Home Blog Blog HQ The Un-Survey: An Interview with Ford Foundation’s Bob Pullin on Digital Innovation

The Un-Survey: An Interview with Ford Foundation’s Bob Pullin on Digital Innovation

We interviewed Bob Pullin, Chief of Digital Engagement with the Ford Foundation, to learn more about their new, innovative Un-Survey and the thinking and technology behind it.

1. Please provide a brief professional description of yourself.

I’m responsible for digital engagement for the Ford Foundation, focused on using technology to help build relationships with our core audiences mostly through the web site and social media. Prior to coming to Ford I worked on technology strategy, design management and information architecture at a small design and technology company called Corsair. At Corsair we worked with a few philanthropy clients including Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates Foundation.

2. On the Ford Foundation website, there is something called the Un-Survey. What is it about?

The Un-Survey is one part of the research for our website redesign. It is intended to help us continue to build empathy with our audiences and give us a better understanding of kinds of information they want from us. The Un-Survey is giving ideas for content and functionality to offer in the next version of the website that we wouldn’t have thought of without it.

3. What kind of thinking went behind the development of the Un-Survey?

The Un-Survey was conceived as an experiment to see if we could turn the traditional survey model on its head in a productive way. Instead of us asking our Web visitors questions, we’re inviting them to ask us questions. Our hope was that this will unearth what’s most important to our partners, peers and others—without our preconceived ideas leading the way.

We want the whole process of redesigning the site to help advance Ford Foundation’s commitment to transparency but believe transparency can’t be limited to only what we want to share—we have to share what people want to know. The Un-Survey is helping us to do that.

Our hope is that our social change audience sees this as an opportunity to have an influence on the next Ford Foundation website.  The audiences we’re focused on are grantees and potential grantees, thought leaders, policy makers, government decision makers, other funders, academics and students.

4. How do you think this shift will help improve the development of the website?

In order to cut through this super-saturated media environment, we have to create content that will draw our audiences in. The content needs to get their attention by answering their questions and serving their goals. It eventually occurred to us that the best way to find out what our audiences want from us is to ask them.

5.  Did you use any special tools to develop the Un-Survey?

We used a javascript library called Isotope for the fronted layout, filtering and sorting of the questions.

6. Did your team have to develop a specialized tagging scheme for the questions?

The tags emerge from the content. We have added to it and adjusted as new topics are raised in the questions.

7. What have you learned so far?

Great questions are still coming in, there are over 100 so far and we’ve learned so much already! As we begin to think through the next version of the website we feel like we can put ourselves more fully into our audiences’ shoes and fill in some gaps in their understanding of how the foundation works. We now know more about the kinds of information and interpretation our community is asking for, for example:

  • Our community is asking us to deepen their understanding of how we conceive of and execute our role as philanthropists.
  • They expressed their hopes and ideas for greater collaboration within the funder and grantee communities around shared goals–and think of this as an area where Ford could bring a lot of value as a connector and facilitator.
  • They hold us accountable for transparency about progress on social change. They aren’t asking only for success stories, they want to learn along with us about what’s working and what’s not working.
  • The questions submitted asked for great detail, indicating the community wants concrete information about all of the above.

8.  What suggestions do you have for other philanthropic professionals looking to utilize technology to innovate the online experience for those they serve?

Technology almost always offers a way to blow up the way we used to work and land in a better place, sometimes a much better place. Originally we planned to do a traditional online survey, but then we realized technology could probably enable much richer insights into the thinking of our audiences if we turned the old way upside down and put the audience in the driver’s seat.

9. Anything else you would like to add?

Another thing about the Un-Survey that’s different from traditional online surveys is the questions are available to everybody in the sector. They can help Ford’s thinking about its website but any other interested foundations as well.

This interview was conducted by EPIP Social Media Fellow, Sophia Guevara.



  1. wrote on June 23rd, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    Jessica Holliday

    Really love the idea of the survey being a two-way street for communication. Is there a link to the Un-survey questions?

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