The Secret Sauce: It’s More Social than Media

Lisa Colton and Caren Levine

Jewish day schools understand that social media is a powerful new tool to communicate with current families, prospects and alumni. But we’re all still learning what it takes to use these tools well.

Last year Darim Online, in partnership with the AVI CHAI Foundation, conducted a six month academy to teach day school leaders the conceptual, tactical and strategic foundations of social media. In addition to receiving training on various tools and strategies, schools were supported by coaches to develop specific projects which put these tools to good, mission-centric use.

What we learned is that schools need to focus on culture change as much or more so than the social media tools themselves. Social media is just that: social. Yet so many of us have been professionally trained and gained most of our experience in a broadcast era. As a result, we tend to apply the old rules to a new game. And then we wonder why no one is commenting on our Facebook posts or blogs.

Developing, activating and leveraging our networks—for marketing, alumni engagement, fundraising and more—is based on relationships. Relationships are about people, not technology, and thus we must shift our mindset from informational to relational. This is not an easy shift to make. It means unlearning many of the ways we do our work, and adjusting our patterns for a new age.

Below are a few tips to share from our experience working with schools that are making important strides in developing their social culture.

Focus on what’s meaningful—to your community, not just to you

If you truly understand your audience, you’ll be able to provide insightful, valuable content that earns their attention and invites their participation. Push yourself to craft your content in ways that focuses on people, community and mission, rather than on the institution. As one participant from last year’s Academy observed, “The conversation has to be meaningful and sticky—to them! No one listens unless we’re sharing and engaging.” Several schools used a fun method for engaging alumni by posting old class pictures on Facebook and asking them to tag their classmates. This reconnection was valuable to the alumni, and additionally it served to pull alumni together and strengthen their connection to the school, which will in turn pay dividends for the school down the road.

Have personality!

The perfectly polished, highly edited communications of the past have given way to a more casual and social voice. This helps readers feel like they are in conversation with a real person, rather than an institution. Personality makes you real. Real earns attention. Be prepared to put some of yourself into the endeavor, and to think about the persona of your school, and how you’ll share it in the most authentic way.

Be conversational

We’ve all been stuck in a cocktail party conversation with someone who just talks and talks about him- or herself. It’s no fun. It’s no different online. Ask questions, as they invite a response. Actively respond to other people’s posts, and find opportunities to deepen the conversation and your connection. Think of yourself as the host, rather than a marketer. As a host, how can you draw in the guests, learn about their interests, and facilitate connections among the participants in your community?

Be generous

In an attention economy, we dedicate our time and energy where we get value in return. Just like with any friendship, support and generosity needs to flow in both directions. Commenting on other’s posts with encouragement, information or connections to resources shows that you’re a generous conversationalist, you’re listening, and you care. This small investment of time pays off in strengthening relationships and networks both online and in person. As Allison Fine, co-author of The Networked Nonprofit and a collaborator in last year’s Academy, says, “Social media is a contact sport, not a spectator sport.” Being generous is a great excuse to be in contact.

Learn new social norms

We know how to be polite in face-to-face conversations and on the phone. We’re getting better at it via email, too. And now we need to learn how to translate these social norms into the social media sphere as well. It can feel like learning a new language (literally, given language and acronym conventions—have you ever tried to explain a complex tweet to someone?) or finding yourself in a foreign land with different social conventions. This is a new kind of fluency to learn and practice. Often, the easiest way to absorb new norms and social cues is by “shadowing” experts. Find a variety of bloggers, tweeters, and other types of social media gurus and observe how they craft their messages. Remix their strategies in ways that make sense for your goals and in your own voice.

Reflect your school’s values online

What are your school’s core values? Just as your mission and vision statements should reflect these values, so too should they be integrated into your social media strategy. Think of social media as another way you tell your community’s story. What values do you want to highlight? What core concepts do you strive to embody? How will your staff model these values in their use of social media on behalf of the school? One school regularly posted thank you notes to volunteers who did both small and big jobs in the school, as a way of promoting a culture of volunteering and a shared investment in the school, regardless of finances.

