In bad economy, nonprofits can tap social capital

flickr/brande jackson

flickr/brande jackson


With the bleak economy, many donors are curtailing giving levels until some of the uncertainty subsides. That makes 2009 a daunting year for fundraisers.

Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of your supporters solely in terms of dollars. They also can support you in non-monetary ways—by offering expertise, material goods, and assistance in publicity and fundraising. We call this “social capital,” and it may be a good year for your nonprofit to start exploring ways to tap into it.

The secret is to try to match your needs with supporters’ interests. Create opportunities for them to have some fun, get excited, and feel they’re furthering the causes they’re passionate about.

Here are some ideas for “asks” that don’t involve money. (I’m focusing on communications needs here.)


What expertise or service do you need? Technology support to build a website or blog; free graphic design or printing for a publication; a free event venue? Look through you donor lists and see if there are people who might be willing to make in-kind contributions this year. Put a WISH LIST of these expertise needs on your website, on your social media pages, and in your newsletter to let supporters know. Think your needs through carefully and try to attach them to discrete projects, with a beginning and an end. Give the donor a sense of involvement, ownership, and satisfaction (and credit) when the job gets done.


Endorsements from supporters are more powerful than your own words can ever be. Word-of-mouth always trumps publicity. Think about gathering supporter testimonials about why they think your orgnization is so good at what it does and why what you do is important to the community. You can use these in many ways—on websites, in publications, in speeches…even in funder proposals.


Maybe your organization could use volunteers to canvass a neighborhood or work at a special event. Let your supporters know about those opportunities, and be sure to reward them for their service in some way.


Many smaller nonprofits struggle to keep up with equipment and supplies. They could use digital cameras, videocams, printers, shelving, chairs, paper, etc. Donors often have good surplus equipment from their own technology upgrades that they don’t know what to do with. Make those connections. Publish a WISH LIST of needed equipment and supplies on your website or in you newsletters. (Make it clear you’re only interested in like-new or slightly used equipment that functions perfectly. You don’t need repair expenses.)


Those who may not be able to give you as much financial support this year may be happy to lend a fundraising hand by using their social networks of family and friends. Ask donors to refer 10 new potential supporters to you. Person-to-person fundraising made great leaps last year thanks to social media. Tap into these networks. Make sure its easy for donors to get fundraising widgets from you to put on their blogs or social media pages, and encourage them to use simple fundraising tools like Facebook’s Birthday Cause (This link takes you to Beth Kanter’s blog for some how-to’s.) Don’t try to control the message—let them talk about your organization and its importance in their own way and words. That’s what’s so powerful about this kind of personal fundraising.


If you’re trying to beef up attendance for a special event or promote a new program or just get news out, don’t forget to enlist supporters as your publicity corps. Ask them to post news or invitations on their blogs and social media pages, including links to appropriate landing pages on your website. They may also tap into a whole world of small newsletters associated with their places of worship, professional groups and associations, and other networks.


If you’ve been waiting for a good time to do donor research, now might be your moment. Rather than asking donors for money, ask them to help you learn more about the needs, opinions, and preferences of your supporters (or other topics) by taking a short survey.


If you need good photos and stories about your cause or organization, think about organizing a project or contest where your supporters (and potential supporters) send in digital photos and short articles about some facet of your work.  Think about this idea from the standpoint of strategy—the messages you want to get across. Then explore if and how yoru supporters might play a role in contributing content. For instance, one food shelf launching a major contribution campaign wanted donors to feel part of something much larger. So, they asked contributors to email them a photo of themselves and the food they were about to donate. All those photos went right onto the website.

Wisely using your supporters’ social capital can build strong, long lasting ties between them and your organization. They begin to feel like partners, not just  donors. We’re entering a new American era of volunteerism and participation. People are looking for opportunities not just to sign checks, but to roll up their sleeves and get involved. Give them that chance.

CC photo credit: Brande Jackson


2 Responses to “In bad economy, nonprofits can tap social capital”

  1. Beth Kanter Says:

    Great post! I think also that before the “asks” come the relationship building. And before the relationship building comes having a presence on social networks or at least one. While some may perceive these as a “waste of time,” it’s the new chamber of commerce of networking hour.

  2. social media consulting guy Says:

    good economy or bad economy, social media is just a great medium to use to build relationships, it’s a very cost effective approach. i actually dont have too much experience working with non-profits so this post was definitely educational. thank you.


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