Analysis, Interviews, and ReviewsArchive
Nov 09, 2009
Social Networking and Mid-Size Nonprofits: What’s the Use?
The use of social networking and social media in the nonprofit sector has exploded in the past few years, spurred by successful, widely profiled social media initiatives by organizations like Save Darfur and charity:water. The Obama campaign’s effective use of social technologies for both fundraising and organizing was the icing on the cake. Can there be any doubt given these examples that social networking and social media are must have tools for nonprofits?
In terms of fundraising and attracting volunteers, metrics that most nonprofit boards and executive directors highly value, the available evidence suggests that social media is not very effective. To be fair, that evidence is limited. To date, there are only two surveys that we know of, one which we conducted, that have sought to quantify the impact of social technologies in terms familiar to executive directors and boards. In both cases, the results show that social technologies are not delivering much in terms of fundraising or attracting volunteers. While advocates of social technologies rightly point out that these are not the only metrics by which social technologies should be judged, they are the metrics that the majority of respondents to our survey cited as driving their participation. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of respondents to our survey say they are going to increase their investment in the use of social networking.
The mismatch between perceptions, motivations, results and investment suggest a particular challenge for mid-size nonprofits (which we define as organizations with revenue between $1 and $5 million annually). Larger organizations have the resources to experiment, take risks and wait for long-term investments to pay off. If an experiment doesn’t yield immediate results, as for instance happened with Amnesty International’s failed efforts to gain traction in 2008’s “America’s Giving Challenge” , they can chalk it up to a learning experience and move on. Small non-profits, on the other hand, don’t have much choice. They typically can’t afford traditional channels of outreach, marketing and fundraising and so have no alternative but social media.
Midsize nonprofits are caught between a rock and a hard place. They lack the resources to commit to an unproven, and surprisingly expensive, strategy, but they fear being hopelessly “left behind.” For them, and indeed anyone else in the nonprofit space asking how to get value from social technologies, now is the time to take a deep breath and reconsider what social technologies can best be used for and what nonprofit executives can reasonably expect from them.
Our survey, conducted between July 2008 and March 2009 reached out to more than 1000 mid-size non-profits, more than 200 of which responded. We believe this to be one of the best sets of data on the use of social networking by mid-size non-profits and one of the only sets of data on the results they have achieved.
In summary, the survey shows that most users of social networking have had to scale back their expectations. While the majority began using social networking with an expectation that it would help the organization attract donors and volunteers, results have been particularly disappointing in those categories. More than 70 percent of respondents indicated that they had raised less than $100 or did not know whether they had raised any money. The figures for attracting volunteers were not much better. Surprisingly, despite the lack of results, most respondents indicated they planned to increase their investment in social networking over the coming year.
The full results of the survey—and a discussion of what it all means—can be found in our report: Social Networking and Mid-Size Non-Profits: What’s the Use?