Set your school culture, online

In addition to learning social norms for our personal behavior, we’re also learning how to steward the culture of our online spaces. We all take social cues from each other, so encouraging diverse participation is key to developing your own online culture. It’s hard to be the first or second person to comment on a Facebook post or blog, but once there are a few comments, it’s easier to gauge how intense or silly, long or short comments should be. Thus, you might find it helpful to ask some friends to break the ice by being the first to comment here and there. Their participation will make it easier for others to jump in. If the school asks a question about a serious topic—Torah, holidays, ethics—how in depth does a comment need to be? Is it an inviting topic for parents and alumni, or intimidating? What kind of humor is appropriate for your Facebook page? By thinking in advance about the culture you want to develop, you’ll be better able to develop a content plan and put it into action.

Be open and transparent

By sharing something about yourself, you invite others to share too, leading to a more connected community. One teacher we worked with posts photos of her personal travels and hobbies, which elicits comments and more sharing from parents and alumni. Many schools in the Academy wrestled deeply with how much they can and should share publicly about their community and their accomplishments and challenges. Several took inspiration from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which has a full dashboard of data on their website: Transparency builds trust, and trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship.

Help leadership become comfortable with what you can control, and what you can’t

To some, social media feels like the Wild West, where anything goes. In fact, you have more control that you might think. And the places where you don’t? Just remember that there have always been parking lot conversations that you can’t control, let alone know about or participate in. To some degree, “control” has always been an illusion.

Several schools in last year’s Academy pursued creating social media policies to explore and articulate their boundaries. To help schools develop their own social media policy, Darim Online has created a Social Media Policy Workbook for Jewish Organizations (see sidebar). You can download a copy here for free:

Integrate social media tools throughout your operations

Schools that have matured their use of these tools the most are adept at integrating them seamlessly throughout their work. One school used Twitter during a class trip to Washington, DC, to keep parents up to date on their activities, complete with photos. As a result, several parents started following the school’s Twitter stream. Even those who weren’t Twitter users could read the updates on the Twitter site.

With attention to the ten points above, you’ll start to find places where social media helps you do what you do better, or where you can do new things to engage your community, strengthen relationships with them and activate your network to achieve shared goals.


Social media plays an important role in how we do our work as professionals and lay leaders in a “connected age.” The key to using social media is focusing on the social: that is, the relationship building that it facilitates strengthening and growing our communities. Schools that have been most successful in this work foster engagement and act deliberately to create opportunities for their community members to interact and share with each other, as well as with the school. They are also careful to cultivate warm, safe spaces for these experiences to take place, to provide valuable content based on their community’s needs, and to align their social media strategy with their overall mission, values and goals.

So, what’s next?

First, jump on board yourself. Just like you can’t really learn a foreign language solely out of a book, you can’t learn about social media only as a spectator. Explore common tools as a regular user so you can understand it from the perspective of those you are seeking to engage.

Second, reflect on how you prioritize your attention as a user. We’re all living in an attention economy, and this honest reflection will help you learn how to succeed in this landscape.

And third, stay nimble and continue to learn. The only constant in this “connected age” is that the tools and strategies continue to evolve—quickly. Being an active part of the conversation will help you know where to invest your time and energy.♦

Excerpt from Darim’s Social Media Policy Workbook

“The Jewish people are recognized by three qualities: They are compassionate, they are modest, and they perform acts of loving kindness.” Talmud, Yevamot 79a


Engaging in social media is your organization’s opportunity to genuinely reflect online who you are in person too. Though technology is constantly changing, foundational values endure. As such, your social media policy should not live in a vacuum, but should be guided by the values and vision of your organization. Reflect on your organization’s values and think about how to translate those values into guidelines for social media. What values define your organization? What core concepts do you strive to embody? To guide your activities online, start by defining a list of about six core values—be they Jewish, professional, or universal—which are central to your organization’s work, and thus to your use of social media too.

Lisa Colton is the president of Darim Online, a nonprofit providing social media and leadership coaching and training to Jewish organization. She can be reached at

Caren Levine is the director of Darim’s Learning Network, crafting their training curriculum and knowledge sharing activities. She can be reached at

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HaYidion Networking Autumn 2012
Fall 2012