Voices from the Field: Peter Panepento

This month's Voices from the Field interview is with Peter Panepento. Peter Panepento is a digital and social media strategist who helps nonprofits and foundations build powerful networks. He is the former Senior Vice President of Knowledge and Community at the Council on Foundations, where he was responsible for leading the launch of the new Philanthropy Exchange online network. 


Could you provide a brief professional description of who you are and what you do?

I am a digital and social media strategist who helps foundations and nonprofits build powerful networks.

What drew you to your current work and how did you get your start?

I actually got my start working as a reporter for a small weekly newspaper in Rochester, N.Y. It was a decidedly low-tech job: one day each week we took a break from reporting and writing stories to manually paste up that week’s edition of the paper. I didn’t know it at the time, but as a community newspaper reporter, I was learning how to build networks and bring people together around issues.

As my career evolved, so did the journalism industry. The Internet disrupted the newspaper business – in many ways for the worse. But it also created exciting opportunities for journalists to start new types of conversations and build communities of readers. And I always gravitated toward work that allowed me to experiment with building networks. In the late 90s, that meant working for a startup high school sports website that relied on a network of student contributors. Later, I started a website that brought together writers from around the country to spark conversations about how to revitalize an economically challenged community in Pennsylvania.

I was able to marry my background in journalism with my interest in building online networks at The Chronicle of Philanthropy when I was asked to be its first Web Editor. I moved into this role right at the time when online social networks were starting to pop – and it was a great time to experiment with how to use platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Flickr to engage with and reach philanthropy professionals. We were able to find creative ways to link the conversations that were happening under our name on these networks to crowd source story ideas, develop brand new products, and build stronger relationships with our readers.

Most recently, I led the Council on Foundations’ effort to launch its new Philanthropy Exchange network, which has great potential to help philanthropy professionals build online communities of practice around their work. The Exchange is a great platform for building connections and organizing work around a specific mission – say early-childhood education or providing opportunities for military veterans transitioning back into domestic life. It also provides a platform for professionals to simply network with each other in a less-public environment than LinkedIn.

What are your thoughts about developing effective networks to improve impact? What should philanthropic professionals keep in mind?

If we’re truly about building networks that have impact, we have to be careful not to let our work get hijacked by false expectations.

Let’s consider what’s happening right now with the Ice Bucket Challenge. At its surface, it’s a textbook example of how a small network of supporters can leverage the full power of the social Internet. A supporter of the charity comes up with a clever idea that plays great on video, posts the video to Facebook, and challenges his friends to follow suit. The result is nothing short of a social-media explosion.

It’s a great win for one charity, but it’s not a strategy that we can all emulate and expect to get similar results. Yet it seems everyone in the field is now trying to create the next Ice Bucket Challenge. We’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out what other charities and foundations can learn from this effort.

Here’s the thing, though: the Ice Bucket Challenge is an outlier. It’s the “Gangnam Style” of viral fundraising. It can’t be recreated. And, even if it could be, it’s the network-building equivalent of winning the lottery. There’s so much money and attention coming in all at once, it’s almost impossible for the organization to be properly prepared to effectively manage the relationships – let alone the money.

Philanthropic professionals should instead be focusing their attention on building networks that last. That approach is not as sexy as what we’re seeing this summer with the Ice Bucket Challenge. And it’s not going to grab a lot of headlines. But the most successful networks are those that are built over time. They measure their growth incrementally – not in big waves. Instead of being like Psy, who exploded like an internet supernova and is now bound to be fondly remembered as a one-hit wonder, we should be aspiring to be The Black Keys – an act that started with a small but passionate following and grew gradually into stardom.

For those working in the field, it means we need to be vigilant in managing expectations. We need to make sure our boards and top executives understand that they shouldn’t be expecting viral growth. They should instead be expecting to see tightly connected networks that grow slowly but have strong roots.

What tools and methods would you suggest to others in the philanthropic community who are interested in developing networks to improve the impact of their philanthropic work? Can you provide two good examples of how the tools or techniques you are suggesting were successfully used to gain support around a social justice issue? Why do you think these efforts were so successful?

Too many community building strategies are focused on the tools and not the desired outcomes. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people saying they need a strategy for Twitter or for Snapchat. But if we think of these platforms like tools, that’s the equivalent of saying I need a strategy for a crescent wrench or a ball-peen hammer.

Think about your goal and then think about which tools are most likely to help you reach that goal.

This isn’t a social-justice example, but it’s one from my own work. When we were building our social-media strategy at The Chronicle, we decided to focus our energy on tools that were most likely to connect with the people we were most interested in trying to reach. In that case, we were really interested in connecting with people who work at foundations and nonprofits. And because our connection point was the work they do, we put a lot of our energy into LinkedIn – a network that is built around people’s careers and work. (To learn more about what we did there, I suggest linking to this: http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/07/members-only-the-chronicle-of-philanthropy-builds-a-linkedin-community-by-keeping-people-out/)

LinkedIn worked great for me, but it might be the wrong tool for your organization. You might instead be better served finding ways to build networks around advocacy videos, or reaching young people, or through a private community on your web site.

