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Nonprofits using new media to engage

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Todd Cohen

Amnesty International Norway places posters in subways and alongside streets to enlist mobile-phone users to subscribe to text-messages calling on them to take action or make donations.

The Bulgarian Red Cross airs TV spots featuring people who use mobile phones to make donations to buy hot meals for children.

And Internet Sexuality Information Services in San Francisco uses billboards to promote a new text-messaging service that lets teens ask questions and get answers about HIV, sexually-transmitted diseases, birth control and other sexual health services.

With technology becoming more widespread and easily accessible, particularly mobile and wireless devices, nonprofits are finding innovative ways to use new media to spread their message and engage constituents more interactively in fundraising, advocacy and delivery of services and information, experts say.

“Now it’s engagement, it’s no longer broadcasting,” says Katrin Verclas, executive director of the Nonprofit Technology Network, or NTEN, based in Portland, Ore. “We’ve moved from a networked age to a connected age.”

Nonprofits also are finding it easier to run their shops using off-the-shelf, web-based technology that is less costly to acquire, maintain, upgrade and replace, experts say.

“People will use existing tools more than thinking that they need a customized application,” says Jeff Forster, director of technology services at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. “Rather than feeling they’re ultimately unique, they will see themselves as needing functionality other people need.”

But new technologies also pose challenges for nonprofits, which can be slow to change the way they do business or to wed traditional fundraising methods with social-networking strategies.

“There’s a bit of froth in the marketplace that social networking will solve all problems by acquiring donors at no-cost rates,” says Mike Johnston, president of HJC New Media, a Toronto consulting firm that focuses on nonprofits and integrating traditional and new-media fundraising.

MOBILE DEVICES

The next frontier for nonprofit advocacy and the delivery of information, education and services will be mobile phones, says Verclas, who also is co-coordinator of MobileActive, a collaborative project of NTEN and the Green Media Toolshed in Washington, D.C.

With mobile phones in the hands of 87 percent of adults in the U.S., she says, nonprofits have an unprecedented opportunity to engage, educate, mobilize and seek support from constituents.

“There’s a wealth of information that’s out there that can be delivered by mobile phone, and a wealth of issues you can advocate on by mobile phone,” she says.

Mobile devices such as personal digital assistants, or PDAs, also make it easier for nonprofits to collect information from clients in the field and transmit it to a central database, saving the time and effort formerly required to take hand-written notes and then type the information into a nonprofit’s computer database, Verclas says.

Johnston says text-messaging has spread rapidly in Europe as a low-cost alternative to voice-messaging, and likely will catch fire in the U.S. as firms here see the revenue it is generating for their counterparts in Europe.

But in using mobile phones and other interactive technologies in innovative ways like the text-message information offered by Internet Sexuality Information Services, Verclas says, nonprofits need to learn to share best practices and information on what works and what does not work.

“We all have limited resources,” she says. “Let’s share information to make sure that projects work.”

FUNDRAISING, ADVOCACY

New technologies offer big opportunities for nonprofits to raise money, enlist volunteers and mobilize support for causes, experts say.

But tapping that potential, they say, will require thinking in new ways while integrating new technologies into tried-and-true fundraising and advocacy strategies.

Generating great expectations among nonprofits, for example, is the emerging strategy known as social-network fundraising or viral fundraising.

Big tech firms like Austin-based Convio, San Diego-based Kintera and Toronto-based Artez Interactive market web-based software that charities can use, for example, to organize fundraising events and to let individual participants create personal web pages designed to enlist other participants and donors, Johnston says.

Some technologies let individuals themselves promote the charities and causes they care about.

Taking advantage of a new Facebook feature that lets third parties write applications for Facebook users, Firstgiving in Somerville, Mass., for example, will let Facebook members who have a Firstgiving fundraising page post elements of their fundraising pages on their personal pages, encouraging their friends to make contributions to the members’ favorite charities, says Mark Sutton, CEO of Firstgiving.

But while research has found per-capita donations through personal web pages are higher than individuals might give on their own, Johnston says, nonprofits generally have failed to find ways to sustain giving by those donors or to use “moves management” to retain donors and secure larger gifts from them.

