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10 Social Media Basics Every
Nonprofit Needs to Know

by James Howe

While many of us are now used to living in a social media world, many small to mid-sized charities and nonprofits are just getting their heads around what social media is and how to use it—or how to use it more effectively. Nonprofits tend to focus their limited staff and resources on delivering the organization’s mission. When they communicate, most stick to the tried and true modes of communication. However, there is a growing desire among those working at nonprofits to learn how to work the new tools available and how to add them to their organization’s communication mix.

When I introduce social media to nonprofit communicators, I focus on the following 10 fundamental principles that are critical to their nonprofit’s success.

1. Your personal use of social media informs your professional use.
Before you can effectively use any form of social media for your nonprofit, you must have a personal understanding of it. Without that firsthand knowledge, you will find it difficult to be successful in that space. Through your personal experience with social media, you can learn how to best use a platform, or you may discover that a platform is not a fit for your organization.

2. Online, be who you are in real life.
Being genuine and authentic is crucial to building trust and credibility with your online audience. This is important for organizations, particularly nonprofits, because people must see that the organization and its people are living the organization's mission and values.

3. Social media is about building relationships. Be social.
One benefit of social media is that it allows you to easily connect with people who have something in common with you and share the same interests. You can discover people via social media who you might never find otherwise. Being active on social media presents you and your nonprofit with a much larger pool of people for making connections than ever before.

But remember, people have relationships with people, not with organizations. Make sure that your nonprofit’s social media communications employ a conversational style and sound like they’re coming from a real person. An excellent example of this is the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Twitter account. On their Twitter page, you see that you are dealing with Lisa Middleton, the festival’s vice president of marketing. Not only does the profile describe who Middleton is, the language and interactions ring true.

The festival’s 27,000-plus fans on Facebook have the same experience through a joint effort by Lisa and her colleagues, Aaron Kropf and Christi Rutledge. As one patron posted, “Whoever at the theatre decided to take the theatre onto Facebook was brilliant! For the first time ever, I'm actually starting to feel like the theatre has some humans up there in the ‘golden tower’ and I'm starting to take a personal interest in it as I follow the human side of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.”

By being real, and allowing the audience to have a conversation with a real employee, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is able to connect and engage with its fans on a deeper level.

4. Social media is about community.
As you build relationships with individuals, you will find they start to interconnect with each other and form a community. With this community it is possible to achieve something bigger than you could as an individual.

Social media can help your nonprofit develop an online community. It can also be a way to take an existing, real-life community to a new level. If you add an online component, supporters or members of an organization can stay connected no matter what their location, and can strengthen their relationships with each other and with the organization itself. By strengthening this bond on social platforms, you tap into your supporters’ social circles. This gives you the chance to add more to the conversation and, ultimately, the relationship between your nonprofit and its supporters. A good example is the Twitter account for THEMUSEUM in Kitchener, Ontario, which regularly has conversations with its online community members.

5. Make social media a behavior.
If you view social media as merely a set of tools, it will show in your use. How? The most common clue is that you are only pushing out information to your supporters through social media channels. Another is that you are clearly following a set of “how-to” social media instructions.

A more organic approach is necessary if your nonprofit is to succeed on social media. Your use of social media should be an extension of how you live your life. By integrating it into how you live and work, your online social life becomes a part of how you behave in your day-to-day life as much as how you interact with the people around you.

6. There’s a difference between having an account and using it.
If you’re going to have an account on a social networking site for your nonprofit, then you should use it. Using your account means that you are meeting the expectations of your online audience and supporters. Know what the indicators are for being considered present in a space and not just visiting. For example, posts on Facebook that include symbols commonly used with Twitter like @ and #, will not make sense to your Facebook audience and will only show that you are not taking the time to be present and engage in conversation with that particular audience. Not following others or responding to any tweets is another example of not truly being present. Only by using an account in the way others expect, can you experience the benefits of having it.

7. There are no quick wins in social media. It’s all about the long game.

“Getting on” social media will not mean an immediate or dramatic increase in your nonprofit’s fundraising efforts, or participation in its programs. If you spend some time, however, building relationships online, your organization will see incremental improvements over time. A post on your nonprofit’s Facebook page about this year’s walkathon may not attract many—if any—new participants. But next year, if you have been consistently building new relationships through social media, you can expect a better response—and there will be a greater sense of engagement among your supporters that can also help to increase the donations those individuals raise for your organization’s cause.

8. Finding time is about changing priorities.

You already make decisions about how to invest your time. It comes down to setting priorities. Using social media is likely a much better use of your time than some of the ways you are currently using your time—some of which, such as a print newsletter, you may not even need to be doing anymore. There was a time when we were too busy for email, but we changed our priorities and now many of us will not leave our desks without the ability to access email either from our phone or tablet. Which items give way differs with the situation and the audience you are trying to reach, but we can always find a way if we value the change.

9. Choose social media platforms that best fit your nonprofit’s goals.
If your nonprofit is just getting started using social media, it’s probably best to wade into the pool rather than to jump in the deep end. Pick one platform and learn to use it well, instead of using too many and using none of them well. Which one you choose depends upon your comfort level with the different options the platform has to offer, your nonprofit’s goals, and how you are most likely to reach your target audiences and supporters. As you feel comfortable with one platform, you can then add more.

10. Add value by sharing interesting or useful content.

If you want to reach new supporters through social media, you need to give them something of value. Generally that means sharing content that is interesting or useful. If you find a piece of information, a blog post or a news story interesting or useful, someone else will too. This content will be found by people who share your interests.


James Howe of Communicate & Howe! works mostly with nonprofits and charities to help them get the best bang for their buck. A generalist, he previously communicated on behalf of the YMCAs of Cambridge & Kitchener-Waterloo and the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto. He is the founder of Social Media Breakfast: Waterloo Region. Follow him on Twitter: @Communic8nHowe