The cover story on CharityVillage.com this week discusses non-profits, social media, and key strategies for a successful online presence. As more and more online users sign on to Twitter and other social networking websites, it's clear that nonprofits can not afford to ignore this growing trend. That is why ACCESS is actively utilizing the web 2.0. In the article below, ACCESS founder Daniel Francavilla is interviewed about the effects of social media for the non-profit organization.
Tweeting, not just for birds anymore
By Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf
After the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (CSGVP) for 2007 results were released recently, it is clear that an important area being watched is the burgeoning use of social networking applications on the Internet, and what they are doing to revolutionize both public and organizational involvement in the sector.
For experienced "netizens," terms like "tweeting," "facebooking," and "friending" are well-known. But to organizations unsure of how to "perch" themselves on the Internet's complex social networking high-wire, the terminology can be baffling. Harder still, is trying to make positive use of the rampant social networks' rapidly evolving culture.
But North American organizations are beginning to see the advantages of using social networking tools to get their messaging out to the public and raise awareness for their causes.
Consider the following U.S. stats, from the Pew Internet and American Life Project survey of more than 2,000 people, on who're using social networking:
- 75% - The number of online adults ages 18-24 who have a profile on a social networking site.
- 74% - The share of Internet users ages 64 and older who send and receive email - the most popular activity for this group.
- 27% - The number of bloggers who say they have used Twitter or a similar service to share status updates.
A similar Canadian survey of 1,019 people conducted by MSN and Harris/Decima in March revealed the following stats:
- 9 out of 10 Canadians maintain more than one online account.
- 8 out of 10 Canadians spend at least an hour a day on the Internet for personal reasons; of those, nearly half (45%) are spending three or more hours online.
- 1/3 of Canadians check their social networking profiles frequently throughout the day.
And it's expected these numbers will only rise.
Navigating the digital "ecosystem"
According to Evelyn So, president of Noesium Consulting Inc., which specializes in advising voluntary sector organizations on how to make the best use of the Internet in their operating strategies, the first concept charities need to come to grips with about social networking is that it takes more than just creating a profile to make it work for you.
"One of the main problems is that many companies, profits or nonprofits, do not differentiate 'social media' from 'social media tools,'" she says. "Tools are technology/platforms like Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Social media, on the other hand, is the whole ecosystem of how people communicate with each other. You cannot just say 'Let's get on Twitter' and consider that social media. In fact, this almost guarantees failure - you will be wasting your resources and efforts...worst case, such action can backfire."
But she says that the Canadian voluntary landscape is ripe for the use of this new technology for many reasons, but mainly because "The nonprofit sector...is community-driven, it taps into and is often very responsive to its target audience and most importantly...there is a clear mission. In addition, they are influential social changers who share these key attributes."
"Fundraising, volunteer gathering, and awareness campaigns [are] all about conveying messages to and connecting with people," So asserts. "And social networks are where people are nowadays and will continue to be. While charities cannot do everything virtually - face to face will always be a huge part of communication - social media allows nonprofits to tap into a large audience and the networks connected to this audience. They still need to target the right people, of course, but the process is made far more efficient via technology."
E-talking the e-talk
Unsurprisingly, many sector organizations have turned to sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Friendster and others as a fast and efficient way to connect with interested parties and gather a virtual membership, if not some actual volunteers.
In fact, one of the most influential organizations on the Canadian scene, Imagine Canada, has been intensively using social networking over the last two years.
During a recent interview, Marnie Grona, marketing and communications director with Imagine, told CharityVillage that to her social networking was "like word-of-mouth...on steroids."
Grona is the "dedicated" staffer for social networking at Imagine, which she says she enjoys immensely as she "has an aptitude" for it, even if it adds to her already full plate of responsibilities, she quips.
"One of the things [sector organizations] should do is to have somebody who takes ownership" of the social networking portfolio, she counsels. "You have to adjust your communications strategy for each [social network] channel, because each will have its own audience, who in turn will use and share information a little differently."
For Grona, the major benefit derived from tapping into the rapid-fire world of social networking is that it comes at virtually no direct financial cost.
"We're moving from the monologue to the dialogue."
Of course, it does take time to master and to integrate it with other communications channels for maximum effectiveness, Grona cautions. "But it's been a great way to get our message out there...to have conversations with people. Instead of a one-way monologue [of messaging], we can talk with people so they know what we do and what they think about us and what's going on in the sector. We're moving from the monologue to the dialogue."
