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How Foundations Can Engage Online

A few smart ways that funders can engage online and have an impact.

At Groundwire, we invest most of our skills and resources in strategy and technology projects for environmental advocacy organizations.  This is where we think what we’ve got to offer has the most bang for the buck.  But there are other projects that we take on, projects that we think have real impact, and occasionally one of these projects is for an environmental funder, or funders.

My colleague Kelley Bevans and I recently attended a conference chock full of environmental funders to show off a new website we built for their network, the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity. This new site will help member funders collaborate and share resources and schedules, and the program officers who took a tour were enthusiastic.

But many of the foundation staff we talked to also wanted to know what other online tools and strategies they should pay attention to. They were interested in not only getting information to help them evaluate grant proposals from their grantees, but also in understanding how they, themselves, could take advantage of technology and employ online strategies to move the ball down the court for the issues and organizations they care about.

Here are a few smart ways that funders can engage online and have an impact:

  • Promote your grantees on your website. Your seal of approval gives them increased credibility with both other institutional funders and curious individual donors, and your positive content will show up in internet searches.
  • Link to your grantees on your website. External links to an organization’s website increase its search engine ranking, so every additional external link gives your grantee higher prominence in a Google search.
  • Tweet about your grantees work. If your foundation has invested deeply in a region or issue area, and your grantees are doing great work, you can use hash tags to draw attention to that work.  Funding outreach to help communities in the wake of the BP spill?  Send out a quick tweet about that work, with the website address of the grantee doing it, and use the tag #bp. Everyone following the #bp tag (media, in particular, is your target here) will receive your tweet.  Note: Twitter is not for everyone.  If this suggestion fills you with fear and loathing, you’re allowed to skip over it.  If it’s piqued your interest, check out http://www.twazzup.com/ and type in a subject that’s germane to your work to get a sense of the twittersphere conversation.
  • Keep track of your grantees via Facebook and Twitter. If your grantees have Facebook pages or tweet regularly, this is a quick and easy way to stay current on their activities.
  • Pull fresh content from your grantees’ websites into your Google Reader or other RSS aggregator. If your grantees have RSS feeds set up on their websites, you can automate that content to be delivered to you.  Want more info on Google Reader or RSS? Check out this great post on the Northern California Grantmakers website.
  • Contribute to public blog sites and discussions. You’ve got influence, and an interesting perspective (who else knows as much as you do about the nonprofit efforts to protect local watersheds in the Great Lakes region?), so participate in the conversation.  Program officers and other foundation staff have that rare “bird’s eye view” and are sometimes the best-informed people on specific issues. We know it’s not the traditional role of foundations to be out front (and we’re sure you have communications policies to which you must adhere), but don’t hide your light under a bushel.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. There are many ways funders can use online tools to track, highlight and amplify the good work of their grantees, as well as add their own expertise to the virtual discussion, and many foundations are already pushing the envelope.  As a new generation of program officers as well as long-time pillars of the foundation world embrace the digital age, there’s so much opportunity. Dig in!

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