you're already doing

3. You can start without a lot of money

4. Journalism requires independence

5. Digital media must be targeted to produce impact

Five Ways to Get Started

1. Map your community's news ecosystem

2. Run a contest to find new voices

Stay tuned for more ideas. The full booklet will be available as a pdf on this site later this week and in print in April at the annual conference of the Council on Foundations. The booklet is sponsored by the Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation.

Has your foundation invested in news and information efforts? Do you have questions about media grant making? Please tell us about them in the comments.

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