Not-for-Profit and Cause-Focused Grass Roots Social Media

By Gail Z. Martin

Not-for-profit and cause-focused groups of all sizes are discovering that social media opens up opportunities to expand their donor and volunteer base while also engaging and educating the community and prospective clients about their services and outcomes.

We've seen the dramatic stories about microfundraising on Twitter after tsunamis or natural disasters, and bigger projects on GoFundMe or other crowdfunding sites. If you've been on Twitter, Pinterest or Facebook any length of time, you've probably seen pictures of cute, adoptable dogs and cats from rescue organizations and shelters all over the country.

These are just a few of the ways cause-centric organizations are reaching out successfully, and it's time your group got on board.

Social media is a natural outreach for cause-centric organizations because it's where the people are. Direct mail is expensive, and while it can still be effective, printing, postage and handling costs can be daunting. Many modern donors look askance at 'free' calendars received through the mail or slick, heart-tugging direct mail letters, because they know the costs of engaging a direct mail copywriter and producing giveaways eat away at any donated funds. Likewise, savvy donors are suspicious of telephone fundraisers, either because of security concerns about not sharing credit card information over the phone, or because they know the costs will be deducted from donations.

On the other hand, social media feels more real and personal. While there may be paid staff creating and posting the stories, pictures and videos on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the costs aren't as glaring as with direct mail and telemarketing.

More importantly, social media creates a level of engagement and connection that can't be duplicated offline. And while older donors may still be receptive to mail and phone, a younger generation is likely to be less so.

People in their twenties and thirties may not be making major financial gifts, but socially conscious young adults are ideal volunteers, and organizations that get them in the habit of giving now are likely to create a life-long donor relationship. Overwhelmingly, this demographic doesn't use landline phones (making them more difficult to reach by telemarketers) and prefer email to postal mail. But they are on social media daily, and what they see and what friends recommend influences behavior.

Social media is also an effective way to reach the over-40 demographic, as more and more adults engage online at all ages. Recognize that a growing majority of all but the very youngest and very oldest people are active on one or more social media platform, providing you with new opportunities to connect and engage.

Whether you're a long-established organization or a new, small group, branding should be a major part of your social media presence. Young adults may not automatically recognize your organization's name and mission, even if it has been around for a century. Or they may have a vague—and outdated or incorrect—notion of what you do that falls far short of your current mission, leading to missed opportunities for support. Older potential donors and volunteers may be stuck in the past when it comes to thinking of your organization, not realizing that your mission and scope of services may have broadened or shifted dramatically over time. People who don't know what you do can't be passionate about your cause, and without passion, it's much more difficult to engage people as donors, supporters and volunteers.

Credibility is another issue to address for today's audiences, who have become wary with online scams and news stories recounting the actions of unscrupulous charities. Expect potential donors and volunteers to check you out on sites like Charity Navigator with an eye toward how funds are used. Savvy donors know to ask how much of the funds raised actually go to client services (as opposed to marketing and administrative costs), another reason why slick direct mail or telemarketing can raise a red flag.

Your outreach on social media needs to tell a compelling story about the need and your organization's response. To engage potential donors, volunteers and supporters, you need to awaken a passion to solve a problem. You'll also need to engage the heart (action, passion) as well as the head (credibility, awareness). Fortunately, social media's multi-media capability makes it easier than ever to use photos, videos, audio and short vignettes to capture attention, educate and make an emotional connection.

Social media also enables cause-centric organizations to expand their influence through the viral nature of online content. Unlike direct mail, social media enables your target audience to share content they find meaningful, so you gain access to each person's fans, friends and followers.

That can increase your reach exponentially, with the additional benefit that forwarded/shared content carries extra credibility because it is being passed on by a trusted source, a personal connection.

Now that you know how social media can extend your organization's reach and deepen its relationship with donors and volunteers, let's look at ways to use individual platforms.

LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter

Use LinkedIn for the business side of charity. Stay connected with your board members, donors, corporate sponsors and volunteers, and realize that when you engage them about your organization, you are also engaging their personal networks of contacts as well. Craft your outcome stories with an eye toward enticing corporate sponsors and encouraging corporate volunteerism.

Use photos, video and short text stories to make your mission and results real. Share metrics, and talk about how your work not only benefits the recipients of your services, but also the community as a whole.

Realize that while the business audience on LinkedIn may appreciate heartwarming stories, posts that emphasize return on investment for time and donations are likely to be more effective in wooing new partners and keeping existing partners engaged.

LinkedIn is also a great place to thank your corporate sponsors, donors and volunteers. You can't thank people enough in a public forum. Gush. Use photos and video to make it personal. Thank organizations and individuals. Every thank-you post not only builds goodwill, but it also showcases the 'who's who' that is involved with your organization, which may prompt others in their circle to want to join the action. Creating share-worthy posts means your corporate colleagues are promoting your organization to their circles of influence, which is a form of endorsement.

Do a little detective work on LinkedIn and see who your donors, sponsors and volunteers are connected to. Doing so makes it very easy to ask for a warm introduction, either in person or online, to others who are likely to be demographically perfect for your organization. Identify a wish list of people you'd like to approach and who might be best to make the ask. Be on the lookout for 'superstars'—high profile or high net worth individuals and/or celebrities who are connected to your sponsors, donors and volunteers.

Leveraging a personal connection to someone with a massive public platform can create huge PR benefits for your organization. Celebrities are overwhelmed with requests from strangers, but may be very open to getting involved with your organization if asked by a family friend, old college roommate or cousin.

When you're in the midst of responding to a crisis, don't forget to post urgent needs for cash, goods, services, volunteers, in-kind donations, trucks, equipment, specialized skills, etc. on LinkedIn. The business audience on this site can make things happen with a phone call, and may be very willing to step in to help on a local, regional or national/international level. Resources that seem huge to your organization may be a minimal expense (and a deductible one at that) for a large organization.

I witnessed first-hand the lengths that a large department store chain went to after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita to locate their displaced employees and help out with privately-marshalled truckloads of essential food and supplies that got into stricken areas faster than most other aid organizations. Combine the desire to be a good corporate citizen with personal or organizational ties to a region in addition to the benefits of positive PR and you may find that your LinkedIn connections can move mountains in an emergency.

Facebook and Twitter connect you to the general public, including non-corporate volunteers. Both sites can be powerful in helping you tell your story to a large number of people with the use of compelling video, photos and short-but-heartfelt text. While outcomes and results still matter, the people you'll reach on these sites will respond to emotion and stories about the impact on individuals, families and communities. Warm and fuzzy counts for a lot in winning hearts and getting likes/shares. Tug at the heartstrings in appeals for help or stories about happy endings facilitated by your organization.

Stories are the source of your social media success. They're effective when you share them, but they are even more when they're captured on video featuring the real people whose lives are better because of what your organization does, and the volunteers who help make that happen. Encourage your clients and volunteers to share their experiences, and reward them by thanking them and sharing their content. Do casual interviews/profiles of your volunteers and the community organizers who help bring people together. When they post, and share, you reach their friends and followers with the power of a personal endorsement.

Use Facebook and Twitter to share in-the-moment urgent needs that can be met by regular people—canned food, winter coats, bottled water, supplies for disaster areas, homes for shelter pets, and the need for emergency helpers with special skills like doctors, nurses, EMTs, utility workers, construction professionals, truck drivers, etc. When individuals rally their friends, family and community to the cause, encourage them to document with photos and video—a situation where selfies are awesome! Thank them publicly and profusely, utilizing photos and video as well as text.

Excerpted from The Essential Media Marketing Handbook.