How children’s health advocates are using social media to share ideas and advance policy goals


Social media is everywhere today. Corporations, politicians, nonprofits, and even your weird uncle all use social networks to communicate. But not so long ago, that wasn’t the case.

In 2008, when Barack Obama’s first campaign for president showed how social media could help drive broad social change, philanthropic and nonprofit organizations took note—many for the very first time.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation was one of those who saw tremendous potential in the new medium. They wanted to figure it out for themselves, and they sensed that they needed to help their partners figure it out too.

“The Packard Foundation began this project when a lot of nonprofit grantees couldn’t even spell ‘social media.’ Somebody saw into the future.”

– Judy Darnell, Vice President of Public Policy at United Ways of California

That year, the Packard Foundation invited Beth Kanter, a social media and network strategist, to become a visiting scholar at the Foundation, there to help their staff and its grantees figure out this strange new landscape.

Networks spread through likes and shares

The Packard Foundation also established the Finish Line project in 2008 to support their goal of securing health care coverage for all children. The Finish Line project, which is ongoing, gives children’s health advocacy organizations financial support, policy-related technical assistance, and communications technical assistance (through Spitfire Strategies, a social change communications consultancy).

Soon, the Packard Foundation added a social media component. They tapped Kanter to consult on the project and asked Spitfire Strategies to assist the Finish Line grantees in collectively using social media to advance their advocacy goals.

In a nod to the new language of Facebook, they called the initiative Friending the Finish Line.


The goals of the Friending the Finish Line Initiative were clearly spelled out:

Help grantees learn how to effectively use Facebook and Twitter (and other social media channels) to advance their children’s health communications and policy objectives.

Establish a peer-to-peer learning community that connects Friending the Finish Line grantees nationwide.

Train grantee organizations in how to use social media metrics and analytics to track progress and make adjustments as needed.

Kids in classroom

#course of action

“What’s unique and powerful about Friending the Finish Line is that it brought together a group of organizations who had never coordinated on messaging before,” explained Kathy Reich, Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the Packard Foundation.

Monthly Webinars

Working with Kanter, Spitfire organized webinars for the Friending the Finish Line grantees. Each month, they tackled one specific topic: how to use promoted Facebook posts, for example, or how to create a simple and compelling infographic for social media.

Facebook Group Page

Kanter moderated a private Facebook group page where grantee organizations could get help, share tips, and report on lessons learned.

Young girl with smartphone
Yearly Convening

The Friending the Finish Line grantees convened annually at the Georgetown Center on Children and Families’ conference—chosen because many of the participating organizations were already sending staff. At the meeting, grantees received training on essential skills such as editorial calendars, strategic content, and engagement practices. They built relationships with staff from other states and organizations.

Coaching calls

Each organization also received individualized monthly coaching calls and on-demand technical assistance. Calls focused on what was working, troubleshooting challenges, and setting monthly objectives for advancing each organization’s social media practices.

Progress Survey

Spitfire and Kanter developed a self-assessment survey to help track each grantee’s social media savvy.

Organizations that Have Participated in Friending the Finish Line


The goal of the Finish Line project is to support multi-issue children’s advocacy organizations that work in states with the potential to significantly advance children’s health coverage. The final aim is to secure health care coverage for all children in the United States.

The Foundation has come a long way toward this goal since 2008, when the Finish Line initiative started. An issue brief by Mathematica Policy Research found that Finish Line grantees are effectively using “positive, solutions-focused framing and messaging to keep children’s coverage on their state’s agenda.”

The Finish Line grantees were largely skeptical when they started the social media training five years ago. They were used to working collaboratively to advance their legislative goals and happy to have the support for their under-resourced and under-staff communications teams. But many just weren’t sold on the ultimate value or impact of social media.

Today, that isn’t the case.

Most grantees now have the institutional buy-in needed to make social media a regular and valued part of their communications culture. And according to Spitfire, all have far exceeded the initial goals they set for Twitter followers and Facebook likes.

“Friending the Finish Line helped us launch our entire social media effort.”

– Wendy Lazarus, Founder & Co-President of The Children’s Partnership

“Several national groups regularly use Twitter to disseminate information as well as initiate online campaigns to draw the attention of the policymakers and Capitol Hill staffers who are online,” said Wendy Lazarus, Founder & Co-President of The Children’s Partnership. “Because of the Friending the Finish Line network, The Children’s Partnership has been a part of these campaigns from the start.”

