March 22, 2016

A Decade In, Twitter Is the Real-Time Pulse of Nonprofit Advocacy

So Twitter is 10 years old.

But a decade after co-founder Jack Dorsey sent the first tweet, what does the nearly ubiquitous short-message social network mean for nonprofits, citizens’ movements, and philanthropy?

Here’s my view: In the billions of messages of fewer than 140 characters that have swirled through Twitter’s servers over the last decade, a distinct vein of social action, activism, and philanthropy has made it the beating, real-time pulse of the nonprofit world.

In short, it’s hard to imagine being active in the social sphere without Twitter. It’s the fastest news source on the planet. It distributes ideas and movements broadly. It’s mobile, easy to access and use, and very much a present-tense social-media service. And it’s as democratic a platform for causes as exists in our world.

Indeed, in my view Twitter is vital to the idea of democratic philanthropy, the notion that individual citizens can play as important a role in the public causes of our time as do moneyed philanthropists. On Twitter, it’s not who you know, it’s who you are, what you say, what you share, and how valuable your information is. Yes, Bill Gates will always have more followers than you do. But on Twitter, you’re in the conversation.

And yet there is a paradox to celebrating Twitter in the week of its 10th birthday. That’s because it is a public company with a market value of $11.7 billion and annual revenue of more than $2 billion. And precisely because of that status, Twitter faces a constant imperative to grow. Wall Street demands it. Having 320 million active monthly users is fine for now, but if that impressively large figure doesn’t trend higher next quarter, watch out for your stock price.

That stock has taken a huge hit as Twitter struggles to invent new revenue models. At times, as executives turn over and the company experiments with new algorithms, it’s seemed like something of a crisis.

All the while, Twitter’s vast social capital grows unmeasured. For every new feature, every new advertising innovation, its status as a central (and global) network for news increases, and users invest more of their time and intellectual capital in a vast conversation they want to be part of.

I joined Twitter in 2007, a year after its founding. I’ve shared almost 55,000 thoughts over that nine years and amassed more than 9,000 followers. In truth, I’m addicted to both the speed of Twitter as a news source and the large and widely distributed network that I’ve created (and that Twitter has created for me). I want to know what certain "follows" think every day. I keep up with philanthropy, politics, weather, and sports. And, quite frankly, my voice is heard — and the discussion commences.

In the aftermath of this week’s heinous terror bombings in Belgium — as with other major news events — Twitter was the first place I turned. Just as it is for news from the campaign trail and the Mets’ spring training camp.

But it’s also where social activism lives. It’s your front stoop, your front lawn, the lobby of your building — especially if you’re active in social causes and nonprofit work. It’s the place where we learned about movements from hashtags like these (and many others):






I was struck this week by the Black Lives Matter activist (and Baltimore mayoral candidate) DeRay Mckesson’s description in The New York Times of Twitter’s role in the movement: "Twitter was where the links were shared. It was where the images were shared. Literally, when people were told what was happening, it galvanized the nation."

That galvanizing effect should be part of every nonprofit’s communications plan. While networks like Facebook and LinkedIn rely heavily on your real-world social network, Twitter — because of its short messaging structure, speed, and mobility — creates a framework that allows you take advantage of its network of 300 million users.

If you’re a large nonprofit, great. You’ll be able to use your existing lists to reach a wider group. If you’re small, even better: You can punch well above your weight on Twitter and build a following that exceeds the proportional size of your staff.

Two aspects of Twitter that are clear for nonprofits after a decade:

  • Twitter is the perfect platform for nonprofits engaged in organizing and advocacy. The emphasis on speed and information creates a natural path to building a network for campaigns and public activism. It’s where causes live in real time.
  • Twitter is not a perfect platform for fundraising. Yes, it supports crowdfunded campaigns well — discrete goals, time limits, projects that need funding. It’s far more difficult to use Twitter for the meat and potatoes of nonprofit fundraising: annual campaigns, and major gifts. At best, it’s complementary.

Looking forward, the democratic aspect of Twitter (despite its corporate ownership) remains, to me, its most important value. As nonprofits struggle with a nondemocratic structure that places ever more power (including over public policy) in the hands of those with the cash and the endowments, Twitter is something of an antidote, as long as it remains generally free and mostly open.

And that will be the company’s crucial challenge over its second decade.

Tom Watson is president of CauseWired, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits, and a lecturer at Columbia University. He is a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.