Thursday, January 15, 2009

To Community or Not to Community?

Juggling Animals via The Teacher's Journal

I've been writing in the space and talking a lot outside of it about the need for small nonprofits to pay attention to social media.

The reasons have been discussed at length in many places and some of the larger nonprofits such as the Red Cross are showing the way.

I'll keep on evangelizing social media because the potential for return is very high compared to the investment. But I'm currently concerned about how the economic downturn may be affecting the small nonprofit's ability to reach out through social media.

Almost every small nonprofit I know is drilling extra holes in its belt to accommodate a much thinner budget.

All small nonprofits are used to doing more with less - their staff people believe in the mission and extend themselves above and beyond so often that the improbable becomes SOP. But many of those small, overworked staff have had to lose one or more members, leaving the rest to shoulder the extra burden. This is the time when they most need to be able to realise the benefits of a social media community, but because they are even more short-handed than usual, they may not be able to.

You Gotta Put Work In to See Any Result

It takes effort to set up and nurture, maintain and grow, a social media community. Community means give and take, an exchange of ideas. And six staffers doing the work of 12 just don't have the time or energy for it.

What About Volunteer Help?

Certainly, interns or volunteers could help get the ball rolling, but interns and volunteers leave and if there isn't a strategy in place and a social media policy, and one or two staffers who can commit to participating, then when that intern or volunteer leaves, the community will collapse.

Now, when so many small nonprofits are fighting for their existence, is when they should be reaching out to embrace new methods of communicating with potential donors and volunteers - potential community members. But now is also the worst time for them to find and allocate the needed resources.

What to Do

I've got a couple of ideas that might help, which I'll discuss more fully in future posts. In the meantime, if you've got ideas, put them in the comments. Let's see what we can do together to come up with potential strategies to help the small nonprofit keep all their balls in the air.

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Amy Southerland @wordjockey said...

I think that nonprofits need to be very strategic about their communications and use of staff time and resources in today's ecomony, and social media *is* strategic.

I would suggest that nonprofits back off from other marketing communications efforts as a way to cut costs and focus on social media as an alternative way to communicate. For instance, if a nonprofit is spending $20,000 a year to create and mail a quarterly newsletter, they could quit doing a newsletter (for the time being) and send a postcard and email to their newsletter recipients, explaining that the newsletter is on hiatus and asking them to a) become a fan the nonprofit on facebook, b) subscribe to the nonprofit's blog c) follow the nonprofit on Twitter, and d) subscribe to their channel on YouTube (if video sharing is possible for what they do).

I think a nonprofit could engage donors and supporters in making the move to social media, positioning it as a way to save money while simultaneously doing a better job of sharing info. "We need your support now more than ever, so please connect with us online -- and pass the info on to your friends and family who may not know about the great works we are doing and the difference its making in our community."

Then, spread the social media responsibility out among staff members, and make it rewarding for them to participate. When people are getting recognized and hearing direct support from people for what they share on a blog or on twitter, that's going to be good for morale and strengthen the organization. For instance, imagine a front-line worker at a domestic violence shelter sharing quick daily or weekly insights into the challenges and rewards of the work she does every day. "Today I worked with a Mom who has two young children to help her find a safe place for their family dog to stay while they are in our shelter -- her kids were her first priority, but she didn't want to leave the dog with her abuser and was heartbroken about it. Took some extra phone calls to coordinate a safe place for the dog with our local animal shelter -- but now she and her kids are here in the shelter and can get the help they need to start a new life." Even the mundane can be interesting if it shows what it takes to run an organization. Administrative assistants have great stories, too: "Received a $5 check today from an elderly donor who always sends us $5 a month, like clockwork. We know it's a lot for her to give out of her limited income -- and it means a lot to us to receive her donations." (True story from my nonprofit past).

A nonprofit can also find volunteers and people they are serving to share stories via social media. The stories don't have to be long or complex or professionally edited -- just heartfelt.

Yes, someone still has to oversee and organize social media efforts -- it can't be a free-for-all. But I would argue it's no more effort to do that than to plan and execute a quarterly newsletter; and there's a lot of overlap in the kind of thinking and planning required. Plus it's going to be cheaper than printing and mailing a newsletter, with the potential for reaching many more people (and engaging them on new levels).

There's a place for print communications, but if I were a nonprofit leader and I had to pick, right now I put my money on social media. What you learn might also allow you to be more strategic about what you choose to print in the future.

David Svet said...

I think nonprofits should enlist their evangelists to help with SM. It's what SM is all about. Wordjockey made a good point about how to trim costs with printing and mailing. However, I'd also recommend that by carefully segmenting a donor database it is possible to cull donors who will respond better to snailmail. They should stay on the print list and continue to receive communications as can be afforded.

Another important issue is to continually thank donors of ANY size. Recognize them publicly. Tell them where their dollars went and what good occurred. A good database, some understanding of variable data communications, and a good email/landing page application can make that all happen.

Robyn McIntyre said...

@Wordjocky (Amy) and David - thanks for these terrific recommendations. They can definitely make up the base of a recession-proof strategy for any small nonprofit. I'll recap them and any other suggestions I get in a later post.

Shannon Aronin said...

I think that nonprofits are going to end up having to cut staff, period. Smart nonprofits are not going to stop marketing completely however. A good social media campaign run by a consultant is going to cost less (hopefully) than a marketing staff person. I think this presents a huge opportunity for innovative consultants.

I agree that nonprofits all need to start with existing/traditional media to get the ball rolling on developing their SM communities.