10 Characters Who Use 140 Characters

“Please Upstate NY can I please have more classic rock! #sarcasm”

“They might as well. RT @USATODAY: Roger Goodell says the NFL may eliminate extra points …”

You might think those Tweets are random grumblings from among the more than 500 million Twitter users. You’d be wrong. They’re a sampling of some Tweets by nonprofit CEOs. After all, any social media “guru” will tell you to show some personality on social media and not just rehash what your organization puts out. And it’s not just about the number of followers; the bottom line is about engagement.

Amy Sample Ward, executive director of the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) in Portland, Ore., finds that CEOs on Twitter tend to fall into three categories:

  • Those who started the organization and their account might be more of the organization’s voice than the nonprofit’s specific account;
  • Those who feel obligated to have an account in their name but staff are using it for further exposure for general organization content; and,
  • Those who had an account prior to serving in their role or being at that organization and have a following based on their “personal brand.”

“In all those cases, the same is still true that it is about engagement and content and not about pure follower stats,” Ward said. “I always stand by the advice that it doesn’t matter how many followers you have if you aren’t engaged with them,” she said.

Farra Trompeter, vice president of Big Duck, a communications consulting firm in Brooklyn, N.Y., uses Twitter’s Lists function to keep a tally of nonprofit CEOs on the social network through her list “social EDs.” Instead of focusing on the number of followers, she asks the following questions:

  • Does the user have a customized profile, with a picture, bio and background?
  • Is the person interested in conversation and not just broadcasting? Is there close to a 1:1 ratio of followers/following? Are there mentions of other users in their tweets?
  • Does the person do their own tweeting and sound authentic or do they talk in the third person and sound robotic?
  • Is the person using Twitter well by employing shortened URLs and hashtags?

There are Twitter accounts that can be a bit of a snooze, merely parroting the organization’s Twitter feed or sharing inspirational quotes as a matter of routine. It helps to show some personality on social media. Among the most common themes present in the Twitter streams of the following 10 nonprofit executives is authenticity. As hard as it might be for some CEOs to believe, people might follow you on Twitter for the same reason they follow a celebrity — a peek into your personal, everyday life.

If it were all about the numbers it would be difficult to leave Livestrong’s Doug Ulman off any list of nonprofit CEOs who Tweet. And while he is a good example of Tweeting from the C-Suite, here are a few others, including some who might be flying under your radar.


Mark Horvath

Invisible People

@hardlynormal: Just a hardly normal guy trying to navigate through an abnormal world by helping others. Media Consultant. Founder @invisiblepeople

  • Tweets:     102,863
  • Following:  1,212
  • Followers:  20,953

If Ulman is the chairman of the board of nonprofit CEOs on Twitter (approaching 1.1 million followers as of early 2014), then Mark Horvath is vice chair. The one-man operation behind Invisible People has surpassed 100,000 tweets and recently was approaching 105,000. No nonprofit CEO will catch up to him for a long time.

Over five years, that is more than 20,500 Tweets annually, an average of 56 per day or three per waking hour (if you sleep six hours a night).

“Being an ex-drug addict and still addicted to coffee probably helps,” quipped Horvath. “Having that ADD personality seems to be a character trait for successful people on social media.”

For Horvath, Twitter is just like talking to his friends throughout the day, sometimes a stream of consciousness take on what’s happening and to where he’s off.

The charity last year reported about $50,000 in total revenue but Invisible People is all about awareness, not direct service. It’s a storytelling organization that aims to inspire people to take action against homelessness. “Really, what I’m doing is creating content to get people to start talking,” said Horvath, who founded the organization in 2008.

“Not everyone is going to go to Skid Row but they can live vicariously through me,” he said, in real-time on Twitter and later on other social networks, whether its a video posted to YouTube or photos to Tumblr, Instagram or Facebook. “Content marketing – which really is the only thing that works anymore, that actually creates authenticity – has replaced production value,” said Horvath.

Invisible People’s Twitter feed is 100 percent about homelessness and not as frequent as Horvath’s personal feed, with a few blasts daily.

To Horvath, 52, there’s no separation between online and offline. “That’s how young people do it, too,” he said. His Twitter handle is an old stage name from when he made his living playing drums and the accompanying avatar is his second-favorite drummer: Animal from The Muppets.