Darnell said that United Ways of California also uses Twitter to target legislative staffers. “Who are our followers? Are they the policymakers? The media? Other advocates? We go for quality. We create links to the educational materials they need to make decisions. They follow us back.”

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF) launched a “Keep AR Coverage” video series. Each week, the organization posted a new video— accompanied by a new blog post, a promoted Facebook post, at least 10 tweets targeted at lawmakers, and direct email outreach. The videos received a total of 2,600 views, and each Facebook post was viewed approximately 1,200 times. Audiences—including lawmakers—favorited and shared tweets with their audiences. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families uses SproutSocial, an analytics tool, to track how their content performs each week.

Workshop session
The Packard Foundation provides rich technical assistance and trainings for their Finish Line grantees.

Social Media Tools Used by Friending the Finish Line

Twitter Lists

That track and engage legislators and policy influencers

Editorial Calendars

That show how to use tie together messaging and other communications channels

Metrics & Analytics

That help them see what’s working and what’s not (such as SproutSocial, HootSuite, Google Analytics, and Facebook and Twitter’s built-in tools)

Paid Content

That extends their reach and puts their messages in front of the right readers


That show real people talking about how policies have helped them or explaining how to access resources

Links to Info

That connect policymakers, legislators, and influencers with the information they need

A healthy toddler and baby
The Foundation strives to ensure that all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential.


Read the tealeaves.

Plan to communicate from day one.

Be patient

Be prepared and opportunistic.

Read the Tealeaves

Grantees are busy. They’re doing difficult, on-the-ground work and are often caught up in the daily spin cycle of the legislative process or providing direct services. Funders can help by looking up and out—and then taking risks. The Packard Foundation thought that social media was going to be big, so they supported their grantees by providing them with much-needed technical assistance.

“The grantees are now innovating faster than I can keep track,” said Liane Wong, program officer at the Packard Foundation. “They see this as integral to their entire communications strategy. And in some cases, they are blazing their way among their peers.”

“The grantees are blazing their way among their peers.”

– Liane Wong, program officer at the Packard Foundation

Plan to Communicate from Day One

Communication efforts can and should be considered during the development of program objectives. Spitfire Strategies and Kanter helped the grantees see social media as integral to their communications plans—and part of advancing their programmatic goals.

Be Patient

Friending the Finish Line was not a one-day workshop—or even a one-year training. The Packard Foundation has supported their grantees in doing this work for more than five years. The Friending the Finish Line grantees didn’t need to be handed social media plans. They needed to know they could pick up the phone and get hands-on coaching from communications strategists and peers who could help answer their questions. Now they’re working on increasing impact and building future strategies around social media.

In this case, having an organizing force was also critical. By centralizing the technical assistance, the grantees are guaranteed that the coaching they receive is consistent, tailored to their needs, and building on what they have learned so far.

“I’ve never had a funder do something like that—incredibly rich technical assistance training,” said Darnell. “It really brought us forward in how we think about messaging.”

Be Prepared and Opportunistic

Find the right balance between planning to communicate and taking advantage of unexpected opportunities to communicate. The instantaneous, real-time feedback loops are what make social media so unique. And getting the most from them requires flexibility and the ability to make course corrections quickly.

Spitfire Strategies

Spitfire Strategies

Spitfire Strategies specializes in developing innovative communication campaigns to promote positive social change. Founded by Kristen Grimm, Spitfire provides high-quality strategic campaign planning, communication counseling and tailored, cost-effective implementation to nonprofits and foundations working to promote issues in the public interest. Spitfire also provides capacity-building trainings to increase organizations’ overall effectiveness.

Beth Kanter

Beth Kanter

Beth Kanter is the author of Beth’s Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media, one of the longest running and most popular blogs for nonprofits. Beth has over 30 years working in the nonprofit sector in technology, training, capacity building, evaluation, fundraising, and marketing. She co-authored The Networked Nonprofit with Allison Fine while she was a visiting scholar at the Packard Foundation. Her second book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, with co-author KD Paine, was published in October 2012, and awarded the Terry McAdam Nonprofit Book Award for 2013.

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