Not-for-profit organisations are well-placed to succeed in social media. Their activities are of passionate interest to large numbers of people and they invoke considerable commitment among their followers. Many corporate brands operating in social media would love to have the same levels of engagement and dedication that charities and voluntary bodies garner – for instance, Save the Children UK has 276,000 Likes on Facebook, Cancer Research UK claims a million followers on social media, and Oxfam International has 465,000 followers on Twitter.
Yet despite this, many not-for-profit organisations still see social media as a risky and resource-hungry activity. Many are put off by scare stories about social media disasters after a number of brands and businesses have found themselves at the centre of social media outrage following a misjudged tweet or Facebook update. When British Gas, for instance, announced a steep price increase and said people should comment on Twitter, its hashtag #askbg was inundated with 16,000 comments, largely vitriolic. At the same time, the sheer blizzard of information emanating from social media can be daunting. Some organisations worry about how their message will cut through the clutter.
Yet with 24 million people in the UK interacting on Facebook every day and Twitter claiming 15 million users, every organisation needs to take heed of this effective form of communication.
On the plus side, social media can be a powerful tool for fundraising, a cost-effective way of gathering data about your supporters and a gateway to strong engagement with stakeholders. Messages on social media can reach large numbers of people organically without your organisation spending a penny on advertising.
A benefit or hindrance?
So given these pros and cons, should social media be viewed as a benefit or a hindrance to not-for-profit organisations? This was the subject of the latest NFP Interchange, a forum for non-executive directors of not-for-profit organisations created by Grant Thornton and held in partnership with the Guardian.
The event featured a panel of five speakers with experience in social media and was chaired by Carol Rudge, head of not-for-profit, Grant Thornton. The panellists discussed the advantages and drawbacks of social media for not-for-profit organisations and offered advice on how best to avoid calamities and get the most out of a social media presence. The event”s audience was made up of non-executive directors and managers from about 70 organisations across the wider not-for-profit sector. The audience questioned the panel after they had given their presentations.
David Mills, editor of the Guardian”s Voluntary Sector Network, opened the discussion by pointing out that despite the failures and the risks taken by organisations that have launched social media strategies, the biggest risk of all is for those organisations that don”t take part. He warned not-for-profit organisations: “Those that do social media well and extract value from it will succeed, and they could take your money and supporters and before you know it, your contracts and your beneficiaries.”
A couple of non-executives attending the event admitted their organisations had either a minimal or nonexistent social media presence. The overall feeling was that social media are a benefit, though they need to be handled with great caution.
The main message from many panellists was that not-for-profits need to decide exactly what they want to achieve from social media and use those goals to develop a clear social strategy. The audience of not-for-profit leaders was told that their organisations will inevitably be discussed online – including by their own staff – so social media cannot be ignored.
Forum panellist Dafna Ciechanover Bonas, co-founder and CEO of Founders Forum For Good, accepted that there are big risks associated with social media, but said that these can be mitigated by having a clear focus. “Social media efforts need a core strategy. They need to be planned and they need to be focused,” she told the forum. Bonas advised organisations to follow four steps on social media: define, measure, review and refine.
“Define what you want to achieve, be very clear about the objective and your target audience and keep your message very narrow,” she said.
One of the great benefits of social media, the forum heard, is the data they provide. Most of the social networks offer analytic tools that help organisations find out who is following them and how involved they are. In an era of “big data”, social media allow organisations to collect plenty of rich data that reveals a lot about their followers.
According to panellists, a classic mistake made by some organisations using social media is taking a scattergun approach, operating under too many identities across different social networks. This can be confusing for those trying to interact with your organisation. “Stay co-ordinated and avoid ”handle proliferation”,” said Bonas.
Many social media specialists advise against putting too much importance on the number of Facebook Likes or Twitter followers garnered, the forum heard. The key to social success is creating strong content that is relevant to your followers and gets across your key messages. Engagement is the watchword.
Karla Geci, Facebook”s head of media partnerships, told the forum: “It”s the content that makes connections – powerful images, powerful videos and powerful text, even if it”s only 140 characters. It doesn”t matter the industry you”re in, whether its non-profit or publishing, the question is how can we effectively use content to get our message across?”
Creating engaging content is a task that involves everyone in the organisation, the forum was told. Different departments can have fascinating data and opinions and they need to let the social media leader know about these. For highly specialist areas, social media can provide links to blogs that explore subjects in more depth. These can be powerful in building thought-leadership for the organisation.
The forum heard that one of the big fears organisations have about dabbling in social media is that they could get caught out by making an inappropriate comment. This can easily snowball on social media and turn into a storm of criticism. Numerous brands have either been portrayed as tactless and crass or simply naive following some communications blunder. Chair of NFP Interchange and global head of not-for-profit for Grant Thornton, Carol Rudge, pointed to Gap”s misstep during Hurricane Sandy in the US when it tweeted: “All impacted by Sandy stay safe. We”ll be doing lots of Gap.com shopping today. How about you?”
The retailer was criticised for this tweet, which it then took down and apologised for.
Giving staff confidence
Panellist Jennifer Begg, a social media consultant and trainer, said it was important for organisations to have guidelines for staff to follow when posting on social media. These need to be simple and encouraging, giving staff confidence and permission to join the social media conversation. But they also have to realise that making statements on Twitter or Facebook is tantamount to speaking to a journalist.
Some organisations are guilty of putting their youngest and least experienced staff in control of social media, as they believe the young will be most adept at handling it. Anyone charged with posting on social media needs basic training to make them aware that sensitivity is required and also that social media are subject to the laws of libel and defamation.
But panellists agreed that social media also have a positive side when it comes to crisis management. Organisations that actively listen in to social communications can quickly pick up on potential problems and criticisms and act to close them down. “If you have alerts set up online, so that you can pick up on conversations that are going on, when something negative happens, you can step in. You can get involved in the conversation, you can steer the conversation and head it off at the pass before it gets even bigger,” said Begg.
In larger organisations, the public relations department is often given a key role in running the social media strategy, partly to head off the dangers of getting caught out with lax or insensitive language.
Nicola Dodd, head of PR and social media at Cancer Research UK, told the discussion that the PR department at the charity works closely with the digital team on social media strategy. The charity has 1 million followers across its social media platforms. It uses these networks to engage with supporters on a range of levels, updating followers using real-life stories, news hooks or the latest scientific research. It also uses social media to maximize involvement in awareness campaigns. The organisation has recently linked up with Wikipedia to help improve its cancer coverage.
“Social media doesn”t really have any down time, which is what makes it fun too, and it means you can respond to the news environment,” she said. “When Angelina Jolie revealed she”d had a preventive double mastectomy, we knew our press office would be really busy, but we also knew that it was a great opportunity to talk to our community about something that was a complex issue in a really accessible way.