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

Apr 25, 2013

Foundations ask, how to measure social media’s contribution to social change?

Posted by Mayur Patel


As social media tools have become ubiquitous, foundations have used them in a variety of ways to expand their networks, gather insights and build new relationships. As a result, there’s a growing interest in developing better ways to measure the impact of their online efforts.

Today, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest funder of health programs in the U.S., is hosting a roundtable on Social Media Measurement. Nearly a dozen foundations, including Knight Foundation, will gather with communication experts, evaluators and data analysts to share best practices and learn from one another.

At Knight, our approach to social media is based on using the tools to create opportunities for interaction and information exchange. As my colleagues Elizabeth Miller and Jon Sotsky recently wrote, we actively use social media to connect with our network, gather feedback, cultivate networks and promote our grantees and topics of interest. As a foundation, we’ve often used social media to disseminate publications and lessons learned, invite discussion on foundation topics, promote open contests and let people know about grant application deadlines. Our experience has demonstrated that social media tools have been powerful in pushing us to be more transparent. It’s opened up new channels for participation and feedback in our work.

Social media can be part of a broader shift in philanthropy as foundations seek to become better networked as organizations and more adept at building effective relationships. It can also help a foundation inspire and promote the work of its partners, and engage others in marshaling resources towards achieving social change. Steven Downs, director of IT at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, summarizes their investments in social media as part of a larger focus on greater “openness, participation and decentralization.

We think these broader shifts in philanthropy are a good thing. At Knight, we try to use social media to mirror our programmatic goals. And we’re eager to learn how we can better use and track its impact on our work in the following areas:

  • Transparency: Improving the transparency and responsiveness of our work and the openness of our strategy and grantmaking.
  • Information Dissemination: Sharing lessons learned and helping shape best practices.
  • Network Strength: Diversifying and growing our network to find new talent and sources of innovative ideas.

Several foundations now regularly collect basic social media analytics, which are monitored on a monthly basis and fed into program reviews. These measures tend to cover two areas:

1.    Reach and awareness, e.g., Twitter followers, Facebook fans

2.   Broader engagement and participation, e.g., retweets, Facebook like and shares,   tweets using hashtags created by a foundation or program and click throughs.

These measures can be useful proxies for broader outcomes and are relatively easy to collect. But the difficulty is they tend concentrate attention on measures of activity that don’t always connect to larger programmatic goals.   

Today’s discussion will focus on how foundations can go beyond basic social media metrics to understand impact more broadly. We’ll look at how social media can be used to increase foundation responsiveness and transparency, bring greater awareness to its programs and lead to broader action. Some questions we’ll be discussing include:

  • How to use social media analytics in combination with traditional evaluation data collections, such as surveys, interviews and content analysis?
  • What’s the best way to examine outcomes, like improvements or challenges in brand perception?
  • How do you better segment online audiences to go beyond aggregate data and develop meaningful insights into who views what?
  • How can foundations better understand influence on knowledge and practices in the issue areas they care about?

Organizers Debra Perez and Victoria Doherty have done a great job in pulling together the materials that will be discussed at today’s event. You can follow the conversation and contribute to the discussion today on Twitter with the hashtag #SM_RE. We look forward to sharing what we learn.

By Mayur Patel, vice president/strategy and assessment at Knight Foundation

Editor's Note: Slides from Patel's presentation,"Measuring the Value of Social Media," can be viewed below:


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