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Is Social Media Right for Your Organization?

June 2012

Last month, an anonymous reader asked this question in response to "Who's in Charge of Communications These Days?"

The article confirms what I already knew: my all volunteer group is going to whither on the vine because we have no staff at all. I am 56, not of the social media generation and have to choose between my existing duties (running our small cat rescue) I can't be monitoring 4 different social media sites, blogging & doing what I need. WHAT ARE WE TO DO?

"Wow," we thought, "great question." And then we turned around and posed it to the article's author and four other nonprofit social media leaders. Here's what they said.

What Do You Think?

Share your thoughts on the Trust Blog.

Sarah Durham, Principal and Founder, Big Duck—and Author of the Article That Inspired the Question

Biting off what your organization can realistically chew is, of course, the key. Your programmatic work must come first. Don't try to do more than you can handle.

With an accessible mission like cat rescue, recruiting a digital media "native" (e.g., someone who uses social media fluently already) who can help with your online communications is quite possible. Organizations like the Humane Society have built thriving activist communities online, populated by young animal lovers; you only need to connect with one of them! Take a look at their Facebook presence to get a sense of how they do it: https://www.facebook.com/hsiglobal. Consider recruiting a volunteer who'd like to help differently, by coordinating your social media. It might be someone with a job or studies that prevent them doing the more hands-on work your current volunteers do, but who still cares passionately about cats. Preferably, you'd find a "digital native" in your area who already spends time online who could easily take on your communications and work with you (via phone, meetings, in person, etc.) to get the content they need and facilitate dialogue. If it's not easy to imagine where you'd find this person, try posting something on idealist.org, at your local community centers or gyms, or even asking someone who works at a local shelter as their "day job" if they'll take it on. While it'd be preferable to have your social media volunteer be local and familiar with your community, it's also possible they don't have to be. As long as they can communicate well with you (phone/e-mail, etc.), they could be just about anywhere.

Lastly, don't feel you have to do it all. I'd recommend you start simply, probably with just Facebook. You might find your donations and adoptions go up when you start to connect with the broader online community.

Kivi Leroux Miller, President, Nonprofit Marketing Guide.com

Can you set aside 30 minutes a day for your communications? Or 15? Rather than getting frustrated by not being able to do it all, start small and take kitten-size steps in the right direction. If you tell yourself, "We are going to get up and running on Facebook by the end of the month," and then you spend 15 mins a day on it, four weeks later, you'll have a decent Facebook page. Better yet, recruit a volunteer who DOES like social media, or interviewing families about recent adoptions and writing up the stories so you can put them on a blog or in an e-mail newsletter, to show that you are a successful organization. But in that case, you have to be willing to empower the communications volunteer to move forward without you micromanaging the process.

Katya Andresen, COO and Chief Strategy Officer, Network for Good, and Author, Katya's Non-Profit Marketing Blog

You know what your reader needs? Idealware's guide that was written exactly to answer that question for overwhelmed people like our 56-year-old friend. I'd recommend it highly.

I have five pieces of advice from the guide:

  1. IT TAKES TIME. If you want some success from using a social media channel, count on spending at least two hours a week on it.
  2. TWITTER IS A SPECIALIZED STREAM. Twitter skews older and more tech-savvy than other popular social media. It's an interesting way to reach media, partners, and skilled volunteers—but you have to post consistently, because people dip in and out of the stream of Tweets and won't see most of what you say.
  3. SUCCESSFUL BLOGS TAKE TIME. You need a person or people passionate about posting and four to eight hours a week (or more!).
  4. DON'T WORRY ABOUT GOOGLE+ YET. It's too early.
  5. MEASUREMENT MATTERS. Keep track of views, followers, engagement, and conversion. And your own time!

Brian Reich, Founder and Managing Director, little m media

Social media is just another set of tools—a collection of sites, apps, platforms, and programs that reflect the changing nature of how we interact as people, online and offline. But the hype and expectation for how it will impact the ways we address serious issues, thus far, has far exceeded its results. We have learned a tremendous amount about how people interact, what they want, and how they will behave. But we have also dumped tremendous energy into using social media, often at the expense of other, more important, improvements.

My recommendation for you: stop using social media.

The fear of being left behind or overlooked that has always existed has become more acute, and more obvious. And as the motivation to address that fear has grown stronger, our ability to prioritize and focus our efforts to address serious issues has become diluted. More important than anything else is for you to accomplish your goals as an organization. To fulfill your mission. To connect with and serve your audience's interests well. If you fail to do that, you will fail as an organization.

When thinking about the role of social media and technology might play in your organization, remember that the core experience of what you offer is what differentiates your organization from everything else. In your case, with limited resources and comfort using these platforms, your best option is likely to be to focus on offline opportunities. If you find yourself with more time or support, then you can look to find ways to use the tools to expand and evolve that experience. Look at social media as a way to share an experience with a larger universe, or to deepen your connection to the people who are already interested in your work. But don't do that until you are ready, or at the expense of the quality of the work you are already doing.

Being successful has always been about delivering a valuable experience offline as much as anything else, and that will never change.

GuideStar's Own Lindsay Nichols, Communications Director

All of us in the social media sphere have felt your pain in one way or another. Just recently I heard about Instagram and thought, "I have to get GuideStar on here!" Then I took a step back, which is what I propose you do. In some ways, you can almost feel bullied by social media, but don’t be afraid to say no! Perspective is what it's all about. The bottom line is this: You don't have to do any kind of social media, but if you want to, it can reap rewards for your organization—and it can even be fun! Here's another way of thinking about it: Are the people who support your cat rescue using social media? If so, it might be a good idea to give it a go.

If you do decide to give social media a try, I've suggested some work-arounds for the resource issue in the Trust Blog.

Lindsay J.K. Nichols

Lindsay Nichols

Thanks to the experts who generously shared their insights—and to the reader who asked the question. We hope this advice helps.

Suzanne E. Coffman and Lindsay J.K. Nichols, June 2012
© 2012, GuideStar USA, Inc.

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's editorial director and editor of the GuideStar Newsletter. Lindsay Nichols is GuideStar's communications director, in which capacity she coordinates, advocates for, advances, and inspires GuideStar's social media presence. And, if that weren’t enough to make her ideal to contribute to this article, she’s also the mother of two rescued cats.