The Binghamton, N.Y., native is based more or less out of Los Angeles, Calif., but travels regularly for speaking engagements or social media consulting. The one-time homeless, ex-drug addict has done a youth road trip from L.A. to Washington, D.C., thanks to Virgin Mobile and was asked by the Canadian government to do a 24-city tour.

Horvath works with brands like Hanes, to give away socks to the homeless, and Ford Motor Co., which aggregated his content for two years on its website.

“I said I’d never Tweet. I thought it was stupid,” Horvath said. “Then I was the first cause to ever speak at Twitter. Never say never.”

That’s what Horvath stresses to nonprofits: be real and be honest. Share the good, bad and ugly and you’ll develop a real following of supporters. “I don’t think everyone should tweet but if you’re a CEO, it can augment and amplify the voice of your mission,” he said.


Paul Rieckhoff


@PaulRieckhoff: “Social Entrepreneur, Veterans Advocate, Music Lover, Writer, Football Evangelist, Observer of Things. @IAVA Founder & CEO. Fighting to make a difference daily.”

  • Tweets:     30,786
  • Followers:  19, 739
  • Following:  7,710

If you never met Paul Rieckhoff, you could still know a bit about him just scrolling through his Twitter feed. Or his Instagram account. Or his FourSquare account. He’s a big football fan, particularly the Giants, lives in the East Village of New York City, spent New Year’s Eve in New Mexico and knows his way around hashtags (#CeilingsOfSantaFe).

But you’ll also see plenty of Tweets from the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) interacting with veterans, providing updates on meetings with Veterans Administration officials, or advocating a petition or specific legislation that relates to vets.

“As CEO, what it can really do is stay connected to your members or your customers. I know, in real time, what IAVA members know is an issue. That is huge,” Rieckhoff said. “It helps me make better strategic decisions,” he said.

“Sometimes a powerful, a ridiculous conversation is happening without you,” he added.

“Especially for our mission, social media is not an add-on, it’s the lifeblood to our community. Our average member is 27 years old. They don’t get mail at the post office,” he said, but Facebook and Instagram are part of their daily behavior.

“For me, social media is as essential to my generation as the mail or the phone was to previous generations,” Rieckhoff said. “Around here (IAVA), I’m old,” the 39-year-old said. “My age group is in a real unique position. We’re a translation generation,” he said. It is responsible for communicating with a generation that has grown up with the Internet and social media but also another that might still be learning it.

Rieckhoff’s advice to fellow CEOs who have yet to take the plunge on Twitter is simple: “Get on it. It sounds basic but it’s like saying how should you ride a bike? Get on it and use it. Understand it yourself as a user, and do not farm out to an intern or PR person.”

And for any consumer of news, Twitter is a great news feed and a place to share experiences – like elections, sports, disasters – which is becoming rarer. “Everything else, people are watching taped,” he said.


Jarrett Barrios

American Red Cross of Massachusetts

@JarrettBarrios: CEO at @redcrossMA. Words & language, foods & appetites, democracy & rights: the passions. Tuitero de WEPA y gozar. RTs not endorsements.

  • Tweets:     3,500
  • Followers:  4,430
  • Following:  3,438

There’s no shortage of innocuous and/or nonsensical content on Twitter but during a breaking news event, it has the potential to be a lifeline of information. Barrios was less than a mile from completing the Boston Marathon last year when two bombs went off near the finish line. At one point he was able to Tweet: “Well, I finished 25.8 miles of #BostonMarathon2013 but am safe and well. If you were there pls tell others you are safe too!” In the weeks that followed he shared photos and Tweets about Red Cross efforts and community gatherings and services regarding the bombings.

A former state legislator, Barrios shares plenty of Red Cross-related links and photos, highlighting and thanking volunteers. And it wouldn’t be social media without being social. Last fall, he engaged in some good-natured trash talk with colleagues at the St. Louis Red Cross when the Cardinals and Red Sox faced off in the World Series.

And if you’re not connected with Barrios on LinkedIn, the professional social network, you can keep an eye on his recent move: this month he takes over as CEO of the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region.


Robert Egger

The L.A. Kitchen

@RobertEgger: Founder of @DCCK. President of @CForwardUS. Now opening @TheLAKitchen to further reveal the power of food, community and nonprofits. No Waste!! Opinions are mine”

  • Tweets:     9,395
  • Followers:  1,105
  • Following:  6,580

If you’ve ever spoken with Robert Egger you know it can be hard to keep up. The same can be said for his schedule. You can find him Tweeting from his speaking engagements all over the nation, pressing nonprofits to educate those running for public office about the economic impact of the sector or reminding charities about the voice they have in the process. He moved to the West Coast last year to bring the concept of the DC Central Kitchen, which he founded 25 years ago, west to start The LA Kitchen, which opens this year.


