Everybody seems to be doing it.

Facebook has 400 million members (well, last time I checked).

Twitter is growing like dandelions, and YouTube is now the second most popular search engine. Flickr has created a social network around images. LinkedIn is gaining popularity in Canada as a networking site for professionals. Ning has become the platform for building standalone social networks, and of course there is the WordPress and Blogger platforms to build your blog on. Then there is digg, StumbleUpon, Feedburner, and on and on.

Makes you dizzy.

So many tools, but what to do with them?

It’s kind of like when I go to HomeDepot and meander through the tools section. So many tools to do so many things and I have no skills in virtually all of them, much less the talent to envision something I might want to build.

The difference is that I can get by without being one of those do-it-yourselfers, but I am not sure if nonprofit organizations can get by without social media.  I am not suggesting all nonprofits have to use social media much, if at all; but I am suggesting many of them do. Maybe yours is one of them.

You can continue reading the entire posting or download it as a whitepaper by clicking the cover image above or clicking HERE.


So how do you decide? Well, here are some things to think about.

First off, the idea that if you build it they will come is a recipe for disappointment, not to mention a waste of resources. But worse than that, if you launch social media too soon and fail, it will sour your taste for doing it again later.

While you can find a lot of knowledgeable people out there writing about the steps to doing social media, the important first step I suggest is to figure out why you might want to do the social media thing.

Actually there is a preface to the first step: set aside your resource worries about this whole thing.  I realize you have to face the resource challenge, but you might be better served if you grapple with the “how on earth will we do this” question after you have answered the “why on earth should we do it” question.

Okay, so why should you do it?

Actually, that’s not really the right question.  In reality, social media is likely already happening with respect to your organization, especially if you are an organization of size. Many of your staff and volunteers are active on social media sites; some of them might be blogging. It is not uncommon for people to talk about their work and their causes on Facebook or Twitter. I don’t mean just your staff and volunteers either.

There is a growing number of people out there who are taking up causes on their own even though they have no formal ties to an organization. Social Media pundit, Beth Kanter, calls these folks free-agents, but more about them later.

I mention this up front because one of the common resistors to social media is that you lose control when you engage in social media work.

My point here is two-fold: first many non-profits have already lost control because people are talking about them already (in whatever ways they choose to). Second,  the success of social media depends on the extent to which you can create conversations with supporters which means social media is about giving up control. In that context, giving up control is a strategy, not a reason why to avoid social media. So, the better question is:

Why should we join the social conversations about our cause
and add shape and value to them?

T o answer this question involves undertaking a number of related, if not concurrent activities. Here’s the list:

  1. Figure out what social conversations are currently taking place about your cause and/or your organization and in doing so identify where these conversations are happening and between whom. See if you can discern who the social conversation leaders are.
  2. Assess the extent to which you believe you can add value to the conversations but also capitalize on the exchanges in order to advance your mission.
  3. Develop an understanding about how the main social media applications work – their functions, how they interconnect
    (because they do), and how their structures
    and functions might offer you communication
    and engagement opportunities.

This last point above is about understanding how the applications work from a strategic point of view, which you can do without knowing how to build a blog or a Facebook page. This is important because often knowing how something works opens our eyes to what we could do with that tool.

At this stage, don’t get too caught up in the big numbers game. Facebook may have 400 million users but that’s a big so what if your focus is local or even neighbourhood-based. The key to social media work is to engage people who want to be engaged in your work; it’s symbiotic.

What’s different about social media?
Social Media has changed, and will continue to change, how people form and engage in relationships. It impacts how people communicate within and across “platforms”.  More specifically, while social media allows for one-to-one communication (I can direct message someone on Facebook), it also allows for one-to-many communications and many-to-many.

Consider the following.

Email may be ubiquitous, but it is a fairly limited communications tool, and not much of an engagement tool.  Yes, you can send an email to one person or to many, and to some extent you can even achieve many-to-many scenarios. In the following diagram, David Wilcox is differentiating between email marketing and social media, but his view of the former is also how emails work in general.


You send an email out to a person or group of persons.  Sometimes they share your email with others you did not originally send it to. Sometimes you get a response. It’s primarily two-way. Also when people share emails with others, they rarely change the original email. They just forward a copy.

Social media messaging is more complex and organic. I can post something on my Facebook wall that, depending on how I have set my privacy settings, will be there for everyone to see.  People can comment on my posting and those comments are there for everyone to see as well.  People who are really interested in what I shared may very well post a message about it on their wall. Since they have different “friends” than I do, they will now see it, too, except most likely my original message has been modified or expanded.  And so on and so on.

This happens on Twitter too. While my “tweets” are visible to those who follow me, followers can rebroadcast my message (called a “re-tweet”) and instantly all of their followers get the message. If I used hash tags (i.e. categories or themes we can tag our tweets with) or am a member of a list, my tweets will appear in that category/theme or list as well.

The viral nature of social media is huge. Email can’t come close to having that kind of spread.

Think of the diagram above without equating it to social media technology. Think of it as the kind of buzz and engagement you want, for example, from your supporters. No doubt you would like people to tell other people about your organization, your services, your next fundraising event, or your need for more volunteers.  Social media is a means to help you achieve that.

