Social Media for Nonprofits: Making the Tools Work for You

On Nov. 4th, the Social Media for Nonprofits Conference stopped in San Francisco during its seven-city sweep across the country. Co-producers Darian Rodriguez Heyman and Ritu Sharma brought a dynamic cast of speakers together to shed light on the current state of social media. They showed 300 eager, tweeting audience members that social media is a powerful tool that allows us to set more ambitious goals for our organizations than ever before.

Topics ranged from the technical (Beth Kanter, blogger and author of The Networked Nonprofit, crunched the numbers of social media measurement tools) to the conceptual (Victor d’Allant’s entertaining presentation, “Seven Tips to Improve Your Social (Media) Life“), but they boiled down to the same conclusion — social media is a means to an end.

It’s a Tool

Nonprofits planning their social media strategy should not simply aim to start a Facebook page or get 1,000 followers on Twitter. They should think about why they want to connect with people and why the support of those people matters.

Social media is still carving out its place, though it’s safe to say that it is much more immediate and intimate than traditional forms of outreach. Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and craigconnects, warned us to steer clear of the language of press releases and stick to “whatever passes for real-life interactions.”

Networks like LinkedIn Groups allow you to have a one-on-one conversation with each of your followers. You wouldn’t recite language from your website when explaining what your organization is about to someone you met waiting for the bus. Use these tools as a way to capture their attention, but also listen to their response.

It’s an Opportunity

Darian offered a great takeaway: social media lets you treat a $20-donor like a $20,000-donor. Give $20 at DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit offering support to public schools, and you will see the concrete impact of your generosity through hand-written thank-you notes and pictures of students using the microscopes or musical instruments you helped buy.

Social media is an opportunity to extend the experience of giving past the credit card receipt in an email inbox. Nonprofits are not just asking for donations, they are providing a connection to something bigger — to a cause that matters.

Every organization will need to tap in to different networks to reach their niche, and use different approaches to fit their cause. If you want hard, fast rules about social media practices, strip away the technology and try taking another look.

Christina Samala, Director of Online Strategy and Media for The Story of Stuff Project, said the same etiquette applies to online and face-to-face interactions. If someone complimented you on the street, you wouldn’t ignore them just because you were too busy. The same goes for responding to comments or tweets at your nonprofit. Making the time to maintain relationships online is more likely to attract a long-term supporter, which is more valuable than any number of casual online fans.

It’s a Learning Process

Another thread throughout the conference was that a large part of social media is ‘failing forward.’ Everyone is still learning. We’re all going to make mistakes along the way, but it’s crucial to learn from them and adjust your strategy as you go.

Chelsa Bocci of Kiva.org offered an inside look into her organization’s social media strategy. Kiva.org is a microfinancing platform, seeking to alleviate poverty around the world through $25 loans to small businesses and entrepreneurs in developing nations. They won a $1 million grant from Sam’s Club with a daily vote competition on Twitter. After listening to follower feedback, they learned that there is a delicate balance between promotion and over-saturation. So they kept their twitter stream compelling by including educational and inspiring content mixed-in with tweets about the voting competition.

There were also representatives from organizations offering nonprofits a crowd-sourced approach to fundraising — including Matt Mahan and Anne Diaz of Causes, and David Boyce of Fundly. Both are great tools for nonprofits looking to increase exposure and reach new supporters, but the most successful campaigns focus on the story of the cause and the impact of donations. Content is still king, and no matter how many people see your cause mentioned, only a truly compelling package will prompt a donation (or a volunteer commitment, as our President Greg Baldwin explained in his talk).

Social media allows every nonprofit the opportunity to reach an audience and affect positive change on a level that was hard to imagine just five years ago. As Marnie Webb of TechSoup put it so well, it lets us build a vision based on abundance instead of a scarcity of resources, a philosophy which has traditionally limited nonprofits.

These online communities can combine not only money but time, data, and ideas. It’s a great start, but it’s important to remember that real change happens when people take these relationships offline, and put this abundance to work.

You can view slides from all the presentations here, and there’s still time to register for upcoming events in Atlanta and New York.

All photos are from the Social Media for Nonprofits Facebook page.

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