Building Nonprofits Strategically through Social Media

It took 34 years for the telephone to reach 50 million customers; 13 years for television to attract 50 million viewers; but just 2 years for Facebook to surpass 50 million users.

Social media is powerful and global, and nonprofits are eager to maximize the use of it to increase fundraising, volunteers, advocates, program offerings and opportunities, and impact. The challenge for many is how to do it right – especially what level of resources to allocate in an era of tight budgets.

The data already exists proving the efficacy of relying more on social media. At our recent Board of Directors Retreat in New York City, we hosted Lee Rainee, director of Pew Research Center’s Internet  & American Life Project, as one of our presenters. Lee told us a survey conducted by Pew found that internet users are more likely than others to be active in some kind of voluntary group or organization. According to the study, 80% of internet users participate in voluntary group activities as compared to 56% of non-internet users.

In spite of the many benefits, social media capacity-building is sometimes relegated to the back burner by nonprofits because the resources necessary for effective strategy and implementation are hard to come by and pressing service or program delivery needs take precedence.

As highlighted in the article “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” by Ann Goggins Gregory and Don Howard, nonprofits sometimes shortchange developing their infrastructure and tools because such enhancements fail to attract funders, who seem interested in more high-profile projects. But capacity-building is not a luxury – it is essential for an organization to remain relevant and grow. Raising a nonprofit to the next level, especially in ways that amplify its mission and improve outcomes and impacts, is vital to the long-term success of the organization.

With this in mind, the Rita Allen Foundation once again embraced innovation and launched an intensive capacity-building pilot that focused on developing a social media strategy for six grant recipients, each selected after a rigorous filter and competitive process looked at over 60 potential participants recommended by experts and leaders in their fields. The final cohort includes the following six nonprofits:

  •  Generation Citizen: Generation Citizen’s priority is codifying and strengthening their civics education-engagement program model, and part of their goal is better supporting their teachers and alumni to deliver a high-quality program.
  • Green City Force: Green City Force recently made a commitment to support the alumni of their green jobs training programs “for life” and they want to use social media to keep in touch to better understand and deliver on alumni needs after training ends.
  • Educators 4 Excellence: A key aspect of their theory of change is to create a “movement” around the issue of teacher-led education reform. They see social media as a way to attract new followers to their cause and to leverage their teacher-members to take action around specific initiatives.
  • Isles: As a multi-service community development organization focused on Trenton, Isles provides many services to a diverse groups of stakeholders. They highlighted two mission-critical ways in which to leverage social media: improving online access and driving use of their program areas, and using online channels to disseminate their best practices.
  •  Global Kids: Global Kids has two social media goals: providing an outlet for their students to create and execute their own social action projects (e.g., letter-writing campaigns), and attracting followers to eventually be able to win online fundraising competitions.
  • Sadie Nash: This organization empowers young women leaders and is new to social media, and is exploring three options: creating an online alumni network, supporting their Fellows (high potential participants) through delivering an online suite of resources, and providing online tools to teachers.

During the first phase of the pilot, we helped the nonprofits define the processes that need to be put into place to clarify their goals and to align a strategy to achieve those goals using social media. Specifically, we developed project costs and resources; defined daily metrics, interim goals and one-year goals to both evaluate success and determine how to improve; and defined and created the appropriate social media content for different audiences.

In a future blog, I will elaborate on the planning elements as well as discuss issues faced by some of our participants.

We are now entering the second stage of our pilot where we are supporting some of our participants with the implementations of their new strategic plans – to increase their organizational capacity and impact through the tools of social media.

As Beth Kanter highlights in her book “The Networked Nonprofit” and her many excellent blogs, there are plenty of examples of how social media is making a difference for organizations across the spectrum.

Social media is indeed a game-changer that non-profits are relying on more and more to draw attention to a cause, keep group members up-to-date with latest activities, organize events, raise funds and impact the society at large. But in order to maximize it, they need support from funders willing to take the risk of investing in areas that some consider a luxury.

Of course, one of the best measures of success for our pilot so far is how our grant recipients view the effort to build their capacity in social media and throughout their respective organizations. The video featured on our homepage provides their observations and progress, and is a snapshot of their enthusiasm and vision for growth, change and leveraging their impact.