By Brigid O’Leary
In the last 20 years, commercial and private access to the world wide web has grown so much that it’s almost second nature to turn on a computer to find just about anything—a telephone number, a recipe, a news article, or a person. And through the focused power of social media one can find a person to fill any role needed: friend, spouse. Volunteer. Employee.
Nonprofits, especially smaller organizations, still sometimes struggle to properly incorporate social media into their missions. Successful social media programs seem to require that organizations know where their fans and funders are and then meet them there virtually.
Put Your Best Face Forward
The social networking website Facebook launched in 2004. Though it was initially established as a networking site for college students, it has grown to include companies and organizations of nearly all kinds and allows groups to reach a wider variety of people.
It’s one way that Reece’s Rainbow Down Syndrome Adoption Ministry founder Andrea Roberts says the organization uses social networking to connect with families, advocates, and donors.
The Reece’s Rainbow mission is “to advocate and find families for orphans with Down syndrome and other special needs by raising funds for adoption grants and promoting awareness through an online community, media communications, and other events.” The organization, headquartered in Monrovia, Md., provides assistance to families’ adoptions (both international and domestic) of children with special needs. More than 26,000 people have liked the Reece’s Rainbow Facebook page and the organization also has a closed Facebook Group with nearly 4000 members.
Facebook has its detractors, of course. The algorithms that govern what the average user sees in his or her news feed are unknown and undecipherable to most people and some who run pages for groups, organizations, or companies have complained that not all of the people who follow or “like” them can see all the updates when posted. Facebook also sometimes groups posts from pages together into sections labeled “Stories You Might Like,” which requires the viewer to scroll through separately from the news feed. But for all its drawbacks, Facebook provides organizations with options that a webpage does not.
“We have a fan page on Facebook and a group page for OutReach,” says Steve Starkey, executive director of OutReach LGBT Community Center in Madison, Wis. The organization promotes equality and quality of life for LGBT people and its (Facebook) fan page has more than 2000 followers. The public group page has 1000 members, but, Starkey adds, “we also have fan pages or group pages for some of our projects or programs, so we have about half a dozen total different pages that we manage.”
A closed Facebook Group, like those OutReach and Reece’s Rainbow each run, provides the group members a private forum to communicate with one another. A person who is not a member of the group might be able to see who is a member, but would not be privy to any discussions or photos shared within the group. A person wishing to join a closed group must be admitted by a group administrator, a feature that provides a measure of security to groups where privacy is important.
The Portland Fruit Tree Project in Oregon uses Facebook to interact with people who are interested in the organization’s mission of increasing equitable access to healthful food and strengthen communities by empowering neighbors to share in the harvest and care of city-grown produce. It’s Facebook page has more than 4,000 “likes” and regular activity, both by Portland Fruit Tree Project (PFTP) staff and people who follow the page.
“On Facebook, people regularly use the Facebook Mail Feature to contact us with questions via our Page,” says Tshombé Brown, PFTP Communications & Office Coordinator.
To maximize the potential of the social network, the organization has started using regular posts in styles that are popular on Facebook – including fun, recurring themes and the use of pithy hashtags, the latter of which help for cross references on Twitter.
“We’ve newly implemented Article/Did you Know Mondays, #ShoutOutTuesday and Story Fridays that are becoming more regular and getting positive feedback,” Brown explains.
Positive feedback for a nonprofit organization can also come in the form of a successful event and Facebook can make event promotion a little easier.
“When we have events, we create an event page to promote it,” says OutReach’s Starkey.
On an event page, an organization can list the details of an event – either private or public – share it with specific people or their followers at large, and even gauge attendance, if they find the online RSVPs accurate.
The social media network also recently added a feature that notifies users about local public events their friends are interested in attending, thereby allowing even more people to become aware of an event that might otherwise been overlooked. It’s a feature that can be helpful in reaching a much larger audience than the initial target group.
Whether or not this most recent feature will generate more interest in specific events hosted by OutReach, Starkey mentions he has noticed a change in events the organization hosts since they’ve been active on social media.
“We’ve realized that we’ve done more events during the last five years than we did previously – more fundraising events, more conferences and program events,” he says. “And what we’ve seen is that our numbers have gone up by 25-50 percent. For example, when I started we would get 300 people attending the banquet. Now we get 400 people attending the banquet. That’s not 25-50 percent more [attendees] every year, but it’s growth. We’ve done several conferences over the last 3-4 years and we get more than 100 people at each one. These are small, local conferences, not national conferences like bigger groups do. It’s amazing how much more knowledge there is in the community and attendance and it’s been great for fundraising.”
A Little Bird Told Me
Reece’s Rainbow, OutReach, and the Portland Fruit Tree Project all have Twitter accounts (@ReecesRainbow, @OutReach_LGBT, and @PortlandFruit, respectively), a platform that allows the organization to send short messages (up to 140 characters) out to a number of readers at one time.
“Facebook and Twitter are where most of our engagement is. We regularly have folks comment, like and share our content,” explains Brown.
If someone following either organization particularly likes a tweets, they can favorite it—which lets the organization know that someone liked their message—or the reader can re-tweet it, allowing all of that reader’s followers to then see the tweet, even if those secondary readers are not following the original organization that posted the tweet. The re-tweet can be equated to sharing a Facebook post or passing along a newspaper or magazine article to a friend, each of which can be beneficial to an organization trying to get the word out.
