How Nonprofits and Associations Can Thrive in Times of Disruption

The following was originally authored for Hager Sharp’s agency blog. You can read it here.

Every four or eight years, the United States officially swears in a new president—oftentimes bringing a new set of challenges. That’s why as a social-change communicator, I felt it would be beneficial to attend the PRSA National Capital Chapter’s most recent Breakfast Breakthrough titled, “What the (Donald) Trump Administration Means for Associations and Nonprofits.” Attendees kept the discussion lively and came away with expectations, takeaways, and tools for news monitoring.

While observing and listening to attendees’ different perspectives, I discovered some helpful tips based on the presentation and my own experience with nonprofits:

  1. Social media is key: now more than ever—From the campaign trail to now, President Trump has never been one to shy away from voicing his opinions on Twitter. Nonprofits and organizations can adapt that same boldness on social media to advocate for their own causes. This may require a change in procedures for some organizations, where the clearance process can slow down their ability to seize the moment. In fact, a key thing about today’s social media is how quickly organizations can get their message out. The Pew Research Center found that Facebook was the third most popular source of news among all voters this past year. Being authentic on your networks is a great way to engage and gain public trust.
  2. Study the media habits of your audience—If you are trying to influence elected officials and their policies, it’s always helpful to understand their media habits. One suggestion for doing this is to utilize Twitter to follow their accounts and the accounts that they follow. Know which media outlets matter to them. For example, this Axios article provides information on President Trump’s daily media diet. For members of Congress, their hometown paper may carry more weight than The Washington Post. Once you understand the “media diet” of your elected official, you can understand how best to target your media messages towards getting his or her attention.
  3. Value insiders’ and outsiders’ opinions—When the breakfast attendees were asked about the last time we analyzed who our audiences are, not many of us raised our hands. Before your organization adapts boldness on social media, it’s important to know who your supporters are—on and offline—and assess how they feel. At the same time, organizations need to assess the sentiment of those outside of their base of supporters to get a sense of what they’re up against and whether there’s an opening to change hearts and minds.
  4. Embrace partnerships with like-minded organizations—Everyone knows the old saying, “There’s strength in numbers.” History has shown this to be true, from the early movements in the 1900s for women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Both events were the result of individuals and organizations with similar beliefs coming together to advocate for the same cause. Even after those events, organizations benefitted by combining their efforts and becoming stronger advocates in the process.
  5. Facts matter, but emotions do too—Many of the great leaders for social change all share one thing in common: each of them successfully gained followers by incorporating facts into their messages along with relentless passion. As organizations seek to become thought leaders for their causes, the importance of using data and emotion to tell a compelling story will be crucial for inspiring current supporters and gaining new advocates.

Nonprofits and associations don’t have to fear the impending changes. Instead, by studying their new landscape and adapting boldness on social media, organizations can take advantage of opportunities to make sure their issues are at the forefront. It’s also important that organizations assess their own supporters and detractors, unite with like-minded groups, and combine emotion with facts to tell a compelling story aimed at securing more advocates. Attending this PRSA Breakfast Breakthrough gave me more confidence that the effective use of communications will serve nonprofits well—even in times of disruption.

5 Practical Social Media Strategies Based on 3 Nonprofit Success Stories

The challenge that most of the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S. face is two-fold.  First, budget restrictions prevent them from hiring additional communications professionals.  Second, this lack of staff capacity limits nonprofits’ ability to carry out the strategic public relations campaigns that most corporations can afford.  Because of this, nonprofit public relations pros are often tasked with managing social media strategies by themselves or with minimal staff support; in other words, serving as “one stop shops.”

As daunting as the task may seem, it is possible for nonprofits to be successful on social media.  Here are five strategies nonprofit communicators should consider:

  1. Use social media as part of an overall communications strategy – Social media should not, and cannot, be used on its own to achieve public relations objectives.  That’s why Make-A-Wish Bay Area Foundation partnered with social media agency Clever Girls Collective to develop a social media campaign for then-five-year-old grantee Miles Scott’s day as Batkid.
  2. Only be on networks which make sense for you – Many nonprofits believe that they have to be on all of the top social networks, when really they should focus only on using the social networks which best reach their target audiences.  For instance, Water is Life‘s efforts were largely Twitter-centric with the campaign’s goal of hijacking the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems and turning it into one of donation awareness.
  3. Tell your nonprofit’s story using multimedia – Social media content with visuals attract 94% more total views and are 40 times more likely to be shared on social networks.  That’s why Water is Life teamed with advertising agency DDB New York to produce a one-minute video, where Haitian residents read aloud users’ tweets with the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems.  With six million views, not only did the video decreased the popularity of the hashtag, but also solicited enough donations to the nonprofit to provide one million days of clean water to their clientele.
  4. Develop a balance between self-promotional and other’s content – Social networks are similar to real-life relationships: very few people like to be around others who do nothing except talk about themselves.  Not only were the pros behind #SFBatkid sharing content from their associated handles, but they also showed support for fans and celebrities whom were also using the hashtag through retweets and replies.  The result: 117 countries mentioned the Batkid and 13% of #SFBatkid tweets came from outside the United States.
  5. Foster relationships with your publics using your online presence – Most social networks offer tools for building relationships, such as Facebook’s ability to tag users and others within posts and comments.  This feature is what allowed the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association‘s Ice Bucket Challenge to go viral, with friends and family often tagging each other to be informed that the challenge had been accepted, and in return, to issue the challenge to more friends and family.

There are dozens of articles out there that claim to have social media “best practices” for nonprofits. Ultimately, the only way to find out what works best for you is through a little trial-and-error. Still, there’s little reason for nonprofits of all sizes can be just as effective as top corporate brands at telling their story with social media.