The “selfie” is a worldwide phenomenon that was selected as the 2013 word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary. Normally it’s a celebrity posting virally some buffoonery or other. How many drunken self-portraits of Justin Bieber are needed before the Internet crashes?

The NonProfit Times took its first foray into the world of selfies this past January, inviting nonprofit employees to take pictures of themselves and/or their co-workers performing their mission. Five nonprofits were selected by The NonProfit Times for doing something that at the time seemed unlikely: Taking the naturally self-serving concept of the online selfie phenomenon and using it to bring attention to a cause.

The five finalists were: Kimberly Johnson of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF), Mary Kaye Mackulin of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Erin Snow of Heifer International, Monique Presley of Education Connection, and Ashley Grabb of Everybody Eats. The photos the contestant submitted were put up for a vote to NPT readers and the rest of the Internet.

Johnson was the eventual winner, as a selfie of patient Jillian Goodwin, a 22-year old living with cystic fibrosis, resonated with visitors.

Far from being downtrodden knowing that she has such a life-threatening disease, the selfie shows Goodwin smiling in her hospital bed. While she was glad that so many people voted for the selfie, Johnson said the best reaction she got from people were the actual comments about the picture.

“People were very moved by the picture,” said Johnson. “I got a lot of comments from people who said how nice it was to see a CF patient in good spirits.”

What also impressed people was that aside from being a student, Goodwin is an active volunteer at her local CFF chapter in Virginia and sits on the organization’s board of directors. “The one thing about CF is it is a really lonely disease so she has met people all across the country who also have CF and who know who she is,” explained Johnson.

Grabb’s photo for Everybody Eats received a lot of reaction for bringing light to the issue of local farming. Grabb, a student at the University of Illinois who is volunteering at Everybody Eats for a MSW in social work, is shown in her photo doing work on a local farm in Niwot, Colo., where the organization is based.

The organization is the sister program of the Farmer Cultivation Center, and teaches people how to farm on a local level. “I felt I was literally getting my hands dirty doing this work. I’m literally on the farm and connecting with the farm,” Grabb said of the idea behind her selfie.

“I can’t promote a lifestyle and an idea to someone if I don’t do it myself and what it takes,” she added.

If her intention was to promote awareness of the mission of Everybody Eats, Grabb’s selfie certainly succeeded, as she said she received emails from people who were interested in what she was doing and how they could get involved. “A lot of people were excited about [the selfie],” she said. “It’s one thing to hear someone talking about something but another to actually show it.”

The runner-up selfie in the contest was from Mackulin, who is a three-year volunteer at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PCAN) in Cleveland, Ohio. Her picture depicts her at one of the organization’s annual walks — called a Purple Stride — in Washington, D.C., holding a picture of her fiancé who had died from pancreatic cancer. It was this event that had first inspired her to make fighting the disease the cause of her life.

“When my fiancé was diagnosed, he was not overweight and was very healthy,” explained Mackulin, “When I started doing the research I was really angry because you realize this cancer has been left in the dark ages. There’s no real voice for this cancer.” She noted that years after the cancer was first discovered, there is still only a 6 percent survival rate for patients, a rate PCAN is trying to double by 2020.

In an effort to bring more attention to pancreatic cancer, Mackulin has embraced her role at Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, using the organization’s various social media channels to put a visual image to the fight against the disease. In this respect, Mackulin said selfies play an important role in PCAN’s social media activities.

“In everything that we share, on our Facebook page or our Twitter account, people are always encouraged to use a picture,” she said. “Pictures just get recognized so much more than words.”

Looking back on her selfie, Mackulin said she remembers being thrilled to be a part of what was then the largest Purple Stride in Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s history. “I was so excited to be in the nation’s capital for the Purple Stride,” Mackulin recalled. “It was really thrilling to be part of that energy.”