Paul Schmitz

Public Allies

@PaulSchmitz1: CEO of Public Allies, and author of Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up

  • Tweets:     4,213
  • Followers:  1,069
  • Following:  1,949

Those in the Milwaukee area will find some relevance on Schmitz’s feed, whether sharing information about inclement weather closings or a local singer-songwriter. For policy wonks in any region of the U.S., Schmitz offers information and analysis on most anything related to national and community service, as well as issues related to young nonprofit leaders. Then there’s the occasional share of a Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert video to lighten things up, or a Tweet about what he’s reading lately that’s not work related (such as a 1994 biography of Lou Reed).


Jacqueline Novogratz


@jnovogratz: Founder/CEO of Acumen (@acumen), dedicated to changing the way the world tackles poverty/author of The Blue Sweater (thebluesweater.com)

  • Tweets            3,386
  • Followers         464,540
  • Following         421

It’s not always about the number of followers but it sure can’t hurt if you have a half-million of them. The queen of social entrepreneurship shares some Acumen-related Tweets with a fair number of stories on business, current events, the occasional inspirational quote and her globe trotting, including a recent trip to the Mumbai half-marathon.


Winnie Byanyima

Oxfam International

@Winnie_Byanyima: Executive Director of Oxfam International. Passionate about justice & human dignity. Opinions are my own.

  • Tweets            8,058
  • Followers         337
  • Following         19,182

Some CEOs hand off their Twitter activity to a press office or outsource it somewhere — and sometimes that can be ob­vious. As the organization’s head of media put it, Byanyima is master of her own Tweets. “She’s able to put her own views and emphasis on Oxfam’s work, in a mix with her own personal life. It’s a real strength to have such an engaged boss running her own social media show.”


Diana Sieger

Grand Rapids Community Foundation

@drsieg: Foundation President, entire career in nonprofit mgt and philanthropy

  • Tweets:     5,162
  • Followers:  1,355
  • Following:  779

Some recent Tweets included a link to a first-person guest column in a local business journal and sharing a colleague’s blog post about choosing a fundraising campaign chairman. Then there’s some not-so-serious stuff about “making the best Bolognese on this planet” with a shout-out to celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian and weighing in on a question to the audience from the “Suze Orman Show.” There’s also plenty of thanks and praise to other Twitter users that differentiates the individual account from that of her organization (@GRCommFund).


Alisa Harris Kesten

The Volunteer Center

@AlisaKesten: ED of The Volunteer Center. Living Volunteerism 20/7 (gotta zzzz). Westchester & Mid Hudson Valley. Proud resident of New Rochelle. Not Russian rock band.

  • Tweets            5,603
  • Following         1,859
  • Followers         1,303

While some nonprofit CEOs have dormant accounts, or worse, merely regurgitate their organization’s stream, a quick look at her feed will reveal that Kersten is pretty familiar with Twitter, employing hashtags frequently and not being shy about incorporating usernames.

It must be working since Kesten has more followers (1,305) than her organization (738). But, who’s counting?

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Kesten gave a heads-up that she’d be visiting as many Volunteer Center MLK Day projects as possible, with reports and photos, and didn’t disappoint, with almost a dozen photos and Tweets.


Jay Ruderman

Ruderman Family Foundation

@JayRuderman: President of @RudermanFdn-We believe that inclusion & understanding of people with disabilities is essential to a fair & flourishing Jewish community.

If you’re looking for someone to follow who’s new to Twitter, Ruderman is your man. He only started Tweeting last year and in a recent blog post for Grant Craft shared his thoughts on the experiment and where it’s heading.

“There has been a definite increase in the number of conversations, retweets and mentions,” he wrote, noting that the number of followers is not a measure he’s using for success either.

“People ask me why I tweet — especially those who think Twitter is where people post about their morning coffee! I see Twitter as an integral tool to furthering our mission,” he wrote. Among the positives are being able to showcase work done by partners and grantees, connecting with players and influences in the field and having “a finger on the pulse” of the latest news and trends, which can help in becoming a smarter funder.  NPT