Nonprofit CEOs Who Tweet

March 14, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

Doug Ulman hiked four miles after a 3½-hour drive from Amman, Jordan, to get to Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Seeing that his Blackberry had a full service, the president and CEO of the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF) took photos and Tweeted about his trip to the 3,000-year-old city this past May. “It was one of the most amazing sites I’ve ever seen,” Ulman said.

The Jordan trip is a good example of nonprofit executives who Tweet on Twitter, the microblogging social network. The foundation announced that the King of Jordan had made a commitment to build a major cancer and biotech center just outside of Amman but Ulman’s account via Twitter was personal and in real-time.

“It creates a whole new level of excitement and involvement,” he said. A decade ago, the organization would write something for a monthly or quarterly newsletter and it would be old news by the time supporters received it. “That’s what’s so powerful about it,” Ulman said. He isn’t the only chief executive who stays in touch via social networks and mobile technology. Supporters are coming to expect more access to an organization’s executive suite so many bosses are Tweeting or posting to other social media.

LAF’s Twitter account, @livestrong, handles most responses to people with cancer, information about specific initiatives of the foundation, but they all cross over, said Ulman, who usually uses ÜberTwitter from his Blackberry to post messages. There are times when he’ll post information similar to the LAF’s Twitter, but tries to mix in some personal things. “You don’t want to just come across as selling all the time,” he said. “It’s sort of daily chatter about what you’re doing,” he said. “People who come across 100 percent corporate are not going to be successful, they want to see the human, personal side.”

He started using Twitter this past December at the suggestion of his marketing staff. Ulman admits he was “entirely skeptical” and never even had the time to invest in creating a page on other social networks such as Facebook or MySpace.

Ulman thought it was strange at first, even having LAF board members telling him, politely, that they really didn’t care if he was going to the gym or having dinner at a particular time. “It’s a lot of information. I wasn’t used to it,” he said. It took a few months, until he had about 1,000 followers, that he started to see the impact. “But there are still times when I think it’s strange. It’s a lot of transparency,” he said.

By mid-August, Ulman ranked No. 221 on Twitterholic with almost 500,000 followers. That put him just ahead of actor Hugh Jackman and reality television stars Paris Hilton and Khloe Kardashian, according to Twitterholic, which tracks the growth of followers and ranks them. He also was following almost 40,000 users. As for his massive number of followers, it helps that Ulman was added to Twitter’s list of recommended users to follow earlier this year, as new users were flocking to the site.

“It’s less about the number and more about how many people are engaged,” Ulman said. “I’m learning more and more how to engage with people and use Twitter,” he added. He travels so often that Twitter offers an opportunity in real time “to describe the scale to people of what we’re doing, how much is going on. For an organization leading a grassroots movement to give real-time updates has been awesome,” said Ulman, who Tweeted about his August interview for this story during the interview.

What the executive director can do, more than any other person, is position the organization as a thought leader, according to Holly Ross, executive director of the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) in Portland, Ore. An executive can highlight news articles and commentary about their subjects, as well as “offer their own opinions, in a way that strengthens the image of the organization as central to the cause,” she said, while providing a personal face to the organization, along with other staffers.

Ross suggests examining some criteria before your CEO or executive director goes off Tweeting:

* The audience you want to reach has to be on Twitter;

* There has to be a compelling reason for the executive to be tweeting, as opposed to the organization’s Twitter account; how would the executive’s Twitter complement the organization account?; and,

* You have to be OK with the executive director or CEO having that strong a voice. “Not all nonprofits are OK with that culturally,” said Ross.

Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of New York City-based Acumen Fund, started Tweeting early this year as more of an experiment after being intrigued by it as a social media platform. She travels a great deal talking about her book, The Blue Sweater, and Twitter allows her to keep in touch with a larger community in real time.

“For me it’s been terrific because I can go through periods where I’m in a different city every day,” Novogratz said. She users Twitter to “test ideas and put ideas into the world, whether it’s an article or an idea, seeing what gets traction and what people respond to.”

While Acumen Fund and other staff have their own accounts, Novogratz Tweets when something strikes her about “human dignity, poverty, using market approaches, extraordinary leadership.” Sometimes that’s one day, other times it can be three to four times a week, but she doesn’t spend more than a few minutes.

Interconnectedness among people is where she sees the value in Twitter. “When I’m talking about the book in Minneapolis and people from high school and business school, and people who know and care about Acumen are there because they’ve seen it,” she said.

Ulman believes social media outlets have changed the nonprofit world forever. It used to be about how many members you have or how many names are in your database. He said, “that’s becoming obsolete.” LAF has three million people in its database but it doesn’t tell you how highly engaged they are, he said. “It sounds like a great number, but on Facebook and Twitter, you can tell immediately how many people are engaging,” Ulman said.

He gave an example of Lance Armstrong posting a photo to his Twitter account. Within 24 hours, it was viewed by 130,000 people. “I’d rather that connection with highly engaged people than three million people you have to mail or pay to send a newsletter. “Twitter offers an instant, efficient connection,” he said, though he’s already thinking about what the next trendy application might be.

Jessica Lawrence, CEO of the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council (GSSGC) in Redlands, Calif., doesn’t have nearly as many followers as Ulman but she is immersed in social media.

With almost 300 followers, she uses Twitter to talk about Girl Scouts, share insights and resources, and connect with others in the nonprofit and for-profit world. “I really see myself as my own brand,” she said, using the communication as a voice for the organization but also as a voice for her.

Lawrence Tweets about the business and management side of things while the organization Tweets about programs, news within Girl Scouts locally and nationally, and communicating directly with volunteers and staff. The council’s interactive marketing manager handles the organization’s Twitter, MySpace and Facebook accounts.

“I might re-Tweet from my personal account but talk more about the inner workings of our business,” she said, sharing resources about social media and nonprofits or directing followers to a new blog post.

Lawrence estimates she spends about 10 hours a week between Twitter and her blogs. “It’s definitely difficult to keep up maintaining all those different things when you’re working with other job responsibilities,” she said. But when you engage more in the social media world, you get more back. “It’s a pretty proportional relationship with how much you put in,” she said.

Lawrence suggested that nonprofit executives, or even organizations, only get engaged in the social media world if they intend to do it with some level of frequency. “Don’t look like you’ve come on and then disappeared,” she said, pointing to a typically high level of abandonment for blogs. She also warns potential Twitterers to be careful about what they post. “It’s not a dumping ground for what’s in your brain at the time, it’s a very strategic tool,” Lawrence said, likening the social media landscape to a billboard.

“You have to have somewhat of a filter on it,” she said, and be comfortable about posting things that could be seen by your mother, your boss, volunteers and board members. She suggests pausing to check your message and ensure “anything you’re putting out there is going to represent your organization well,” she said.