January 10, 2014, 1:03 PM

Can social media be a game-changer for non-profits?

Most charities are active on online social networks, but the IT director of the American Red Cross says many of them fail to connect local and national initiatives.

There are more than 1.19 billion Facebook users1 (an increase of 18% year over year). According to Stanford, 47% people learnt about causes using social and online channels2. Non-profit Twitter followers increased by 264% in a year3. Social media could be a game changer for non-profits.

Non-profits have a lot of barriers to overcome and changes to be implemented before they can begin to harness the true power of social media.

My analysis of the top U.S. non-profits found that most charities had a good social media penetration and engagement. They also have a satisfactory web experience. But the overall experience is disjointed. The web and social media experience are being run in silos. To make matters worse, many of them have individual chapters/regions, which have their own web sites and social media presence adding to the confusion, causing a very disconnected user experience.

This lack of seamless experience between digital properties (web, mobile) and social media is impacting non-profits. In the short term, its mostly opportunity loss as a web traffic generator. But in the long term it will have bigger impacts, as Gen X/Y users become a larger part of the donor base.

The Opportunity:

Social media could be a good traffic generator to any web site. According to Convio (now Blackbaud), the non-profit Church World Service generates around 7% traffic from social media because of an effective social media strategy and the Human Rights Campaign’s Facebook page generates around 30-50% of web traffic to the HRC blog. Social media users of non-profits are more engaged and connected with the cause. For this reason the likelihood that they would donate, volunteer or engage in advocacy would also be higher, if effectively communicated.

Now let’s look at the user demographics. According to Blackbaud, Gen X & Y (born 1965 -1995) represent 48% of the U.S. donor base (72.3 million & growing) and around 31% of the total donations4.

We know that Gen Y and a good part of Gen X users prefer social media as a means for engaging and communicating. Social media plays a huge role in the stewardship for these demographics and therefore it is important to engage these users effectively by providing them with a seamless web, mobile and social experience.

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) is also a big form of fundraising for these users. This could be super charged by better integration with social media.

For non-profits, engagement with their constituents is much higher on social media. There is an opportunity to deepen this engagement and most importantly leveraging the influencers among them to become champions of the cause. The opportunity is immense if it is effectively executed. Also gamification can be used to take this engagement to the next level.

So what can non-profits do to better leverage social media?

For starters, they need to figure out how they could provide a seamless experience across the main web site and all other chapter/region web sites. The best way of doing this is by creating a digital ecosystem by which the main site provides the primary experience and the chapter/region sites provide localized experiences. The domain strategy and user experience should be consistent so that users don’t see it as different sites. In the long run this works out much better for both the regions and the main site as overall traffic to both these properties will increase.

The same strategy needs to be used with social media presence as well.Providing the capability for users to share pages and actions is another basic step that needs to be implemented. Most non-profits provide the capability to share pages from their blogs but this needs to be extended to all key pages of the site. Also ability to share actions like registering for a volunteer opportunity or donating should be enabled. These capabilities could help in driving engagement and increased giving.

Also integrating the social experience on the web site so that users can see which of their friends liked the site or performed actions on the site. The probability of a user’s volunteering or donating would increase if they know that their friends have already done so.Using social media logins will help a lot too. Using Facebook, Google or other social media logins would drive registrations and also make integration will social media data easier and quicker.Campaigns by non-profits should be integrated across all channels (social media, web and offline modes) so that the experience is seamless and effectiveness is higher.

The next level of maturity will be to start leveraging social media data for personalization and gamification. The concepts of gamification could be used to increase engagement and loyalty. Providing tiered levels of customer loyalty (badges etc), fundraising competitions etc are some ways this can be achieved. The combination of user data on the web site and social data could be used to personalize the web and mobile experience.

Retailers are already harnessing this data to provide personalized gifting suggestions. Nonprofits can use this data to provide a targeted experience and data driven marketing.


1. Facebook

2. Stanford Social Innovation Review

3. 2013 eNonprofits benchmarks study by M+R Strategic Services and Non Profit Technology Network

4. The Next Generation of American Giving by Blackbaud

Sajit Joseph is an executive director of IT at the American Red Cross. Follow him on Twitter @sajit_joseph


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