Sean Chisholm

What’s the True Value of Social Media for Nonprofits?

For those of us living lives intertwined with technology, it seems obvious that social media will benefit the nonprofits that choose to leverage it. But for many charitable organizations this conclusion is not so self-evident.

Smaller nonprofits might reasonably wonder if their limited time and resources would best be directed elsewhere. Organizations of any size might be concerned that social media campaigns will breed “slacktivism” and actually lessen people’s willingness to take more substantive actions (like donating or volunteering). These aren’t new concerns, and they aren’t unreasonable ones either, but how do you know if they are well founded?

Well, we recently came across a few studies that help provide a more empirical basis for assessing the value of social media for nonprofits.

1. Social Media as a Discovery Device

According to a 2012 study performed by the Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication and Waggener Edstrom, social media is one of the primary ways people are learning about new causes to support.

The study, which surveyed 2004 adults who were moderate social media users (they posted content, commented, or liked something at least three times per week), found that 65% of people who support nonprofits online (by donating online, signing online petitions, etc.) indicated that that the first way they heard about the causes that they chose to support was through a family member or friend on social media. Tied in a distant second were online news outlets and in-person referrals from family members and friends, each with 28%.

Perhaps more interestingly, however, was the fact that social media was still the top answer for people who only supported causes offline (through in-person donations, volunteering, etc.). 48% of these offline supporters indicated that they first learned about the causes they chose to support through family and friends on social media.

The Take Away?

Social media has clear value as way of familiarizing new prospects with your nonprofit. Participating in conversations on social media and sharing interesting and engaging content can help expose your organization to new pools of potential supporters.

2. The One Network Nonprofits Shouldn’t Avoid

We mentioned above that when it comes to social media, smaller nonprofits might be concerned with spreading themselves too thin. And that makes a lot of sense. There are only so many hours in the day and if you’re running a small shop you need to make sure you are allocating your time efficiently. Since there are A LOT of different social networks out there (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest, Youtube, Instagram, etc.) smaller nonprofits are wise not to tackle all of them. There is one platform, however, that they shouldn’t ignore.

When it comes to sharing information about causes, Facebook is the clear number one in supporters’ minds. The 2012 Study from the Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication and Waggener Edstrom indicated that 74% of respondents identified Facebook as the most effective social media platform for spreading the word about a charity or cause (coming in second and third place were Twitter and Youtube, with 8% and 5% respectively).

The Takeaway?

If you are a nonprofit concerned about resources, concentrate your social media efforts on Facebook. This will allow you to focus on the most popular channel for sharing cause-related information without spreading yourself too thin.

3. Easing the Slacktivism Concerns

Much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands has been done over the potential perils of so-called “slacktivism.” The term has been used to describe (and deride) smaller symbolic actions taken in support of a cause. In the online arena it’s sometimes also referred to as “clicktivism” and it encompasses things like “liking” a charity on Facebook or signing a digital petition. Critics of slacktivism often worry that these small signs of support may crowd out more meaningful actions like boots on the ground activism or donating time/money.

But is there really evidence that taking small steps on social media will hinder people from taking more substantive action? Not really.

A 2011 study also performed by the Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication, this time in conjunction with Ogilvy Public Relations, showed that slacktivists were just as likely as those who didn’t promote charities on social media to make donations (41% from each group). Not only that, but the social media promoters were actually twice as likely to volunteer and nearly three times as likely to raise money for a cause!

The 2012 study from the Center for Social Impact Communication and Waggener Edstrom also supports the idea that the slacktivism concerns are overblown. It found that over half of respondents that had engaged with a cause via social media (55%) were inspired to take additional actions (like donating, volunteering, or attending an event). Additional studies, such as this one from Michigan State and this one from First Monday lend further credence to the idea that online activism does not hinder offline support.

 The Takeaway?

The data simply doesn’t support the idea that social media activism will have any sort of detrimental effect on donations or other more traditional forms of support. 

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Photo Credit: Flickr User Timitrius

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