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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Why Nonprofits Fail at Social Media—and How to Do it Better

It’s a widely accepted truth that every organization, whether it’s a corporation, mom and pop shop, or nonprofit, must have social media accounts. It just wouldn’t seem normal to visit a business’ website and fail to see a line of social media icons along the bottom, beckoning visitors to come comment, like, and tweet.

Unfortunately, merely having an account doesn’t necessarily mean that an organization uses social media well. As someone who works on external relations for nonprofits and follows a number of similar organizations on social media, I can confidently say that as a field, nonprofits are failing miserably at the social media game.

There are valid reasons for this: Primarily, we are bad at social media because we don’t invest time or effort in it. If social media is done at all, it’s usually passed on to the intern or another low-ranking staff member. The higher-ups don’t pay attention until a story comes out about how one of our competitors raised a ton of money online and they want to replicate that success.

But let’s be clear—simply being on social media isn’t going to raise any money. And frankly, having a subpar social media presence will date you. To be most effective, you need to prove that your mission is relevant to the needs of your community. There is fierce funding competition in the nonprofit sector, and you need to be out there, proving your worth every single day.

A solid online strategy can help you widen your reach and remind your community of all your great work. Here are a few simple guidelines that will help your nonprofit get started in social media in a meaningful way:

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

Even when you aren’t restricted to 140 characters, pretend you are. I know, I know, the context and history of the situation are vital to really understanding your issues—and that’s why you can link to a report describing that in detail. But most people are just going to read the headline, so keep it short, sweet, and compelling.

Numbers are particularly helpful when you are trying to convey a big idea in a short post. For instance, take this tweet from the Red Cross of Northwest Ohio:

It doesn’t explain the water crisis in Toledo, but it does give a clear example of how the organization is helping the residents of northwest Ohio. And that tweet was, in turn, shared by the national account, further widening the reach of the message about a major story.

Plus, now that you can preview photos on Twitter, you can also get more information across in a quick glance. Pew Research, which publishes extensive reports with lots of data and footnotes, does a good job of using infographics in its tweets to entice followers to learn more. It also connects research done in the past to current events to appear timely and relevant.

Open Your Doors

You and your colleagues have experiences every day that keep you at your nonprofit, and it has nothing to do with your paycheck. Don’t be afraid to use that in your social media.

What inspires you? Is it a client telling you that you changed his or her life? An article that illustrates why your issues are so important? Let your audience get to know what makes you tick, and your passion is sure to attract followers.

For instance, the NY Abortion Access Fund regularly retweets its volunteers, talking about what a wonderful experience the organization had working with them. The nonprofit’s tweets also give followers a sense of what it’s like to interact with clients and clinics every day:

If you are concerned about sharing information that could put the people you serve in an awkward situation, shift your focus to donors or the community. For example, Food Bank for NYC posts beautiful pictures of donated produce:

It’s Called “Social” Media for a Reason

Social media is a conversation, not a lecture. Ask questions, create polls, respond to comments, and thank people for sharing your information. Participate in even larger-scale conversations by using hashtags or responding to breaking news.

Think about it: You would never have an event and let your guests leave without thanking them for attending. Well, social media is a party without the red wine stains, and everyone is your guest. Engage them!

Although not a nonprofit, Hamburger Helper does a fantastic job with this. Besides being a pretty wonderful and witty account in general, if people on the internet are talking about Hamburger Helper, this account is retweeting them and thanking them for sharing their love for an easy, cheap meal.

I know that every nonprofit is understaffed and under-resourced, but social media is an essential tool for communicating with your clients, donors, and stakeholders. It’s worth investing the time and effort into establishing a strong presence to interact with your audience. Don’t pass up the opportunity pass to share what you do the world!

Photo of hands courtesy of Shutterstock.