Case Study: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

As part of my work on the report Making the Connection: The use of social technologies in civil society, written for the Carnegie UK Trust’s Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland, I put together a couple of case studies. The final report carries shorter versions, so I though it would be useful for me to post the full versions to provide extra detail and context. So here is the first, focused on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation uses its website to share information with its audience, hoping to reach senior leaders under significant time pressure. It is felt that these people are unlikely to want to, or have the time to, engage with social tools.
  • Although past social media projects have not been a success, making management reluctant to invest further, small scale experimentation with free tools is still continuing.
  • Social media could bring JRF’s work to a new audience, one that would not hear about JRF through traditional channels and so would not be aware of their work.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is an independent research charity which seeks to “understand the root causes of social problems, to identify ways of overcoming them, and to show how social needs can be met in practice”. It focuses primarily on poverty, housing and empowerment, e.g. social care or disabled rights. Its sister organisation, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, is a registered social landlord which provides housing, care/retirement homes and supported housing predominantly in York and the North-East.

The JRF’s website is a rich resource for anyone interested in social change. Nathon Raine, who is responsible for the web team at JRF, says that it aims to engage with the people who can bring about social change and be the first port of call for people interested in JRF’s core strategic themes.

“We try to reach the people who are in positions of influence — policy makers, practitioners, academics, journalists, etc. — and we do that through publications, events, meetings, networking, and conferences, and obviously the website is very important in reaching people.”

The site is managed by a team of two and was until recently built by hand. It was migrated to an open-source content management system called Drupal six months ago. Website design and development is now done by an external company but JRF staff can add and manage content. The decision to use Drupal, Raine explains, was lead by the web design company but their recommendation fit well with JRF’s needs.

“The web team is platform neutral, but have a preference for open source partly because it fits with our ethics and ethos.”

Drupal’s flexibility, usability and extensibility also played a part in the decision as did the fact that it is free software.

Drupal supports a number of social media activities, such as blogging, yet the only social tool used on the JRF website is RSS with feeds produced for publications, press releases and events. This may imply an organisation that is unaware of social technology, but that’s not the case. Raine understands how the internet is developing and the limitations of a static website:

“Generally speaking the site is well used and well regarded. We do quite a lot of usability activity to validate that what we’re doing is working and general levels of satisfaction with the site remain high. We think we’re doing quite a good job in terms of communicating our research, evidence and ideas across to people. However, it’s beginning to feel a little one dimensional: The web is changing. Ninety nine percent of the site is dedicated to saying, “Right, here’s a new press release”, “Here’s a new publication”, “Here’s an event”, “Here’s a summary of the work that we’re currently doing.” It doesn’t really do much more than that.”

During the redevelopment of the site, JRF did consider starting a blog — the CEO Julia Unwin already keeps an internal blog using Microsoft Sharepoint — but for a number of reasons it “never quite got off the ground”.

“JRF isn’t about campaigning,” explains Raine. “It isn’t about having a particular voice or a set line. It’s about the evidence. We are politically neutral and we just want to get the evidence that we generate out there and blogs may not be quite right for us in that sense.”

This stance appears to be partly driven by a sense that blogs have a distinct demographic skew which is at odds JRF’s target audience. So, whilst they have used blogs for projects that are directly focused on issues faced by young people, it is still felt that blog are “seen as something for a younger crowd. The people we’re trying to reach are influencers and it’s generally felt that they are not going to be using blogs.”

Influencers are seen as senior people and the organisation as a whole bases its communications policies on reaching them and the view of the web team is that social tools will not achieve that. This sits at the very foundation of the organisation’s attitude towards social tools and although there have been discussions and presentations internally they have not translated into concerted action.

Raines feels that the web team has not yet seen compelling evidence that social tools will help JRF achieve their organisational goals but says, “if we were presented with solid evidence that social media tools were of use to our audience we would make the necessary changes. Our evidence, however, currently points us in the opposite direction.”

JRF has carried out market research into social media when they were preparing to redevelop the site.

“We asked people, ‘Do you want to see more social tools on the site,’” explains Raine. “The answer came back a resounding ‘No’. But this was two years ago. Things have changed and we need to ask that question again.”

Both tools and attitudes change rapidly in the social media space and Raines recognises the importance of revisiting the evidence. But because JRF’s web resources are scarce they need to focus on areas, such as user experience, which they feel will provide the best return on investment.

JRF’s current audience is also under considerable time pressure. Market research done in 2004 showed that many people were suffering information overload and they wanted JRF to help them “cut through the clutter”.

“They don’t necessarily want to come to our site and hang around in a social media sense. I don’t think they want to come for engagement. They just want to come in, get the research and get out as quickly as possible.”

Another possible source of reluctance comes from the fact that JRF has been bitten before by social media projects that failed. They set up an extranet for their strategy groups — made up of senior people who advise on a given topic — which was “not very well received”.

They chose a tool which was marketed as social networking for professionals with discussions, profiles and the ability to upload and share items. But, Raine says, there was “virtually no interest whatsoever outside the organisation. We set the tool up, made a bit of a fuss about it and external people just didn’t use it because they just don’t have time.”

Even if social tools don’t suit JRF’s current target audience, there is a world of people who might like to know more about what the organisation does but who just don’t know it exists. Might they be reachable through social media?

“Yes. We do want to increase the pool of people who know about and engage with the JRF, and who we can communicate with in a two-way fashion. For example, we’ve just set up a Twitter account that is bringing our work to a hopefully more diverse audience than normal. We only just started it a couple of weeks ago, so we’re still very much feeling our way. We’ll do it for four months and then evaluate, but I’d say that out of all the attempts we’ve made in the social media space, this has been the one that feels like it might have some traction, some momentum.”

Raine is keen to base his web strategy choices on evidence rather than following the latest fad.

“There’s a lot of snake oil out there,” he warns. “What I’d want is something that proves the usefulness of social media. We have set services up and found that social media isn’t a panacea at all. There is a set of assumptions around social media that don’t bear any relation to our audience reality.”

In terms of cost, allocation of budget is a problem. Raines explains that a lack of “obvious return on investment” in an organisation that isn’t sure about social technology means that it’s very difficult to get funds ring-fenced for such projects. Equally, budgetary pressures make it hard to bring in external consultants to provide help the organisation understand how it might benefit from and implement social tools.

As for internal use of social tools, experiments have been done but interest is low. Some people have tried using the social bookmarking tool Delicious but, again, information overload is seen as a significant problem and social tools are viewed as adding to their cognitive burden rather than lessening it.

Raine’s biggest concern with both JRF’s web presence and intranet is that the users are given what they need.

“If we were trying to reach the general public,” he concludes, “then I think things would be very, very different. But we go after this slightly rarefied audience, and social media doesn’t seem right for us in many ways.”

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