“We’re having a tough time finding any reasonable lifetime value to either registrants who make personal pages or pledgers who pledge on those pages,” he says. “It’s inert. There’s no effort to figure out how to get them involved.”

While fundraising staff may be involved, nonprofit staff responsible for information-technology, communications and marketing tend to drive their organizations’ social-network campaigns, Johnston says, so it is “a self-fulfilling prophecy that traditional fundraising and moves-management are not properly integrated into the social-network planning and events.”

At the same time, he says, nonprofits also can be resistant to innovative applications of technology championed by a younger and more media-savvy generation.

“Charities have to respect young staffers more about this,” Johnston says. “They have to be courageous.”

ON-DEMAND SERVICES

The emergence of a marketplace for web-based solutions — known as “on-demand services” or “software as a service” or “hosted applications” — has created big opportunities and cost-efficiencies for nonprofits, experts say.

“There’s a move away from having to implement and manage complicated applications on the back-end,” Verclas says.

With affordable access to the kind of technology applications widely available to for-profit companies, she says, nonprofits not only can operate more efficiently and effectively but also can use technology more strategically, rethinking the way they manage their business, deliver services, raise money and advocate for their cause.

“That changes how nonprofits operate,” Verclas says. “The strategic use of technology becomes easier if the barrier of entry is lower.”

Forster says the broad availability of off-the-shelf products gives nonprofits solutions that are more stable and less costly than software that is customized for individual organizations.

But because they only recently have had easy access to off-the-shelf applications, particularly those that manage relationships with constituents, Forster says, nonprofits still trail the for-profit sector “in interacting with their constituencies in the way their constituencies want to be interacted with.”

In particular, he says, nonprofits may be using a one-size-fits-all approach to communications, mailing all mem
bers a paper newsletter, for example, rather than shipping an electronic version to members who prefer to get email communications.

“I think they are behind in segmenting their audience for different modes of communications,” he says, “because the underlying customer-relationship-management software they’re using is not very good.”

ENGAGING CONSTITUENTS

Easier access to technology, and a sweeping generational shift that will change the makeup of the leadership and staffing of nonprofits, and of the clients they serve, create big opportunities for nonprofits to be more effective in engaging constituents, experts say.

Forster says the rising tide of retirements among Baby Boomers will open the doors for a younger generation of nonprofit leaders who grew up with computers in the classroom and workplace.

“And they’re much more open and amenable and expecting to use information technology to make their work better,” Forster says.

And even small nonprofits can reach a potentially vast audience by using new technologies like YouTube, he says.

“There’s the ability for a very small, low-resourced group of people to get their message out in ways that have never been available before,” he says.

Verclas says new technologies should prompt nonprofits to “rethink the way they do business,” particularly in the area of fundraising.

“They cannot just market to their constituents any more because constituents can organize and do their own fundraising campaign,” she says.

The challenge for nonprofits, she says, is to be “credible and authentic” and “highly personal” in the way they engage donors who face a growing number of competitive requests for donations and have grown skeptical in the age of rising mistrust of mass media.

To use new media effectively to engage donors, Verclas says, nonprofits should be rethinking “organizational boundaries,” building their brand and “letting go of control.”

Nonprofits no longer can count on simply pushing out a single, centralized message, she says, when individuals can use new media to undertake their own fundraising efforts, with their own spin, on behalf of charities they care about.

“The paradigm of marketing that nonprofits have tried to perfect, that was so well-suited in an age of mass marketing, has given way to trust-based strategies,” she says.

“At a time of ubiquitous information, connection and therefore empowerment,” nonprofits need to be “connectors and evangelizers, and they have to turn people into connectors and evangelizers,” she says.

Yet nonprofit leadership is “still mired in the old paradigm,” she says.

“If organizations do not learn to adapt to ways in which people are now expecting to participate, they will become dinosaurs and the marketplace will shake out,” she says. “Organizations that learn how to engage will dominate, will win, will advance their organizations.”

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