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 Change.org. 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:
- OSN platforms can be great for target-marketing to recruit volunteers and other supporters from specific demographic groups. In North America, Facebook is a must. If you want to reach people primarily in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, Bebo is the tool for you. If you want to reach young people and young professionals in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Philippines and Singapore, Friendster is the way to go.
- If you are trying to build credibility among professionals (as potential donors, volunteers, future staff, or media contacts), a professional networking site (in contrast to a social networking site) such as LinkedIn or Plaxo is a good option for such outreach.
- Flickr is not only a photo-sharing site, and YouTube is not only a video-sharing site; both of these sites, as well as others like them, are networking platforms. People use the sites to look for photos or videos regarding a specific geographic location or subject matter, and users can link to each other based on associations or common interests, to keep track of updates to particular users' photo or video libraries. Flickr also allows users to create and join groups devoted to highlighting particular types of photos, or a group just for friends, colleagues or family members.
- An organization can create its own user profile or a fan page and ask volunteers, donors and other supporters to make the organization a "friend" or to "like" the organization. Other users will see this association and may be prompted to click on your organization's profile to learn more about your work.
- An organization can ask volunteers to put information about their volunteer service into their profiles on whatever networking platforms they use. This is probably best done under the section to list employment: under "title," they should list "volunteer" and under "company," the name of your organization; they can describe their volunteering activities in any other fields provided. If enough people start noting volunteer service in their networking profiles, these networking platforms may start creating fields specifically for such. Having volunteers highlight their service in these profiles benefits your organization by giving your work exposure to potential new volunteers and donors, and perhaps even media contacts, who will see the listing as they use the platforms to network with others.
- Staff members, acting as representatives of the organization, can post questions and respond to such in the various discussion areas within different platforms (as appropriate). This creates more opportunities for other network members to see the organization's name and associate it with a particular topic or issue.
- Nonprofits can ask current volunteers what OSN sites they use, and encourage them to:
- occasionally post new information about their own service or new activities to the organization on their OSN blog or announcement area
- post public events hosted by your organization under "Events I'm Attending" or whatever that feature might be called on a particular platform
- be on the lookout in any OSN platform they use for someone commenting about your organization, positive or negative, and to let you know /what's being said
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.
- A volunteer may engage in or promote activities via his or her web site, blog or online profile on a social networking platform that your organization does not wish to be associated with. Perhaps there are pictures of the volunteer on the site, or links to videos, that make you uncomfortable. Of course, the reality is that your volunteers may be engaging in offline activities your nonprofit wouldn't necessarily want to be associated with either (think about the t-shirts organizations hand out to volunteers -- did you give your volunteers a list of where they should and shouldn't wear such?). You may want to consider creating a policy regarding why your organization might refuse to link to a person's profile on a social networking site, and share this policy with your volunteers. You could even ask for their help in drafting such; by involving them in the discussion, you create a sense of ownership among your volunteers regarding the policy.
- Your organization's volunteers AND staff may want to keep their online social networking activities separate from their professional and volunteering activities. Most staff and volunteers will be happy to note their service to your organization on a professional networking site such as LinkedIn or an issues-focused network such as Change.org, but don't require any volunteer or staff member to link to your organization via a social networking site, such as FaceBook or Flickr. Note in your invitation to be a "friend" online that you won't be offended if the invitation is declined.
- Staff members and volunteers may be asked to link to other staff and volunteers as "friends" on social networking sites, but they may not want to do so with everyone. We don't all define "friend" the same way. It's easier for an individual to turn down a link request on a professional networking site such as LinkedIn with criteria that doesn't sound personal, such as, "I'm sorry, but I only link to people I've worked with directly for at least six months," than it is to tell someone requesting a friends link on an OSN platform that he or she isn't really a "friend." Staff members that decline friend invitations from volunteers or even other staff members via OSN platforms may end up hurting the feelings of those they work with. Encourage staff and volunteers to respect that some people may want to keep their OSN activities separate from their work or volunteering relationships.
- Many OSN platforms are blocked from being used by employees at various businesses and government organizations. Many of these platforms are also not accessible for people using assistive technologies, for people with certain disabilities, or for those using older software and hardware. This means an organization should not switch any of its outreach activities, such as blogging, instant messaging or photo sharing, entirely over to OSN platforms, as many people are prevented from accessing such. In other words, your OSN outreach activities should not replace your other online outreach activities, as they will exclude many people.
- There is no way an organization can be on every social or professional networking site. As well, the popularity of networking sites waxes and wanes - a site that was the site even just two years ago may not be now, and the site today may be bankrupt in a few years. Don't try to join every network; ask your current volunteers and staff what they use, read news articles about which OSN sites appeal to which demographics, and think strategically about what you really want out of your organization's OSN activities (see Evaluating Online Activities: Online Action Should Create & Support Offline Action for tips on creating such a strategy).
