Revised with new information: April 5, 2016

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. It has always been about engagement, not just one-way communications.

This techie buzz phrase online social networking or Web 2.0 is meant to describe web-based online communities meant to encourage members to socialize with each other online and have their friends and colleagues publicly listed. These platforms, like Facebook or Instagram or SnapChat, 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). 

Some of the most popular OSN sites worldwide are FaceBook and Twitter. There are also professional online networks that use online social networking features, such as LinkedIn, and issues-focused online networks, such as 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. Also, note that I have to frequently update this page because the popularity of social networking sites changes so frequently.

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 - you have to be a member of the social network in order to read its posts and interact with people using such.  

Another criticism: using these sites generates a lot more work for nonprofits trying to reach current and potential clients, volunteers and donors: 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 some platforms - but none will do it all, and what works on Facebook does NOT work on Twitter).

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?

Start with Facebook and Twitter. Look for organizations that are similar to yours, and spend time looking to see how they use it. Also see this list of Daily, Mandatory, Minimal Tasks for Nonprofits on Facebook & Twitter. Also see this blog I wrote about what nonprofits I think do a great job with Facebook. No book or web page will teach you how to use these platforms as well as trying to use them yourself, and looking at how similar organizations use them.

You will eventually need to expand your social media use to other platforms. Which ones? Don't worry about that yet - the popularity of social media platforms comes and goes. You will know which additional ones to use as you hear from volunteers and employees about which they are using. And, yes, social media platforms will come and go; what is hot now won't be in five years. You don't have to use every one that comes along, but you do have to use the ones that your employees and volunteers are using most.

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.

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.

Also see:

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