Becoming a “Web 2.0 Philanthropy”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, like many philanthropies today, has embraced social media. We have a Facebook page, YouTube channels, blogs, and multiple official Twitter feeds. Our staff also participate directly: more than forty of my colleagues are regular Twitter users and many have contributed blog posts to popular sites within their fields. Our CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey (@risalavizzo), sets the tone with her regular activity on Twitter.
Like many philanthropies, we’re still finding our way and doing our best to learn from our collective experiences and from the experiences of others. For RWJF, engagement in social media is rooted in a context — a context about who we are as an organization and what we seek to become.
The first part of that context comes from our history with transparency. Since RWJF’s beginnings, we have emphasized independent evaluation of our programs. As David Colby (@DavidCColby) and his colleagues have detailed, RWJF chose to make public the results of those evaluations so others could learn whether the interventions had (or had not) been effective. In addition, since 2007, we have made public an annual assessment that examines a number of dimensions of our organizational performance. (You can download the reports from our Web site.)
The second part starts in 2008, when RWJF underwent a strategic planning exercise where we began by looking at the world around us. We saw innovations in philanthropy coming from newer, smaller foundations like the Steve and Jean Case Foundation and Omidyar Network that were leveraging new technologies to cast a wider net, stimulate conversation, and engage people more widely. We saw new models for the sector such as Kiva and DonorsChoose — platforms that enabled more direct connections between donors and their impact. And we also saw the amazing, disruptive accomplishments of services like Wikipedia and craigslist that were run by organizations employing only a few dozen staff but drawing their power from vast networks of engaged users. We came away from this effort with a sense — still impressionistic — that we should explore what it would mean for us to become a “Web 2.0 philanthropy.”
“Web 2.0″ is becoming an archaic term as it is supplanted by the term “social media,” but for us the distinction has meaning. Where “social media” is often associated with services like Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr, we see Web 2.0 as running deeper. It is the collection of tools that harness the collective creativity and knowledge of — and promote interaction among — the Web’s many users. It is based on an “architecture of participation,” which enables the users of a service to add value to that service. Beyond social media, it can be expressed in many ways, ranging from the user who improves on a cooking magazine’s recipe by adding an unexpected spice to the protester during the Arab Spring posting a cell phone video of a beating on YouTube for the world to see. It is the seller-rating system of eBay, in which the experiences of hundreds of other buyers give a potential buyer confidence in the seller. It is about the blurring of the lines between producer and consumer, between expert and non-expert, and the aggregation of many small contributions into something of great value.
We knew that as a relatively large and middle-aged foundation (we celebrate our 40th anniversary this year) with traditions, habits and engrained practices, we would have to consciously push ourselves to evolve in this direction. We needed first to flesh out the vision, which we did through a combination of research (i.e., small “r” research like reading case studies and talking with folks at other organizations) and experiential learning. Those of us tasked with working on the vision felt we couldn’t do so unless we were actively engaging in Web 2.0 experiences, so we started experimenting with Twitter and Facebook — and experiencing their cultures and value to our day-to-day work. It wasn’t long before we concluded that becoming a Web 2.0 philanthropy was not so much about adopting new social media than it was about embracing the underlying values of Web 2.0 and weaving them into our work. To that end, we homed in on three principal values: