Strategic use of social media key for nonprofits

Ret Boney

True to its viral nature, the use of social networking by nonprofits is spreading.

But while most nonprofits are using it, it’s still a young and evolving field.

And using social media simply for marketing and fundraising, the understandable obsession of nonprofits during recessionary times, may be missing the point, experts say.

“At the end of the day, you can’t think of it as a fundraising tool,” says Allison Fine, an expert on using social media to ignite social change. “It’s a friend-raising and awareness raising tool.”

Where it is

As of spring 2009, almost nine in 10 nonprofits were using a commercial social-networking site, with almost three-quarters reporting a presence on Facebook, says a recent survey from ThePort Network, NTEN and Common Knowledge.

Of those using commercial tools, eight in 10 use them primarily to market their organizations, but the average number of community members for nonprofits on Facebook was a modest 5,391.

And of the four in 10 nonprofits that have raised money using Facebook, about one in three have raised less than $500 over the past year, the survey says.

“There’s not a nonprofit that hasn’t heard about it,” Katrin Verclas, co-founder of Mobile Active, says of social media. “A lot are dipping their toes into the water and trying to figure out what the best strategy is.”

With an abundance of free tools like Facebook and Twitter, the barriers-to-entry in the social-media realm are so low that almost any nonprofit can wade in.

The costs can be as low as the designation of staff time. To date, almost two-thirds of nonprofits allocate at least a quarter of one staffer’s time to managing the organization’s social-networking community, says the social-media survey.

How to do it

To use social media well, a nonprofit must understand how it differs from traditional media, which typically follow a broadcast model involving one organization controlling a message it delivers to many people simultaneously.

Social media is two-way messaging over which nonprofits have little control, says Beth Kanter, a scholar-in-residence for nonprofits and social media at the Packard Foundation.

It’s a different kind of distribution where the nonprofit reaches influential people who then reach their friends with their own message about a cause.

“You need to build your network before you need it,” says Kanter. “There’s not yet a specific formula that works for everyone. It’s a lot of small experiments and you reiterate.”

To get started, she recommends a heavy dose of listening in order to monitor and track where people are online and what they’re saying.

Then it’s time to engage in the conversation, but be careful not to preach.

“Talk to people, don’t just throw your message at them,” says Kanter.

Once an organization has become a participant in the conversation, it can begin to share its story by developing a blog or starting a YouTube channel.

More important than that, though, is getting supporters to create content about a nonprofit.

To “generate buzz,” Kanter recommends spreading a message quickly and widely through Twitter or Digg, a news service that can generate traffic.

Finally, it’s time to develop an online community, she says.

“First you get insights – what works and what doesn’t,” says Kanter. “The next thing you see is engagement – the conversation. Once you’ve measured that, you can start to track to taking an action. And the holy grail is linking that to true social change.”

These days, websites are becoming more like social networks, where supporters and constituents can talk online. And almost one in three nonprofits report they maintain their own in-house social networking site, says the NTEN study.

That requires an online community manager, someone who interacts with supporters in an online environment.

While the process isn’t necessarily difficult, it does take time to do it well, says Kanter.

“If this isn’t your priority, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it,” she says.

Getting to the stage where supporters are truly engaged takes about 18 months, says Kanter, and is heavy on experimentation and “reiteration.”

“Nonprofits should enter the world of social media, but they should do it strategically,” she says. “Not incredibly planned, but knowing you’re going to fail. That’s the way to success – reiterate.”


Social media is still relatively new, and not fully understood, so there are a few hazards to dodge along the way.

Understanding the social-media user is critical.

“There’s a whole new generation of people who are allergic to being preached to,” says Verclas. “They have a finely attuned sense of hearing, and they quickly figure out and are not shy to say if some effort is just another way to get money.”

Donors are beginning to organize, talk to one another, and talk back to nonprofits.

“It’s circumventing the organizational structure,” says Verclas.

The nonprofits that are successful in the social-media arena are those that can reinvent themselves by promoting the engagement of their constituents in an authentic and genuine way, she says.

Another potential stumbling block is what Kanter calls “shiny-object syndrome,” which can lead users to focus more on the myriad available tools, losing sight of what those tools are actually used for.

“You have to pick where you play,” she says, noting that she maintains a deep presence on Facebook, but none on MySpace.

“Some try every tool known to mankind,” she says. “That’s not necessary. You want to go where your audience is.”

And while many of those scores of tools are free, or very low-cost, some nonprofits still insist on spending money to build their own in-house social-networking systems.

“Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come,” says Fine.

Verclas says measuring and evaluating the impact of social-media efforts is still an evolving field, and until the analysis catches up with the activity, it’s easy for nonprofits to confuse “buzz” with impact.

“Distinguishing hype from reality is still a challenge for nonprofits,” she says. “There’s a lot of talk about direct return-on-investment. There are indirect measures that are equally important, like brand perception.”

An experiment in fundraising

Evolving measurement and analysis could also provide some insight into how and whether engaging constituents through social networking eventually leads to money, says Verclas.

“There’s a level of sophistication in some organizations and they’re looking at this kind of thing,” she says. “That kind of measurement is only just beginning.”

But there have been a few experiments in using social media to raise money.

At the end of 2007, the Case Foundation sponsored a 50-day fundraising challenge among nonprofits, awarding matching grants to the organizations that attracted the largest numbers of donors.

What the foundation learned from the experience echoes what’s being seen in the larger social-networking field.

“You didn’t have to be one of the really large national nonprofits to be successful,” says Fine, who conducted an analysis of the effort for Case. “Part of the reason is the smaller grassroots nonprofits are a little bit scrappier and could mobilize their networks in a way the larger nonprofits weren’t comfortable with at that time.”

And authenticity was important, too, she says.

“It’s incredibly important to find that authentic voice and make personal connections,” says Fine. “The same things you think about when you’re doing traditional fundraising, only you’re doing it online.”

And while the portion of the challenge conducted on Facebook raised $571,686 for 3,936 causes, Fine says she’s equally interested in finding out how giving leads to different kinds of behaviors like volunteering and advocacy.

Social media still is a young and evolving field. But with its low costs of entry, its viral nature and its ability to level the playing field between large and small groups, there’s plenty of potential for nonprofits.

“It’s all creativity, ingenuity and skill,” says Verclas. “It’s the people, stupid. You don’t have to be large and have a lot of money. I find that very refreshing.”

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