Foundations are strange animals. Large foundations are even stranger. We’re different in fundamental ways from other institutions, whether for-profit or nonprofit, public or private. And that makes deciding how to use our website—and really any way we communicate, online or off—something of a challenge. The Hewlett Foundation’s $8 billion endowment gives us the scale, at least financially, of a midsized corporation or a small government agency, but we don’t have any widgets to sell or citizen services to provide. We share a tax designation, and a commitment to mission, with the nonprofits we support, but we don’t conduct activities (or have a core need to raise funds to continue our work) like they do. Without products to sell or services to promote, with no organizing or membership drives to conduct or donors to encourage: What’s a foundation website for? That’s the question that Eric Brown, our director of communications, posed to our team when we kicked off a review of our website’s information architecture last December with Quor, a user experience design firm based in San Francisco.
There are some clear answers, of course. Our website, and all of our communications, should make it easy to understand what we fund (and what we don’t). Our peers should be able to identify opportunities for collaboration. Our grantees should understand how their programs fits into the strategies we are pursuing. And potential grantseekers should be able to quickly and easily determine if there are opportunities for them to receive funding from us. That saves time for them, and for our staff, as well. These are the core features of our current site (and of most foundation websites), and any changes we make will be to improve and enhance them.
But we’ve got the nagging feeling that we can and should be doing more. The Hewlett Foundation, like many of our peers, is sitting on a huge amount of data that comes out of our grantmaking. We believe it could be valuable to a wider audience: policymakers, funders contemplating grantmaking in fields where we fund, nonprofits who wouldn’t be eligible for a grant, but whose work is adjacent to what we fund. We regularly conduct evaluations of our strategies to determine what’s worked and what hasn’t. And the end result of much of our grantmaking is research that could have important implications for policy. Our commitment to transparency means we can, and should, do everything in our power to ensure that all of that information is not only available, but easy to find and to use.
While the What We’re Learning section of our current site shares some of the information we have, there is a lot more we can do. That’s where we’re focusing our attention as we assess what we’re sharing, and how it’s arranged on our site—its information architecture. We’re contemplating changes that will clarify the connections between the practices that underlie our grantmaking (both strategy development and grantee selection), the grants we choose to make, and the results they produce. That’s where our broader online strategy comes into play. As both Eric and I have written before in separate posts, it’s not enough to simply publish everything to our website—that’s transparency in letter, but not in spirit. It runs the risk of obscuring rather than illuminating what is most valuable to people who care about what we do. A redefined information architecture for our site can help make those connections more explicit, and our other online channels can help tell the story of our work, tailored to particular audiences and taking full advantage of the unique attributes of Twitter, Facebook, email, or any other social media available today or as-yet undreamt of.
Quor has completed an initial round of research. They conducted interviews with peers, grantees, and organizations who we think really understand online communications in 2014; they examined our current site’s analytics; and they analyzed how others are communicating online. Over the course of the next month, they’ll be finalizing a set of recommendations to us. We’ll share that report when it’s ready, along with the parts of their research we feel could be helpful to others asking similar questions.
In the meantime, we want to put the question to you. Whether you’re a foundation communications professional, a grantee or grantseeker, or just someone who cares about the work that the Hewlett Foundation supports, what do you think we should be doing differently? What aspects of our current website, social media, and email communications are most helpful to you? What do you wish we did more of? What else could we be sharing that would make your job easier, or our work more effective?
Large foundations like ours are in the enviable position of being able to think broadly about how we can use the tools at our disposal to support the change we want to see in the world, and how best to serve the community of people and organizations who share our concerns.
We would be grateful for your help in reimagining what a foundation website can be.