September 15, 2009

Followers and Friends Not the Only Measure of Nonprofit Success Online

Is a celebrity-marketing expert right when he chides the nonprofit world for being “paralyzed by fear” when it comes to the use of social-media tools such as Twitter and Facebook?

Or did he fail to do his homework?

In his blog, Seth Godin, the marketing expert and author, takes the nonprofit world to task for failing “to show up in a big way” in these online networks.

As evidence, Mr. Godin points to the list of the top 100 Twitter users in terms of number of followers.

The list is largely dominated by celebrities, big entertainment and news-media companies, and a smattering of businesses.

“Where are the big charities, the urgent charities, the famous charities that face such timely needs and are in a hurry to make change?” Mr. Godin asks. “Very few of them have bothered to show up in a big way.”

He continues: “Please don’t tell me it’s about a lack of resources. The opportunities online are basically free, and if you don’t have a ton of volunteers happy to help you, then you’re not working on something important enough. The only reason not to turn this over to hordes of crowds eager to help you is that it means giving up total control and bureaucracy. Which is scary because it leads to change.”

But the nonprofit world is full of examples of nonprofit groups large and small that are creatively using social-media tools to promote change.

In fact, a recent study by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research shows nonprofit groups are actually well ahead of businesses in their use of social-media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.

What’s more, a growing number of groups are raising awareness, planning major events, and raising significant money through the use of social-media tools, The Chronicle has reported.

For example, the World Wildlife Fund, through a program called Earth Hour, inspired people in more than 4,000 cities to turn off their lights for one hour in March to raise awareness about climate change.

The event, which was organized almost exclusively through online social networks, started in one city — Sydney, Australia — in 2007. Andy Ridley, executive director of Earth Hour, says the effort has grown quickly because the organization has given control of its message to supporters, many of whom have created their own Twitter and Facebook pages to appeal to audiences in their home cities.

In addition, groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Emory University have been successful in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars online by giving through small donations collected through giving programs that were organized through Facebook. (You can see examples of six innovative online fund-raising campaigns in this video.)

What’s more, many large organizations have hired experts who work full time on developing a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other networks. Wendy Harman, social-media manager at the American Red Cross, and Danielle Brigida, the social-media-outreach coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation, discussed how they approach these tools in a recent Chronicle live discussion.

What do you think? Is Mr. Godin on target in his assessment — or are nonprofit groups effectively embracing these tools? Post a comment below to share your thoughts — and to point to other examples of nonprofit groups that are leading the online charge.

Click on the audio player below to hear leaders from Earth Hour and the Lance Armstrong Foundation discuss how they are using social-media tools to advance their causes.