This is probably an apt way to sum up the revolution happening in sector communication strategies across the nation. From small to large organizations, nonprofits are actually talking with - instead of talking at - the populace.
Not-so-broken social scene
Ontario-based charity, Allowing Children a Chance at Education [ACCESS], is one organization that has gone completely social.
Its president, Daniel Francavilla, was so keen to explain the benefits to CV, he jumped at the opportunity to comment for this story, by proactively contacting the author prior to deadline.
"As a relatively small youth-run organization, we recognize the countless advantages to having an active online presence. Event promotions can be done quickly and free of charge online, while being even more effective than putting up print posters in the community," he says. "Because ACCESS is made up of students, and because today's youth are nearly all online, social networking sites [along with] our blog and website, are the best possible ways to promote [ourselves]." Though Francavilla effusively praises this new technology, he admits there are still some areas that have yet to bear fruit.
"The success of social networking for nonprofits is also dependent upon the success and popularity of online giving. While awareness and memberships are very useful and encouraging, most organizations aim to gain financial support from their 'followers' in the end," he says.
Still, the relative online success of his organization is undeniable. According to his stats, ACCESS now has more than 1,200 fans on Facebook and another 650 on Twitter, the latter of which makes him optimistic for the future of social networking as a viable tool.
"Twitter has opened up our lines of communication to a whole new world of social activists, supporters, web specialists, and more in a very exciting way. Twitter has helped [us] to share news and to draw traffic to our website and blog...[and] has definitely been the best way to promote readership, gain subscribers, and recruit new content from other tweeters. We also promote our Facebook page and other profiles through tweets, and check out other organizations' links regularly."
Yet despite all this success, Francavilla also knows that there are big hurdles for a small organization such as his to overcome. Namely, that established, well-funded sector organizations maintain a competitive advantage and can sometimes "overshadow" others for attracting donor dollars and volunteers, because they can afford to spend on more lavish social network sites and page placements.
"Even though social networks like Twitter and Facebook are free of charge for all users, other individuals and larger organizations at both the for-profit and nonprofit levels do pay for advertising and promotion on social networks," he says. "You will notice this difference when you look at completely enhanced Facebook pages for corporations - such as TD Money Lounge for example- who also trying to reach the student market online."
The future's so bright, I gotta wear e-shades
Despite a potential imbalance between organizations that can and can't afford to spiffy up their online presence, the general sentiment by experts would seem to indicate that online dialoguing is only going to become more crucial for charities as time moves on.
According to So, Canadians are a nation of "passionate social changers" who constantly adapt to new technologies. However, she cautions that while "the potential of social media is totally undeniable...it is the thinking, planning, execution, and maintenance that a company needs to get in place first," in order for it to be successfully executed as a communications strategy.
"I always advise companies to start with someone who can provide a solid strategy, an understanding of the social media space, followed by a social media plan...which includes who, what, when, and how tactics," So says. "Consider this like building a park then having a team of staff to maintain and grow it. The exact scope will depend on the specific endeavour. If, say, Facebook is the only tool that is suitable based on the strategy, you may only need one person. But if you are building a more complex web [presence] with Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc., you will need dedicated staff to (a) oversee the ecosystem and (b) manage and upkeep each platform. Also, don't forget that offline activities are also part of this ecosystem."
Grona suggests that organizations keep an eye out for more studies on the topic in the next year, so they can better acclimatize to the new online social order.
But as a last bit of parting advice, she advises nonprofits not to get caught up in the numbers game of social networking stats.
"It takes a while to build that [critical] mass of followers and fans," she says. "[Imagine] has been on Twitter for about seven months and I remember the day we climbed over the 1,000 followers mark, I was amazed. But while it's easy to get caught up with the numbers, it's not the amount of followers, but the quality of the conversations you're having with them that counts the most. So for social marketing, it's quality not quantity."
Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is president of WordLaunch professional writing services in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The original article, "Tweeting, not just for birds anymore" can be found at CharityVillage.com.
ACCESS: Allowing Children a Chance at Education, Inc. is a youth-run organization aiming to provide needy children in the developing world with school uniforms and necessary school supplies, enabling them with the opportunity to obtain an education for a successful life. ACCESS also aims to educate North American youth about related world issues, and to inspire them to make a difference globally. ACCESS has been fundraising since March 2006.
Educate. Empower. Inspire.