For professionals who are interested in using social technology for developing partnerships to tackle problems, what are two things they should keep in mind?

First, like any relationship you develop, you are going to be most successful if you think about what your partner needs as much as what you need. The best partnerships – and the best relationships – are the result of mutual shared interest. If you’re only thinking about how potential partners can serve your foundation’s needs, you aren’t likely to find many partners.

Second, think about how you can expand the partnership beyond social technology and have it extend into other areas of your work. If you can bridge a campaign or a conversation that’s happening virtually into a meaningful offline experience – whether it’s a gathering, a joint research project, or something else – you’re more likely to engage the partner, and your supporters, much more deeply. Each partner will have a much stronger stake in the outcome and will be more likely to invest the time and resources into nurturing the virtual community.

What are two leadership lessons you have learned from your experience in developing an influential network?

  1. Explain ‘why’. Strong networks are built on trust. Those who are participating in a network need to feel as though the people who are managing that network have their best interests at heart and are accessible. Because of that, if you create a rule (or a series of rules) for your network, it’s not enough to simply post it. You should explain why you’re establishing the rule. This will not only help you determine whether it’s worth imposing – but it creates an opportunity for the network to understand your rationale (and talk to you about it if they disagree). If you need to delete a comment, reach out personally to the person and explain why rather than simply removing it. The same holds true if you’re starting a new feature or trying a new approach. If you take the time to explain why, you’ll develop stronger connections and put yourself in a position to get validation – or constructive advice – from those who are in your network.
  2. Be flexible. Networks are like individuals. They grow and change over time. A technique that works today isn’t necessarily going to work forever. It’s important to pay attention to what’s changing and adjust your approach as you see and anticipate these changes.

In the process of growing your own network, what are three relationship management techniques you have learned to ensure that your network stays viable?

  1. Reward good behavior. Even though we work in philanthropy, people who participate in our networks have a measure of self-interest when they share something with their peers. If you find ways to reward them for their participation, they’re more likely to participate again. And when I talk about rewards, I don’t mean handing out virtual badges. I really mean finding other ways to connect them to your work. If your organization has a blog, for example, develop a blog post around a question or comment that is raised by someone in your social network and mention her by name in the post. If you have an advisory board or a new task force, reach out to them and invite her to participate – and note her thoughtful comment as a reason why you’re reaching out. This will not only build a stronger connection to that individual, it will send a message to others that you’re listening to and acknowledging those who contribute. This tactic will also raise visibility for the network – which provides opportunities to engage new people.
  2. Connect your network to your work. Regularly find ways to bridge the conversations and actions that are happening in your online networks to the rest of your activities. Online networks shouldn’t be stand-alone entities. You should always be looking for ways to connect the conversations that are happening online to your offline work.
  3. Listen much more than you speak. It might seem trite, but you need to listen to the network. Constantly. Listening means more than simply monitoring and responding to what’s happening. It means looking for trends and allowing some conversations to happen without your intervention. If you notice a trend – for example, a number of people seem to be raising similar questions or are engaging in a specific thread – figure out how you can leverage that interest into another conversation or elevate it to another venue. At the same time, your network is going to be most successful if you aren’t personally involved in every conversation. Resist the urge to inject your or your organization’s voice into every conversation. The network is about the people you’re bringing together – not about you.

Beyond what you have already stated, what are three tips you would recommend for the early career philanthropic professional who is interested in building the connections they need to move their organization’s work forward?

  1. Realize that every experience has value. We all get stuck with assignments that seem like they’re not in line with our personal or our organizations’ goals. Rather than fighting these experiences, find ways to gain value from them. Approach everything you do with your eyes open and with a mind for how you can gain insights into how people think about and interact with you and your organization. And seek out opportunities to engage in activities in your organization that aren’t tied to your online networks.
  2. Focus on engagement and action, not size. It’s easy to get enamored with the number of likes and followers, but those metrics don’t capture whether you are actually connecting your organization’s work to those in its network. Think critically about what actions your organization truly wants to come from its networks. Then find ways to measure your progress against those goals. It’s more valuable to say that your Twitter feed prompted 100 people to petition your state Senator to advance that anti-poverty legislation than it is to say that your Twitter feed added 3,000 new followers.
  3. Remember why you’re here. You’re not trying to sell shoes or even trying to gain Facebook followers. You’re likely trying to cure a disease, help those living in poverty, or confront an important social issue. It’s easy to get caught up in the lingo of networks and social media and forget what you’re really here to do. You’re here to help people and advance a cause. That’s a powerful thing – and it’s important to take a step back from time to time and remind yourself why you’re here and what you’re really trying to accomplish.


Peter Panepento is a digital and social media strategist who helps nonprofits and foundations build powerful networks. He is the former Senior Vice President of Knowledge and Community at the Council on Foundations, where he was responsible for leading the launch of the new Philanthropy Exchange online network. Peter also worked for more than 20 years as a professional journalist, who most recently led efforts at the Chronicle of Philanthropy to build some of the most powerful and influential social networks in philanthropy, launched the Chronicle's highly regarded webinar series, and led data and research projects such as How America Gives and the Philanthropy 400.

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