Given Mackulin’s work in social media (and her teenage daughter), she was already quite aware of selfies and how they worked, which ended up being a common theme among all the contestants. This was especially the case with Monique Presley, learning events coordinator at Education Connection, an organization based in Litchfield, Conn., that works to motivate, engage, and support the development of high school students with a focus on technologies. Of all the submitting organizations, Education Connection is the only one to have used selfies to promote their work.

“The whole selfie thing is kind of a joke in our office because there’s a few of us who take them all the time,” said Presley. She added that they are always looking to get their faces on Facebook and Twitter pages so that the human side of what they do is shown.

“We always keep an eye on trending hashtags for selfies, such as #ExtremeSelfies, so we can catch wave when it’s there,” she said.

Presley’s submission to The NonProfit Times exhibited that human side by showing their staff members holding iPads to their mouths that had pictures of food on them. “In our office, we live eat and breathe technology, which was the idea behind our picture,” explained Presley.

“I just wanted to do this to raise awareness about problems in education,” she continued. “It’s usually lower on the totem pole.”

Raising awareness for an issue seemed to be the common thread among the other contestants who submitted selfies to The NonProfit Times. Heifer International has been working with farmers for more than 70 years and the selfie sent helped encapsulate that mission. The picture showed a staff member in China, Tony, with a stuffed cow sitting on his shoulder. According to Erin Snow, who works as the organization’s global communications manager, the cow represented Heifer’s logo as well as symbolizing “one of the animals we work with and provide to families all over the world.”

While Heifer’s photo was in third place in the NPT selfie contest, it received a lot of play on social media. The photo garnered 426 Facebook likes, 32 shares, and countless retweets on Twitter.

Heifer’s Digital Communications Specialist Maegan Clark, who informed her colleagues about The NPT Selfie contest, believes that selfies have a chance to have a real impact in their field. She cited the rise of so-called “felfies” (farmer selfies), which show farmers posing with their animals, crops, or equipment on their farms.

“I think there’s a desire to connect with the people who make it their job to put food on our tables,” said Clark. “It’s so easy and immediate to connect with others through social media, and the selfie, or felfie, provides a face with the food.”

“I don’t see it going away,” said Johnson of selfies. “I think selfies are an easy way of expression that helps people understand what you are doing.”

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” she added.

Presley, meanwhile, sees selfies as a good way to connect with the younger generation. Arguing that organizations are doing themselves a disservice if they aren’t at least experimenting with different social media phenomenon, she said that selfies could potentially get those — including youth — who don’t have a personal connection to the cause to start donating time and money.

“You have to find a way to get people’s attention; there’s a limited amount of money out there for nonprofits,” she said.

Selfies have already gotten some play in the nonprofit sector before NPT’s contest. Danielle Brigida, senior manager of social strategy and integration at the National Wildlife Foundation (NWF), used selfies of animals to increase the organization’s presence on Instagram.

“I thought it would be really funny to use the photos of animals taken for our photo contest” and tag them as #wildlifeselfies, Brigida said. The results were great for Washington, D.C.-based NWF.

At the time Brigida announced #wildlifeselfies in June, NWF had 400 followers on Instagram. As of this writing, they have 2,744. They also received 1,800 likes of their photos during June 2013. On average, they receive about 200 likes on their photos.

“For the amount of time it takes to put it together it’s pretty high return,” said Brigida of posting selfies on Instagram, who noted that a search of #selfie on Instagram brings over 23 million photos.

As with every form of technology, there are guidelines that should be followed. NWF’s Brigida stressed that you can’t simply pull out a smartphone, snap a photo, and call it a day. There has to be planning, and, most importantly, it has to make sense. As an example of what a good “selfie for good” would look like, she gave the example of a nonprofit advocating for education asking that every kid who receives a scholarship take a selfie.

“The big thing nonprofits should be thinking about is how to interact in a meaningful way. It’s all about understanding these trends and figuring out if there is a match,” said Brigida.  NPT