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:
- Kentucky State Parks - posts about upcoming special events at different parks, or special deals, like women-only retreats. Every post makes me want to go! I'm "friends" with a lot of state parks, and in comparison, all the others are oh-so-boring in what they share on FaceBook (if they share anything at all). Are you listening, Oregon?
- PeaceCorps - posts mostly about what PeaceCorps members are doing in the field and special recognition or events where members are honored. I imagine thousands of former PeaceCorps members, as well as current members, swell with pride with every post, being reminded of what a fantastic institution they are a part of, and are further energized to become advocates for PeaceCorps with friends and colleagues.
- U.S. Agency for International Development - USAID - posts about what USAID is doing and accomplishing in the developing world, and what new strategies they are about to incorporate. Every post says "We're active, we're focused on what people really need, and we're getting results." Your tax dollars at work!
- Women of Uganda Network - I've been a WOUGNET supporter for many years, so it's no surprise to me that their Facebook status updates would make me go "wow" so often. Every post is "here's another fabulous thing we've been up to to help women and girls access computer technology." Same for their Flickr account, for that matter. Ladies, I swear, I WILL get to Uganda soon!
- Mayhew International - This organization is based in England and is focused on humanely changing the stray dog and cat situation in a variety of countries, including in Afghanistan, by encouraging people to become responsible pet owners and by dispelling myths about stray animals. They don't post endless photos of animals in awful conditions; their posts give me hope that this is a battle that can actually be won, and dogs and cats can be valued and bring joy in any country, in any culture.
- Humane Society of Henderson County (Kentucky) - Here's an incredible success story, an organization that a few years ago was being attacked by PETA and the public for its horrific conditions and practices, and now, is an organization that welcomes the public and volunteers into the organization and is a model for other animal shelters. And their Facebook use is part of that amazing turnaround.
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.
- I have an an account on Twitter, both of which I use to post links to my most-recent blog posts and to micro-blog. Here is a blog that details how I use Twitter, as of August 2011.
- I have a professional profile at LinkedIn, have joined a few groups on the site, and have frequently answered nonprofit-related questions on its questions forum. This activity has lead to one job interview, a few clients for my CV consulting service and, I hope, an easy way for potential employers to review my credentials.
- I have a fan page on Facebook, and it's where I post links to my latest blogs, as well as links to articles and announcements related to my areas of interest (nonprofits, NGOs, charities, volunteer engagement, aid/development, etc.). While I limit my connections on LinkedIn only to people I can say that I know, anyone can like me on Facebook and, therefore, receive updates about my own resources as well as those by others that have caught my attention.
- I've got a profile at Change.org; it's been a good place to learn about causes I care about personally, but hasn't lead to any networking.
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.
- Evaluating Online Activities: Online Action Should Create & Support Offline Action
Hundreds of "friends" on an online social networking site. Thousands of subscribers to an email newsletter. Dozens of attendees to a virtual event. Those are impressive numbers on the surface, but if they don't translate into more volunteers, repeat volunteers, new donors, repeat donors, more clients, repeat clients, legislation, or public pressure, they are just that: numbers. For online activities to translate into something tangible, online action must create and support offline action. What could this look like? This resource can help organizations plan strategically about online activities so that they lead to something tangible - not just numbers.
- Online culture and online community
It's becoming the norm for mission-based organizations (NGOs, NPOs and others) to use Internet tools to work with volunteers (including board members), staff, donors and others. This section of my site has been greatly updated, providing even more ideas and resources on how to work with others online, in language that's easy to understand for those considering or just getting started in using online technologies with volunteers, donors and other supporters.
- For Nonprofits Considering Their Own Podcasts: Why It's Worth Exploring, and Content Considerations (includes my own podcast)
- For Nonprofit Organizations: How to Handle Online Criticism
See more resources re: Community Relations, With and Without Technology
read my blog
Become my fan on Facebook
Follow me on Twitter
subscribe to my blog via RSS
Subscribe to Tech4Impact, my email newsletter
talk about this page with others in my network
consulting services | about Jayne Cravens | go to my home page |
contact me | linking to or from my web site
Disclaimer: No guarantee of accuracy or suitability is made by the poster/distributor. This material is provided as is, with no expressed or implied warranty.
Permission is granted to copy, present and/or distribute a limited amount of material from this web site without charge to recipients if the information is kept intact and without alteration, and is credited to:
Otherwise, please contact me for permission to reprint, present or distribute these materials (for instance, in a class or book you intend to charge for).
The art work and material on this site was created and is copyrighted 1996-2011
by Jayne Cravens, all rights reserved
(unless noted otherwise, or the art comes from a link to another web site).