Nonprofits recognize that being on social media is good for public relations, but it’s increasingly driving innovation in the fundraising space by informing giving motivations.
By now, even the most laggard of organizations understands that digital fluency is a pillar of any strategy seeking to engage audiences, cultivate constituent relations, and secure donors. More than a “next practice,” digital engagement is essential to the relevance and solvency of the contemporary nonprofit organization – simply keeping the doors open requires investments of time, talent, and treasure on digital platforms.
But social media is playing an important role in how people relate to and understand nonprofit organizations beyond simply their ability to converse on Twitter or post pretty pictures on Facebook. In our progressively crowd-sourced, collectively intelligent, peer reviewed world that values trusted endorsements foremost among reputation-enhancing communication channels, social media is emerging as one of the most important tools in the fundraising toolbox.
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation recently announced that it is ending its eight-year, $12 million funding relationship with sites like Charity Navigator, GiveWell, and GuideStar – sites that attempt to aid donors in making philanthropic decisions based on “data-informed” factors. An assessment concluded that, “While the foundation’s effort succeeded at producing more information about charity performance, it did little to change donor’s decisions: They continued to give with their hearts, not their heads.”
In many ways, this acknowledgment of the limited efficacy of these sites in influencing donor decisions is a simple response to a decision that the market had already made years ago – these sites simply have not proven meaningfully influential in terms of motivating “data-informed” giving. Worse yet, many sophisticated donors recognize the type of data aggregated by these sites as somewhat specious – do lower administrative costs resultant from hiring a lower salaried (and, perhaps, correspondingly less talented) CEO really indicate greater organizational effectiveness than an organization that invests more in its people? An objective final analysis may well conclude that these sites did more to harm philanthropy than advance it by promulgating less meaningful metrics as substitutes for actual performance, and, thus, did nothing more than confuse an already incredibly complex field.
If the Hewlett Foundation’s decision recognizes the dwindling influence of these sites, then what are the information resources that impact and inspire our giving motivations? Increasingly, social media is playing a critical role in distinguishing effective organizations from less effective nonprofits for the review and consideration of the giving public. Much like the initial aim of sites like Charity Navigator, social media sites empower potential donors to evaluate nonprofit organizations – but they do it with their own hearts and minds, and develop their own criteria for what makes a worthy organization.
Here are three ways that social media engagement on real-time, digital platforms is changing the nonprofit sector and empowering potential donors to make more intelligent giving decisions:
1) Social media increases the expectation of transparency (which increases nonprofit accountability)
On social platforms, organizations are “judged” in real-time. Gone are the days of hiding from crowds in order for the CEO to spend a day crafting a response to a crisis. An organization’s tone, transparency, timeliness, and “touchability” (the four T’s of online engagement) may be observed 24/7 on social media sites. Steep expectations of speedy responses to online inquiries demand that an organization has its ducks in a row all the time – not just when there is an urgent need. In short, how good (and timely!) your organization is at carrying out social care matters.
2) It is harder for nonprofits to hide a lack of impact (so organizations must show progress or risk losing donors)
Studies reveal that demonstrating impact is a key driver of giving decisions. Right now, it’s cool to be kind and many organizations are sinking or swimming based on their perceived abilities to actually carry out their missions. Because digital platforms are real-time and supremely enabled to demonstrate transparency, it is easier for a potential donor to determine if a nonprofit is actually taking steps to fulfill its stated mission. Or, rather, if your organization suffers from mission drift, a potential donor may be able to see this based on content posted on social platforms. This one takes some thought for nonprofits because – when it comes to social media – many focus on metrics that mean nothing instead of true key performance indicators. It’s easy enough to increase your fan count, but increasing it with the right people who are willing to act in the interest of your organization and its mission is key. The best way to get the right people to follow your nonprofit? Focus on your mission and impact.
3) Failures are more visual (so nonprofits must consider potential market reactions)
Have you ever been to an industry conference of for-profit organizations? While the presentations may feature a smattering of self-serving, promotional case studies, they more often overflow with learning from failures and missteps. In the for-profit world, failure is a sort of badge of honor viewed as a healthy part of the innovation process (provided, of course, that one learns from the failure and applies this knowledge to a consequent effort).
For nonprofit organizations, making a “mistake” or even sharing a true, hard lesson at a conference seems verboten. “What if admitting that we don’t do everything right all the time results in fewer donors?” “The CEO won’t fund our presence at this conference so that we can share something that we did wrong!” As a result, nonprofit conferences may be good for networking and very, very useless for actual learning as they are generally self-promoting, self-congratulatory hot air festivals by nature (…or perhaps simply by our own perceived necessity).
Social media demonstrates that the market’s reaction to strategic decisions demand that organizations consider their constituents. Remember when Susan G. Komen for the Cure cut funding for Planned Parenthood and social media exploded? Susan G Komen still hasn’t recovered financially – and a large part of this may be due to ongoing social media conversations.
The Komen situation may have revealed a fundamental incongruity with the personal agenda of the organization’s leadership and its stated mission. A critical aspect of the failure stemmed less from an unpopular, controversial decision and more from the response (or immediate lack thereof) to the market’s reaction. The lesson is that we need to be ever more “outside-in” in our consideration of a situation and not confuse our internal ability as supposed experts to declare “importance” with the market’s absolute right to determine “relevance.”
The public nature of social media demands that organizations consider market reactions. It makes leadership think twice about the people whom they serve and how they go about their business. It gives the market a voice, and threatens to punish organizations that do not consider the folks who actually matter to the relevance and vitality of your organization.
Yes, social media takes time, talent, and treasure – but it’s worth the investment. Those very things that make it hard for some organizations (transparency, demonstrating impact, having the market as the true boss to the boss) will actually help us move toward a stronger, more intelligent service sector that is more effective and efficient at achieving social good.
Getting smart about social media isn’t about adapting to technology. It’s about people. It’s about showing of the true identity of your organization. If you don’t value social media, then you don’t value your audiences.
Hewlett’s funding decision recognizes an inalienable truth: People don’t want a middleman telling them what to do with their money. They want to decide how they feel about your organization for themselves. Social media is your seat at the table for this conversation with donors. Speak now.