Tweeting Raising Awareness But Not Direct Dollars

October 1, 2010       Mark Hrywna      

Only 3 percent of all Tweets by a sample of nonprofits were dedicated to fundraising or solicitation. Nonprofits are more likely to use social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to raise awareness, reach out to constituents and promote their events and activities, according to a recent study.

Approximately 44 percent of Tweets are for creating awareness while the next highest portions, 18 percent, are for promotion and press, and reaching out, 15 percent. Only 3 percent of Tweets were dedicated to fundraising of some sort, according to the research by a Rutgers University graduate student.

The percentage of Tweets used for promotion and press ranges higher, to about 47 percent, for nonprofits categorized as arts and humanities. "The results seem fitting given the fact that the nature of the organizations chosen within the arts/humanities sectors is to have events that raise money and promote awareness for their causes."

Organizations within healthcare communicated the most about what was specifically happening within their organizations.

The education subsector engaged in the most reciprocity with stakeholders, with 38 percent replying by Tweet.

Whitney Oppito this past spring completed her master of communication and information studies, with a concentration in organizational communication and social media, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. She interned last year at Women’s Campaign International, a small nonprofit in University City, Philadelphia. Oppito said the organization was in the midst of experimenting with social networks, raising her curiosity about how charities use them.

A total of 309 Tweets were coded, ranging from awareness, soliciting funds, promotions/press and taking action to reaching out, reply, conversation starters and miscellaneous.

The study examined 24 of the largest organizations in the country, classifying them into six subcategories: arts and humanities, education, healthcare, human services, public/society benefit and religion. A random number selector was used to choose four from each subcategory to comprise the final 24. Some 13 Tweets from each of the 24 charities were selected to be examined and coded, with one Tweet chosen for every month from April 2009 to April 2010.

She developed a plan for her graduate paper, "Engaging stakeholders via social media: What are nonprofit organizations communicating through Twitter?"

Oppito posed two primary questions in her research:

* What do nonprofit organizations communicate to their stakeholders via Twitter?

* When communicating via Twitter, are there variations in their message content between different nonprofit sectors?

"Our main objective with Twitter is to distribute messages and to engage and educate people who are following us to support our mission," said Mary Havel, director of public relations for the national office of American Lung Association (ALA) in Washington, D.C. "We’re not really using it as a platform to solicit donations," she said.

The majority of messages that are "Retweeted" by followers are related to air quality and lung health issues, according to Havell. "The majority of our outreach is really to educate and engage people. Hopefully that will ultimately cultivate people to become supporters and make donations rather than just using Twitter as a direct donation," she said.

ALA promotes its Christmas Seals campaign through Twitter, encouraging people to get involved, but it doesn’t involve a direct link to how people can donate, Havel said.

ALA can measure how many people are linking from different parts of its Web site through specific URLs on a Tweet, and can attribute whether people come to an event that was promoted online through Twitter or Facebook, according to Havell.

Local ALA affiliates follow similar strategies as the local office, pushing out policy positions but also promoting their own local issues or events, she said. Affiliates use Twitter and Facebook "as a tool to have more people attend their events," Havell said. As of Sept. 1, the ALA’s Twitter handle, @LungAssociation, had 3,581 followers, and was following 1,241 users.

Havell handles Twitter responsibilities at ALA headquarters but a handful of staff have access to the account and can send messages. "We try to make it a comprehensive communications tool," she said, often checking with various departments to send appropriate or timely messages about advocacy or education efforts.

New York City-based Girls Incorporated started using Twitter in April as part of its integrated social media strategy, according to Alexander Kopelman, director of marketing and communications at Girls.

"What we’re trying to do is to start a continuum of engagement for people," he said. "Usually, our constituency gets very excited aboutÉour work and wants to be involved and engaged in some way."

The nonprofit aims to make Twitter, and social media in general, "a place where people can share with us and each other what they’re seeing and thinking about," Kopelman said. That could lead to deeper engagement with the organization, whether that means subscribing to a newsletter, participating in the Facebook Causes page, donating online, he said, or even joining a larger conversation about the future for girls in the U.S. and their needs and strengths.

"It’s really building that bridge for folks that gives them the choice of how they become part of our community," Kopelman said.

Girl Inc. uses Twitter to share information or news coverage about something that a girl might be doing, or to share information about is own projects. For instance, the organization recently Tweeted a link to promote a video package on its Web site about a corporate campaign it has for entrepreneurs. Girls who participated in the program discussed their experience, in addition to engaging video from professionals and small business owners involved, according to Cheryl Messer, manager, media relations and constituent marketing at Girls Inc. "That package lives in our site, and it’s a nice way to hear directly from girls about a program that impacted girls directly," she said.

During natural disasters, The Salvation Army uses Twitter and Facebook to help raise funds or drive traffic to appropriate donation pages. Local chapters, as in the case of the Philadelphia chapter, also often use Twitter to let supporters know where red kettles might be located during the holiday season.

"We see all that as a way to get our message out É something that might be going on that might not make the mainstream media," said Jennifer Byrd, director of publications at The Salvation Army, headquartered in Alexandria, Va. That might include driving traffic to an interesting blog post on the Salvation Army site or directing visitors to their Facebook page, which gained more than 4,000 fans during response efforts to the Haiti earthquake in January, she said.

The organization has one person who handles social media, though she wasn’t hired specifically for that, Byrd said. "Frankly it has kind of bled into what everybody does, including our communication staff. It’s so pervasive we are really all engaged," she said.

"By its very nature, social media is inexpensive and easily accessible, two central factors that explain why many nonprofits actively familiarizing themselves with social media as a strategic communication platform," Oppito wrote in her paper. NPT