When I started my blog in 2003, only a handful of nonprofit techies were experimenting with the social media. As Marnie Webb from TechSoup Global recalls, “The throw away line was social media wasn’t for organizations but people who wanted to share what their cats ate for breakfast.”
Six years later, the landscape has changed. Organizations are flocking to the social web, although most in the last two years. Non-profit organizations that have embraced social media with a “listen, fail informatively, and evolve approach” are seeing results.
Social media is beginning to transform non-profits both in the way they work as well as their relationships with constituents.
1. Deepening relationships and Engagement
Over the past five years, The March of Dimes has used social media to nurture its online community, Share Your Story. It is one of the better examples of how non-profits can use social media to empower supporters without having to control it.
A few weeks ago, the March of Dimes supporters came out in droves for a networked memorial service for a toddler named Maddie. The community raised tens of thousands of dollars for the March of Dimes in Maddie’s memory as well as covering the funeral costs for the family. The organization did little to stage this event. The March of Dimes has embraced openness and inspired their stakeholders to feel empowered enough to take action on their own.
2. Individuals & small groups are self-organizing around non-profit causes
Social media is enabling individuals to create, join, and grow groups around issues they care about outside of the direct control of a non-profit. Whether flash activists or fundraising events like Twestival, activities like these are on the rise.
Social software design is also helping accelerate this trend. Look no further than the Facebook Causes Birthday application that encourages an individual who is a member of a Cause to use their birthday as an excuse to raise money for a non-profit organization. DonorsChoose recently launched a similar feature called “Birthday Give Back,” with Stephen Colbert leading the charge. And keep an eye out for more social apps with a conscience that will offer even more creative ways for supporters to self-organize and take action around causes.
As non-profits begin to engage their own communities in these online conversations, they are able to reach more people than ever before, and using less effort doing so. As Maddie Grant, a partner at SocialFish, observes, “We can all be change agents and that has to be good for the entire non-profit industry, as long as organizations adapt to this new way of being part of a two-way conversation and groundswell of social responsibility.
3. Facilitating collaboration and crowdsourcing
The social web lets people who work in non-profit organizations connect and collaborate informally across institutional boundaries quickly and inexpensively. Non-profit organizations are also collaborating with their supporters by crowdsourcing ideas, feedback, and content for programs.
Lights, Camera Action, Help Film Festival, which was created to promote the idea of films-for-a-cause, was a collaboration that happened across different non-profits by individuals connecting on the social web.
Another example is WeAreMedia, a wiki project where over 100 non-profit technology professionals have pooled knowledge resources and developed training materials to help non-profits learn how to use social media effectively. The initial content was facilitated through discussions on blogs, Twitter(), and Facebook(). Now, presentations are being remixed and delivered as trainings to non-profits at conferences and workshops across the country.
An interesting example of crowdsourcing by a nonprofit comes from Michael Tilson Thomas, artistic director of the San Francisco Symphony with the recent performance of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. The performers were selected from thousands of video auditions from around the globe. The finalists were winnowed down by a jury of professional musicians, not unlike a traditional audition, but the winners were crowdsourced by YouTube() users via online voting. The resulting “mashed up” symphony orchestra, had more than 90 players representing over 30 countries.
4. Social change behind the firewall
We know that for many non-profits, adopting social media requires a culture shift before it can be successful. And, while that is certainly true for a lot of organizations, a number have been effective in introducing social media to help change the culture, flatten hierarchical structures, speed decision-making, improve programs and services.
The American Red Cross has been an early adopter of social media, beginning with listening strategies in 2006. According to Social Media Strategist Wendy Harman the intent was to “prevent people from saying nasty things about the Red Cross on the Web.” As they discovered in their organizational listening efforts, there were some vocal critics, but most mentions were enthusiastic and supportive of the Red Cross.
Harman has documented many different stories and shared these internally. Through listening the organization has come to view social media listening as a valuable market research channel and has even changed some social media skeptics to supporters.
Danielle Brigidia, who is responsible for social media strategy for National Wild Life Federation, says “Internally, we have started to focus on cross-promoting our ideas and programs more thanks to social media tools like Yammer (internal Twitter).” Carrie Lewis, social networking strategist for the Humane Society of the US, observes how their Internet is now working differently. “We have daily 9 minute meetings. Short meetings have helped them be more efficient and effective with every aspect of social media campaigns.”
We’re just at the beginning of seeing how social media is impacting how non-profits engage with their supporters and do their work. As more and more non-profits adopt social media and their practice improves over time, we will no doubt see a transformation of the non-profit sector.