While it certainly hasn’t reached a tipping point, the number of foundation chief executives using Twitter is growing—slowly.
Jeffrey Raikes, chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, started tweeting as @jeffraikes last month. His boss, Bill Gates, has been on Twitter since January 2010.
Mr. Raikes’s Twitter posts have shared Warren Buffett’s much-discussed New York Times opinion piece about raising taxes on the super-rich, plugged Bono and his One Campaign, and praised Romania’s efforts to end polio.
James Knickman (@jimknickman), head of the New York State Health Foundation, signed on recently. Alberto Ibarguen (@ibarguen), of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Risa Lavizzo-Mourey (@risalavizzo), of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are tweeting their way to significant numbers of “followers”—2,098 and 1,181, respectively, as of Friday morning.
Peter Long (@PeterLongBSCF), president of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, and Paul Brest (@pbrest), of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, are on Twitter, too, though Mr. Brest has yet to punch out a message through the site.
So what are the foundation CEO’s hoping to get from their tweeting? And is it paying off?
The Chronicle sent a message via Twitter Thursday morning to Jim Canales (@jcanales), chief executive of the James Irvine Foundation, to ask that question; Mr. Canales responded within minutes.
In fact, while foundation CEO’s aren’t typically thought of as a particularly responsive bunch, they seem to be paying attention to Twitter. Mr. Raikes responded almost immediately to a tweet from The Chronicle asking if he was still tweeting as @nebraskaj. Answer: Not really. He’s moved over to @jeffraikes for foundation-related tweets. Mr. Knickman also responded quickly, within roughly 10 minutes. Wannabe grantees take note.
Below are excerpts from the e-mail interview with Mr. Canales:
When did you sign up for Twitter? What did you hope to achieve?
I signed up in November 2008 but didn’t really become active until this January. The two primary goals of my Twitter activity are:
To listen and learn from others in the fields we work. The amount of new information about philanthropy and our programmatic fields can be daunting. By finding and following trusted sources and curators on Twitter, I have found it an efficient and very productive way to find out about the latest trends and research that affects our work.
To share what I’ve been reading and learning and thinking about. It’s so important for foundations to be transparent about their work, and a foundation CEO can seem particularly inaccessible to grantees and others. I hope to give others some insights into my thinking and approach by sharing what I’m learning and thinking on Twitter.
I will also note that we have made a distinction between my Twitter feed and Irvine’s institutional account. We use our institutional account every day to share with others our learnings and reports and to spotlight grantees. But I’ve tried to make my Twitter feed a bit more personal and a mechanism to make me, and thereby the institution, a bit less mysterious to others. I’m not sure whether this is working, but it is one of the intents of my activity on Twitter.
How much time do you spend a week using it?
About 2 – 3 hours a week.
How would you assess foundation leaders’ use of social media? Are they missing an opportunity by not engaging more actively? Or is the technology too untested for foundation CEO’s to be putting much time and effort into it?
The technology certainly isn’t untested. However, how useful Twitter is will vary from foundation to foundation. We approached this year as a period of experimentation with Twitter. We have determined that for Irvine it is a valuable tool, particular to enhance our ability to listen and learn and as a mechanism for transparency. I would encourage foundation CEO’s to at least experiment, to go in with an open mind and see what works for them and their institution.
Can you share a brief example or story that illustrates why you think it’s been helpful for you to be engaged through the site?
One example of how I have found Twitter to be a useful listening tool: I have read the Harvard Business Review for years and always found it to be a useful resource. But I wasn’t aware of their blog posts until I started seeing them on Twitter. I have discovered their blogs now on Twitter and find them to be very useful, digestible pieces on a range of leadership and management issues that are relevant to philanthropy. It’s a good example of discovering a new, useful resource that I might not have discovered without being active on Twitter.