News and analysis
February 20, 2011

How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media to Spark Change

courtesy of invisible children

Invisible Children, which uses video along with social networks to advocate for kids in East Africa, has seen President Obama sign a law aligned with its cause.

As the world has discovered through the grass-roots revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia —driven in part by messages on Twitter and Facebook—online social media can be powerful tools for spurring social change. And increasingly, both fledgling nonprofits and long-established charities are taking up those tools in issue advocacy.

The trick, say nonprofit advocacy experts, is to pair virtual campaigns with flesh-and-blood action. “I don’t think broad change is likely to happen exclusively online,” says Chris Sarette, director of business operations at Invisible Children, a charity started in 2004 by young filmmakers to raise awareness about the plight of young people in war-torn East Africa.

The charity has used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and its own video-rich Web site to organize hundreds of student rallies across America to oppose the use of child soldiers in northern Uganda. In 2009 the San Diego group’s protest outside Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios, in Chicago, covered on Twitter by protestors, became one of the top-10 Twitter topics of that day and resulted in a very visible guest spot for Invisible Children on Ms. Winfrey’s talk show.

Last May, when President Obama signed a bill that is expected to reduce child soldiering, leaders of Invisible Children were invited to the White House for the signing.

“An astounding 97 percent of nonprofits are using social media, far surpassing even the business world,” says Nora Ganim Barnes, co-author of a study released last year by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research.

The embrace of such embryonic media (Facebook started in 2004, Twitter in 2006) has led to an era of creative experimentation, says Jamie Henn, communications director for the environmental activist group, in Oakland, Calif.

And, he says, such experiments are seeing results. Last fall, through digital organizing on its Web and Facebook sites, his group mobilized people in all but three countries around the world to work on climate change in their own communities. In 7,347 places, people planted trees, installed solar panels and wind turbines, weatherized buildings, and planted urban gardens.

“Social media provides a place where people can share the work they are doing in the real world and gain a sense of momentum and community by seeing similar stories from around the planet,” Mr. Henn says. “It meant a lot for a group of friends in Las Cruces, N.M., after putting up a solar panel on a homeless shelter, to see a story about a group from Johannesburg, South Africa, doing the same thing. People get drawn into the Web site and see these amazing things others are doing, and they figure they can go out and do them as well.”

Using social media to spur activism is such a new approach that many groups are still learning what works and what doesn’t.

Following are some tips from people who have run successful social-media campaigns:

Don’t broadcast. Too many traditional organizations blast their message or demands for action rather than building conversations first, says Beth Kanter, a social-media consultant who works with nonprofit clients. Such charities tell followers to sign petitions or attend rallies when they should be encouraging conversation. Save the calls for action until later, she says. First “get them on a ladder of engagement.”

Organizations use an array of approaches to earn the trust of their supporters and to build relationships. The Humane Society of the United States, in Washington, responds to every question and comment on its Facebook fan page—which is no small chore, considering it has more than 500,000 fans.

“Those interactions foster connections where people will take action on our behalf,” says Carie Lewis, director of emerging media, who heads a five-person social-media team at the organization.

Think visually. Most nonprofits still send out e-mail blasts or reports that are mostly text, says Mr. Henn. “By using images and video, we have been able to convey stories with emotional impact in a very different way,” he says.

At the Boston advocacy group Corporate Accountability International, says Leslie Samuelrich, chief of staff, adding more photos of activists to the organization’s online communications with its supporters “has resulted in more activists forwarding them to their friends, which increases the likelihood that those friends will become interested and join our network.”

Be selective. Don’t bombard supporters with posts (once daily is probably sufficient, say experts). And don’t post items on Facebook that aren’t interesting, that don’t relate to an advocacy action, or that don’t suit the demographics of an organization’s fans, says Ms. Lewis.

She notes that the fund-raising department of her organization, the Humane Society, wanted her to post items in an auction that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

“The large majority of our fans are in the 18- to 30-year-old range,” she says. “That wasn’t a good match for the demographics of Facebook.” Paying attention to demographics is easy with the measurement tools available on Facebook, she says.

Get help in providing content. Eva Brune, who oversees social-media strategy at the nonprofit Los Angeles Universal Preschool, says her group is just starting with online activism, and it has already had successes by reaching out to volunteers and like-minded organizations. When the state proposed budget cuts last spring that would cause trouble for preschool programs that serve low-income students, the nonprofit organization, which gives financial support to more than 300 preschools, decided to use social networks to mobilize parents to write letters to legislators. No one else, she says, was providing parents with the level of information about the cuts that would affect their preschools, or offering them suggestions on steps they could take to oppose the cutbacks.

When Ms. Brune’s organization would post information on Facebook, it found that some of the best ideas for solutions came in posts from stay-at-home moms who were budding social activists. They have provided much of the content the group spreads through social networks.

Some parents traveled to the state capital to argue against preschool cuts. Another started a companion Facebook page for the preschool’s activist parents, and the organization links to it regularly. The group has connected with nine other California nonprofits that have child-welfare missions, and they now push out one another’s messages.

“I would consider the ties we have with these other nine organizations to be strong ties,” Ms. Brune says. “And there’s strength in numbers.”

Integrate social media. Don’t just do a Facebook advocacy campaign. Use an array of social-media outlets and the group’s Web site—and link them together, says Ryan Marsh, president of the Layla Grace Children’s Cancer Research Foundation, in Cypress, Tex. Many nonprofits haven’t realized how powerful these tools are when they are linked, he says.

Don’t delegate a campaign to an intern. Daniel Teweles, vice president for business development and marketing at the Personal Democracy Forum, in New York, a blogging Web site that hosts an annual forum on using new media for social advocacy, has worked with nonprofits around the country. He says to take care in choosing the person who will oversee a charity’s social media.

“Traditionally, a lot of nonprofits put college students or interns in charge,” he says. “But running a social-media campaign to activate people requires strategic skills.” Other experts say a marketing director is a good choice to oversee social-media efforts, because such work often means protecting the charity’s brand.

Measure everything, but have a goal from the start. Many nonprofit organizations need to get better at measuring effectiveness, says Ms. Barnes, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Marketing Research.

Google Analytics is one tool to help gauge results from social media, she notes, but there are others out there, and every campaign should be measured to determine effectiveness. But such results are meaningless without having a goal for the campaign from the beginning, Ms. Barnes says. Many charities have rushed into social media without having a strategy, but they need one, she says: “The weaknesses are at the beginning and the end.”