Tweeting For A Better World

You’ve got to get out there, or so nonprofits are told. “There” is the world of social media: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the ever-expanding array of web-based and mobile technologies that can turn communication into an interactive dialogue.

But in the rush to go social, many nonprofits are failing to think through their strategy, define their target audience, match online tactics to real world goals or consider how they might measure success and learn from failure. Too many organizations end up validating the observation of YouTube guru Chris Pirillo that, “Twitter is a great place to tell the world what you’re thinking before you’ve had a chance to think about it.”

As Misiek Piskorski, an associate professor at Harvard University, recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review, private sector companies perform poorly in social media when they merely broadcast commercial messages or seek customer feedback. Real returns come from devising social strategies that help people create or enhance relationships.

Therefore, the great opportunity for nonprofits in the social media world is deeper engagement with their audience, their community. What can such an engaged community do for you? Recruit new allies, strengthen allegiance among existing ones, raise money, spread the message — all of which, done right, can lower the cost of outreach. The payoff can be powerful.

Recognizing the need to build the social media capacity of nonprofits, the Rita Allen Foundation began a pilot project last spring with The Bridgespan Group to help six smaller-sized nonprofit grantees plan effective social media strategies. Several key elements that any organization needs to get right if it wants to use social media effectively were identified. Among the most important lessons, especially for smaller nonprofits just getting started in social media, are:

• Link Tweets To Targets: Your social media goals should not only support organizational goals, such as fundraising or collaboration, but also play to social media’s strengths: encouraging authentic interaction through conversation with the audience.

Consider the example of Educators 4 Excellence (E4E), an organization founded and run entirely by teachers, which seeks to provide an independent voice for educators in advocating for policies that support student achievement. E4E is explicitly working to “build a movement,” something to which social media ought to be well suited. It chose two social media goals that support its overall organizational goal: (1) increasing membership, and (2) activating and engaging members. One of E4E’s signature activities is holding events at which educators can listen to speakers and talk with fellow educators about issues that affect them and their students. It seemed only natural, then, that social media could serve to extend and expand these peer-to-peer discussions about education reform into the online world. But it turned out that the candor that was possible in face-to-face groups was much harder to achieve online, where anyone could be listening in. E4E has refocused on using Facebook and Twitter to build attendance at its in-person meetings, and to keep people engaged between meetings.

• Define Who And What: Are you are seeking to engage your entire set of stakeholders (volunteers, donors, program participants, alumni, the targets of your advocacy work) or a subset of these? And what do you want this community to do to achieve your social media goal? Green City Force (GCF), a service corps in New York City that prepares young people from low-income backgrounds for sustainable careers, defined its social media audience as alumni, and its long-term social media goal as outreach that increases the number of alumni who get post-program support.

GCF began the social media planning project thinking that what it needed was a Facebook presence to stay connected to alumni corps members. In the course of interviewing and surveying alumni, it soon realized that to deliver on its commitment to the urban youth who had graduated from its program, and to measure longer-term outcomes, it needed a wider array of tactics, both online and “real world.” GCF will create individualized plans for alumni engagement, knowing that for many participants, though not for all, social media will be the best tool.

Other key elements of nonprofit social media strategy are:

• Deciding what to measure — both online metrics, such as how many people viewed your video or re-tweeted you, and real world ones, such as the number of people motivated to attend an event or help you raise money, and allocating resources to get the job done, with most social media tools already built, just waiting for you to use them, ongoing costs are largely driven by staff time.

Above all, social media work lends itself to experimentation and learning through doing. Experiment with different elements, have more posts that end with something that allows interaction than those that do not (e.g., a question to answer, a poll to take), and see what works and what doesn’t for your audience. Do your best to understand how people are reacting to these changes, not only online but in the real world. Anyone who wants to do social media well has to commit to one thing above all — listening. Not just at the outset, but all along the way. NPT

Elizabeth Good Christopherson is president and CEO of the Rita Allen Foundation. Sivan Nemovicher is a partner at The Bridgespan Group.