Communications versus Social Media
Actually the “versus” makes it sound like a competition. In reality, social media has the potential to take your communications efforts to a whole new level or dimension. Where the “versus” makes sense is when trying to understand the different philosophies and values between the two; they are rather significant and perhaps you will find them somewhat provocative.

In a slide show on social media, Beth Kanter referenced the work of Neil Perkin. I have adapted it for this presentation.

Traditional communications begins with you creating the message, controlling how it is distributed, repeating it over and over (a static message) through your website, brochures, emails, PSAs, whatever. Generally the purpose is to elevate your brand to the kinds of associations you have predetermined to be the desired associations.

Social media is communication to be sure, but also about engagement. It’s dynamic and more unpredictable.  The buzz created about your brand is no longer under your control.  Those doing the buzzing are commenting on your brand, interpreting it, judging it, and promoting it. Not only that, they are talking about you (having social conversations) in ways you might not, altering the message for context or effect (and yes, their bias), and if your social media efforts are successful, they are influencing and involving others in your cause. Actually, they are playing an instrumental role in shifting the your cause mindset to our cause. As Beth Kanter says somewhere on her blog, “Your supporters are the message.”

Again, I want to stress, this kind of interchange and connectivity among people is precisely what you want, isn’t it? It’s not new thinking at all; what is new or different is that we once believed we could control that happening even though down deep we knew – and know – we can’t.

It’s a cultural shift
Giving up control is not a norm in many organizational cultures. You don’t have to give it up willy-nilly. You can help lead and frame the social conversations through your social media presence on the web. Social media policy is important to; it helps your staff in particular understand the do’s and don’ts of social conversations and the tools you use.

A big part of the cultural shift involves developing a refreshed view of how your organization fits into a community that is linked together through an abundance of networks. Instead of “them” becoming a part of “us,” you are becoming a part of them.

This happens organically but also you can apply the same strategic thinking that you put into traditional communications.

For example, who is your audience and what are you wanting to accomplish with that audience?  With social media, you have more capacity to do that. It is just messier sometimes and riskier.

One strategy is to enlist or be receptive to “free agents.” Again, referencing Beth Kanter (you should check out her blog and consider buying her book):

Free agents are powerful social change players.   A free agent…is a person (many times a GenY, but not always) who is a passionate about a social cause, but is working outside of a nonprofit organization to organize, mobilize, raise money, and engage with others.   Free agents are also fluent in social media and take advantage of the social media toolset to do everything organizations have always done, but outside of institutional walls.

Being open to free agents is one thing, but pursuing relationships with them represents even more of a cultural shift because we are not accustomed to placing ourselves in the hands of others like that.

Consider this example from, a blog written by a 29 year old named Shawn.  At a conference about how non-profits could and should use social media, he stood up and said this:

I have over a quarter million followers on Twitter, 10,800 subscribers on YouTube, and 2.1 million views. Yet, despite that, I have a hard time having you guys take me seriously”.


He accused non-profits of being fortresses that keep people out, even people like him with the network and know-how to help them. He cited the example of how he approached the Red Cross offering to help with their cause to raise money for the victims of the Haiti disaster, but was turned away. Actually in his own words:

“When the Haiti earthquake struck, I contacted the Red Cross. I offered to connect the community supporting my work with your efforts in Haiti. But I was dismissed as ‘just a guy on YouTube’”.

Sure, we don’t know the “whole” story, but imagine what a person with a network of nearly 11,000 on Twitter and a substantial YouTube following might be able to do for your cause.

Executive leadership – it’s up to you
Social media is as transformative as back when your organization decided to put up a website and in the years since how your web presence has become part and parcel of your strategic thinking.  Understanding how social media works and why your organization might engage in it should not, I suggest, be simply delegated to your communications department or worse, your techie to figure out.

Social media presents opportunities to transform your organization as well as engage in relationships with people that we could never do before.  This is about your mission in community and perhaps beyond.

Social media offers up new opportunities to not only engage people in your work but also the web tools that exist today challenge us with new ways to deliver services, influence decision-makers, and raise money.

Becoming strategically acclimated to social media will involve your time and perhaps a bit of struggle, but before you let someone put up your Facebook page, blog, or Twitter account, you may very well want to – and this is irony I know – control the process of giving up control.

How do you do that?

Sure, I can say hire a consultant to help you that knows strategy and social media, but if you can’t afford that investment, there are other avenues.

Read a book – like Beth’s. Get on Facebook as an individual and see how it works or sit with one of your younger staff and follow their online exploits and ask lots of questions.  Find out who the social media leaders are out there and see if some of them will come and help you understand things.  After all, isn’t this the type of networking and investigation you would do if launching a new service?

There are sites you can go to that might help too. I have hyperlinked some of them earlier on but here is a good list to start with:

Beth Kanter’s blog
Social Media Tools
Mashable (search for social media)
I also put up a site for “beginners” called the Big Change

There’s tons of other sources, but this is a good beginning. The next piece I am going to write about is how social media can help raise money. Stay tuned.

-Mark Holmgren
June 2010

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