Revised with new information: August 5, 2011

Nonprofit Organizations, NGOs & Online Social Networking:
Advice and Commentary

Your reaction to reading the words online social networking (OSN) for the first time is probably, isn't that just another description of the Internet? And you would be right: the Internet has always been a place to exchange ideas and to create networks and communities that can defy traditional community structures and hierarchies, and to show how we are all connected to different people. This techie buzz phrase online social networking or Web 2.0 is meant to describe new web-based online communities meant to encourage members to socialize with each other online and have their friends and colleagues publicly listed. These platforms are Friend-of-a-Friend networks: when you join, you note who else on the network is your "friend" or associate, and others are able to see these associations. These platforms are also set up for members to frequently update each other ("I'm queuing for the concert" or "I'm being thrown off the airplane" or "I'm listening to a boring speech" or whatever). Many users find OSN sites easy-to-use as "one stop" shops, since so many tools are all in one place: to chat live with other members, to share music and photos, to know which friends have updated information, etc. OSN platforms also feel exclusive and special, qualities that people under 30 find particularly appealing.

Some of the most popular OSN sites worldwide are FaceBook, Twitter, Orkut (most popular online social networking site in Brazil, among some other places) and Bebo. There are also professional online networks that use online social networking features, such as LinkedIn (my personal favorite) and Plaxo, and issues-focused online networks, such as And there are sites that we don't know what they will be yet: at the time of this update, the new player is Google+, and the jury is still out on if it will be a major player or not. Wikipedia hosts a relatively comprehensive list of online networking platforms; however, note that this list doesn't distinguish between social networking sites and professional networking sites, as I do.

For someone who remembers the criticisms of America Online, which had exactly the same exclusive appeal for many people in its early days, these social networking platforms can seem exclusionary and limited. By contrast, you don't have to be a member of anything to view someone's information, or to search for such, on the World Wide Web -- the web is open to everyone.

Another criticism: using these sites generates a lot more work for users: you have to re-type information over and over again, to reach the audience on each platform (yes, there are apps that will automatically post something across platforms - but none will do it all).

Still, there are advantages of using online social and professional networking platforms:

Outreach is done generally the same way on each platform:  
However, THERE ARE DOWNSIDES that nonprofits need to be aware of when using online networking sites, particularly social networking sites: Your organization should have a written policy regarding how paid staff and volunteers should and should not engage as representatives of your organization online, including on OSN platforms. Make it clear to volunteers, for instance, that while it's fine for them to highlight their role as volunteers for your organization in their online conversations, that does not necessarily make them official representatives of such, and any comments or questions about your organization they see online, including on OSN platforms, should be brought to the attention of appropriate member of the organization's core staff.

Where to get started?

If you are totally in the dark about how online networking platforms work and you are too daunted to experiment with them on your own, ask your volunteers or even your clients if any among them would feel comfortable coming onsite and showing you how social networking platforms work, and how various nonprofit organizations are using them. You probably already have volunteers or members who would love to share this information with you.

Wikipedia hosts a relatively comprehensive list of online networking platforms; however, note that they don't distinguish between social networking sites and professional networking sites.

The Significant Investment Required for OSN Success

There is nothing simple about OSN. It requires a significant time investment to get any kind of return/meaningful results. The reality is that hundreds or thousands of "friends" do not translate into significant numbers of new volunteers or financial donations. Most nonprofits are struggling to keep just their simple web sites up-to-date and answering the many, many inquiries they already receive via email. Using OSN successfully at an organization takes strategic planning, budgeting of staff time, involvement of volunteers, and constant readjustments. As well, you have to report constantly to the board and donors on what different your Internet activities make towards your mission; corporate donors and foundations love to whine about not wanting to fund administrative costs, so you have to constantly convince them that this administrative cost is worth funding.

And keep in mind that "traditional" online communities, whether on YahooGroups or GoogleGroups or another web-based platform, or even via email, are already connecting nonprofit professionals with many more people and organizations than a nonprofit can keep up with. If a nonprofit has a web site, has an email newsletter, staff members who occasionally use online discussion groups, and volunteer recruitment posts to something like VolunteerMatch, I consider that nonprofit very tech savvy -- to be using OSN as well takes an enormous amount of time and resources that the vast majority of nonprofits just don't have (and that's without even considering podcasts, blogging and videos as well. What's most important is that your volunteers, donors, clients and other supporters feel engaged with you online - only you can say if that is happening now, or if more needs to be done using OSN.

Most funders are never going to fund staff at a nonprofit to engage in all of these online activities (most funders still balk at paying for things like copy machines or chairs). Therefore, the only way most nonprofits are going to be able to use OSN platforms outside of asking volunteers to include information in their profiles is to find very dedicated, very knowledgeable and very trustworthy volunteers, including online volunteers working from home, school or their own work place, to engage in these activities on the organization's behalf. But, as with any activity, the nonprofit needs to think strategically about engaging in OSN: what's the goal of participation? what will success as a result of participation look like? how will the success of this activity be measured?

While I don't think FaceBook is the greatest thing since sliced bread, I do think it's an important part of a nonprofit or government or other mission-based organization's overall box of outreach tools. Twitter is a great way for some nonprofits to network, collaborate and, yes, outreach, but for others, it's been a total flop, a waste of energy. So few nonprofits or governments -- or corporations, for that matter -- "get" FaceBook or Twitter. For instance, many of them post endless pleas for donations as their status updates. Or post incredibly boring "events," like that the Executive Director is going to speak somewhere. Or that the new annual report is now available. Or launch yet another contest. ZZzzzz.

Here are some organizations that "get" FaceBook, in my opinion:

What do all these FaceBook users have in common? Their status updates are so compelling that I want to read them! They are using FaceBook to micro-blog about "wow" things. And I feel like there is a caring human writing their posts, not a cold PR person trying to manipulate me. I feel like they are my "friend."

What happens when these organizations post to FaceBook? People respond: They click "like". They post glowing comments. They repost to their own status on FaceBook. They blog about it. They tell their friends. My guess is that these organizations see greater attendance at events, greater numbers of volunteers signing up to help, and probably an increase in donations - tangible results that make online activities worth doing.

Do I use any networking platforms?

I've started, and abandoned, participation on at least five other online networks. For me, simple theme-based online communities via YahooGroups or an email platform remain the easiest to use and the best way to reach colleagues, find valuable new resources, and to cultivate new colleagues and clients.

TechSoup has a good article about nonprofits and OSN that includes some concrete examples of nonprofits using OSN platforms to connect with supporters. It actually reads like articles about the early days of initial nonprofit use of the web, when the novelty of making information and needs available resulted in immediate floods of new supporters and resources. However, those times wore off quickly. Also, what's still needed are examples that include details on how such organizations can manage all these massive amounts of information, who actually inputs all of the information again and again in all these closed communities and regularly checks the email inboxes of such, how nonprofits choose which community for what activity, how OSN has not worked in certain instances, etc.

Also see:

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