Twitter is the home of the hashtag—formerly known as the pound sign—where, when it is used before words and with no space, it becomes a tag. Tweets, as posts on Twitter are called, can then be grouped by their hashtag. When PFTP uses its #ShoutOutTuesday, all their praise of an individual or other group will be filed, so to speak, with other posts of like kind, allowing someone doing a search to return all posts with that hashtag.
Both Facebook and Twitter have mobile apps for smart phones and accounts can be linked so that a post to Twitter is also posted on Facebook.
LinkedIn is an online networking site geared toward connecting professionals with one another and with potential employers. A search of 501(c)3s on the site turns up thousands of organizations, though not all of those listed actively use the website to connect with potential employees or volunteers
“I’m on LinkedIn and I have more than 500 connections, [but] I haven’t really used that a lot. I think … those in more professional companies – insurance or financial companies – or [those offering] more professional services are more likely to use LinkedIn,” say Starkey.
His supposition may not be far off the mark. LinkedIn was created specifically to help people network professionally. In that vein, when an organization lists a job opening LinkedIn users who have qualifications, experience, or education similar to those that are listed in the job opening will receive an alert about the posting.
A larger nonprofit organization might be more likely to use LinkedIn – or to hire another company to do it for them – but it’s not something OutReach has needed yet.
“We don’t do recruiting for employees. We’re a very small organization, we only have 2 full time and 3 part time staff, with not a lot of turnover, so we don’t have positions open often. We use social media to get people to our events – donors or clients. We’re looking for volunteers and to get publicity for the events,” Starkey says.
And while the PFTP has a LinkedIn presence, Brown admits that it is one of the online networking tools that doesn’t get much attention from the organization.
“We also have accounts on LinkedIn, Instagram, Yelp, and YouTube, but they are not regularly updated,” he says.
Big Wide World
Brown’s list of sites that PFTP does not use regularly illustrates the options any nonprofit has to reach out to people who might be interested in joining the effort. But even without the number of options available to cultivate an online presence – even limiting interactions to one or two networking sites – one of the big challenges in using social media can just be making it happen. Maintaining a social media presence requires effort—and time.
“PFTP has been on social sites for years, but has only recently begun creating/implementing a communication plan where social media plays a significant part. This is because until just a year ago, there was not a staff person responsible for this role. When the new Communications and Office Coordinator position was created and approved by the board, there has been markedly more regular presence on social sites and engagement from stakeholders of all stripes. The biggest ‘con’ is really having the time and capacity to be systematic and intentional about our approach,” says Brown. “Thankfully, after a year of concerted efforts, we are on our way. Our intentions for the coming year is to have strategic goals in place and to measure the impact on community involvement in our programs, as well as its influence on donors and volunteers.”
“It does take a lot of time,” Starkey concurs. “If you consider the amount of staff time we spent 10 years ago working on the internet [compared to now], it is unbelievable. Facebook, especially, has given us a lot of opportunities to tell our story, get photos out.”
Getting a group’s story out or sharing photos on social media puts the organization in the public eye. That’s the point. It’s also a double-edged sword; for every opportunity there is to promote the work a nonprofit does, there’s a chance for very public criticism.
“That’s the main thing that we’ve run into, that you get some negative feedback. It’s not really surprising. We haven’t really gotten very much hate mail. Sometimes we get phone calls where people will say anti-gay things but not often and we haven’t had much on the websites or the social media,” he says. “We do get some prank stuff. We’ve had people spam our pages. We’ve had a couple of clients who have been disruptive in the past and we’ve had to ban them, and then they come to the pages and bash us, so we’ve had to block them.”
What the folks at OutReach do have to contend with online tends to be from constituents or others who have worked closely with the staff at the organization.
“It tends to be people within our community complaining about stuff. We try not to be very heavy handed about it, but if they just won’t give up and won’t stop stalking us, then – they just have to go,” Starkey says. “We’ve had former volunteers or donors who would … criticize us and complain about something. What we’ve tried to do is answer their complaints so the public can see it – if they don’t give up and they keep up attacking us then we block them from the site or remove them. So, that is a downside.”
Despite the downsides that social media can create for a nonprofit, the mere existence of so many ways to interact with the public has certainly changed how organizations make a name for themselves.
“In 2006, all we had use of was a few Yahoo groups. Then I made my own website,” said Roberts, who admitted that the first Reece’s Rainbow website was nothing special “but it was better than nothing. Then Facebook came around, and Twitter for us in 2011.”
The Internet and social media will continue to change over the years and it can be very important for any group to pay attention and utilize those changes as best they can.
“Our foundation is entirely cyber-based, so any networking opportunities we have, we try to seize on,” said Roberts.
OutReach has been around for more than 40 years and so those who have been associated with the organization for any length of time have been able to see the impact technology has had over the last five decades.
“When I started here 10 years ago, on staff, Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist and social media – if it was around – was in its very infancy,” says Starkey.
And like Reece’s Rainbow, one of OutReach’s early websites was nothing compared to what they have today.
“We had one website [that] was basically a brochure that couldn’t be changed. It was really bad,” Starkey says, explaining that it was not internally controlled, but run by an outside IT company.
“It was a freebie – they designed it and provided it for free – and their owner was really ill and the employees chose not to continue to manage the page. So it would literally take 3 months to get any changes made to our website. It was really pathetic,” he adds, laughing. “We’ve come light years in terms of websites and the internet and social media over the decade, period.”