Case Study: Evaluating the Impact of Social Media at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

By: Claire B. Gibbons, PhD
Senior Program Officer, Research and Evaluation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)

I’m sure I’m not the first to notice that over the past few years, social media has flourished and become a part of mainstream life in America, including the workplace. At the RJWF, our staff and grantees have begun to experiment with social media in our work and use these tools more and more. Our growth in social media use has been based on the assumption that more social media activity is better. However, as an evaluator I have to ask: How do we know?


To get to the bottom of this question, it’s important to ask: What exactly do we expect out of social media and how do we know social media will achieve “something better”? These questions must be made explicit if we want a truly accurate idea of whether social media is actually helping the Foundation to achieve its goals. To tackle these questions, RWJF developed a logic model (see Additional readings below), that outlines how we believe our social media activities will produce programmatic improvement and greater impact. The model was designed and developed with the help of Victoria Dougherty, of Victoria Dougherty Consulting, who based the model on information collected through document review and interviews with RWJF communications staff, research and evaluation program officers, and other program staff at RWJF who were early adopters of social media in the workplace.

We discovered that early adopters within our organization believe that maximizing the impact of social media means operating with a philosophy of openness and engagement. This requires a shift in approach to the Foundation’s work that is much more comprehensive than simply using social media tools at work. Interviewees also recommended that RWJF become known as a “change facilitator” and “information hub” by providing pathways and connections to stimulate dialogue and change by others working in the same space.

The logic model illustrates two pathways: The first describes how RWJF can approach its work over the next five years, and the second describes some of the outcomes of the work (described below). We encourage you to study the model and see how these two pathways complement one another over the short, intermediate, and long term.

In the short term, RWJF can take steps to position itself as a Web 2.0 organization by offering training to staff and setting expectations for staff use of social media, while encouraging experimentation. Providing encouragement and guidance to staff is essential. In the intermediate term, RWJF should strive to be more open, nimble, and engaging in its day-to-day practices, and the external perception of the Foundation as embodying these qualities will follow. These short and intermediate term changes should lead to RWJF being a more effective agent of change, an open organization that spurs broad participation from grantees and others, and a more effective connector and facilitator. These changes in social media are meant to result in greater programmatic impact by the Foundation.

The second pathway begins by developing more connections outside the Foundation to spread information further and to new stakeholders across, and outside, our organization. Creating new connections will lead to intermediate effects, such as stronger and more diverse networks and stronger grassroots relationships. These networks, in turn, can help us identify opportunities to act, allow for pioneering ideas to be incorporated into our and others’ thinking more rapidly, and increase public knowledge and action around RWJF’s strategic areas. All together, this will allow us to reach policy goals more quickly and engage individuals, businesses, providers, and other institutions in healthier practices and behaviors.

We think this logic model is a good starting point for a larger dialogue around measuring the effects of social media. However, there is a long way to go and we don’t promise to have all the answers. Next steps include further work to determine how we can best measure the concepts in the logic model, and how we can share the logic model with others in philanthropy and in social media. Although there has been substantial discussion among users of social media about how to measure social media use, it has primarily focused on how many people did something (e.g., visited a Web page, tweeted about a topic, etc.) or how many things were done (e.g., the number of tweets sent, page views, etc.). There has been very little discussion of evaluating the use of social media with an eye toward reaching strategic goals. We hope that the work RWJF is doing in this area will help to push the field forward.

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