A 5-step quide to social media strategy for nonprofits

flickr/luc legay

flickr/luc legay

Many nonprofits have already dipped their toes into social media. They see others doing it and figure they should be doing it too. So they jump on Twitter and create a Facebook page. Or they put event photos on Flickr, or buy a Flipcam to get videos on YouTube. Then what?

Back up.

Grab your strategic communications plan and start over.

But first, understand that social media is not about marketing, it’s about community. Yes, nonprofits can reach influencers and raise money through these channels, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. To succeed with social media, you have to genuinely appreciate the idea of community—offering help and value with no expectation of return. (I’m not saying it’s not great if you do get support in return, just don’t demand it.) These are useful channels for building relationships.

Using social media, nonprofits can:

  • gain insights about audiences and issues
  • spread important ideas and create awareness
  • share resources and opportunities
  • build networks and social movements
  • strengthen trust in your organization

Step one–the match game

Looking over your communications plan (or your organization’s strategic plan)—identify goals that could be supported by using social media in one of the five ways above.

For instance, advocacy groups may want to use social media to build networks and social movements. Foundations may want to use them to spread ideas and create issue awareness, or share research findings. Other nonprofits may want to use them to learn more about the needs and preferences (or complaints) of the clients they serve. Some nonprofits may want to use them to deepen trusting relationships with their donors.

This little match game should highlight areas that hold the most promise for your social media use. Refine and prioritize these into a set of social media objectives (what do you’d like to accomplish).

Step two–grab the earhorn not the megaphone

Before you start investing in social media, listen to what’s already being said about your organization and your issue. Get the “feel” of these media and how people are using them.

Even if you’ve decided social media isn’t a good investment for you, every nonprofit should at least have a listening outpost. Set up Google alerts for your organization’s name, executives, news release titles, and issue keywords. Research which bloggers are writing about your issues through Alltop or Technorati and subscribe to their blog feeds.

Organizing all this through Google Reader makes it easier for a staff member to keep up with relevant online conversations. Listening is not just a one-time exercise; it should become part of your standard day-to-day operations. That means expressly making time for it (1 hour a day) in someone’s schedule. That person should routinely report significant findings not only to executives, but to all staff members. And you should think about developing a way to make sure that anything negative you hear is addressed!

What do you do with what you hear? Check out these 17 ideas from Kivi LeRoux.

Step three—who, what, and where

If you have a strategic communications plan you already know who your key audiences are. If you don’t, use your organizational strategic plan and ask these questions: What changes are we trying to make in the world? Who can make those changes happen? Those groups are your key audiences. Be very clear about what they need to do to make the changes you desire happen—those are the actions you’re aiming to trigger through your communications.

If you don’t feel that your listening outpost captures your key audiences well enough, enhance it so you can find out more about what these particular groups of people think about your organization and its work. You especially want to find out which social media are popular with these folks. Do you need to start tracking Facebook because your audiences are there? Are they Tweeting? What blogs do they follow? Are there other online communities they participate in? What kind of research do you need to do to find out where they are congregating online? It might also be helpful to scout out which social media your peers and competitors are investing in.

Once you know who you’re trying to reach, what you want them to do, and what social media they’re using—you’re more than halfway home. Remember, just developing a deeper relationship with your key audience members can be an “action” goal.

Step four—putting it all in context

There’s a huge universe of social media out there, so don’t get carried away. Stick to your objectives and key audiences. Pick out a couple of social media that offer the most promise of reaching your key audiences, then focus on going deep with those.

Once you’ve chosen them, think about the larger picture. How are these social media tactics going to integrate with your website, email strategy, publications, media relations, and special events? (Don’t forget widgets.) These are all threads in the same cloth and they need to interweave and reinforce each other. (They also need to reflect that there are human beings behind your logo.)  Write down your integration plan, even a starter time line for the next few months.

Get creative about how you repurpose content in all these media so you’re not reinventing the wheel but still providing valuable content in fresh ways.

Step five—the rubber hits the road

Now, the tricky part. Who’s going to be responsible for what? Who’s going to generate the content and when? Who’s going to do the organizational listening? Who’s going to handle IT and legal support if needed? Do you need outside expertise? How are you going to measure ROI? Who’s going to gather that data?

Are you opting for an organizational voice or are you inviting employees to participate as individuals? How will you handle negative online comments about your organization? What are the budget and staff implications? (These media may be free to use, but they require a sustained investment of staff time to be effective.)

Some people put this question as the very first one an organization ought to ask itself in the process of developing a social media strategy. I don’t. I think that once you understand if, how, and why you need social media to advance your agenda, you’ll probably find a way to shift resources to handle the workload. Maybe you can adjust your other communications commitments to free up time. In the beginning, you may need to rob Peter a bit to make room for social media. Your efforts don’t have to be perfect, but they do have to be consistent and professional.

If you want estimates about how much time Tweeting, blogging, managing a Facebook or YouTube page takes—ask one of the nonprofits successfully using these media. From my own experience, listening and Twitter take me about an hour a day, and my blog posts take 1-2 hours each.

Even with a modest investment in social media, you also probably want to create a short user-friendly policy for your organization. Keep this in simple-to-understand language. There’s a good example at the end of this helpful Mashable blog post.

These statements can help trumpet and clarify for your employees the cultural shift that participation in social media represents—toward more transparency and openness, less control of marketing message, trust-building rather than self-promotion, and more authentic, multi-way engagement with partners and potential supporters.

Now, you’re ready to start using social media strategically—more confident that your investment of time and energy will actually advance your mission and goals.


Free tool of the week: VoiceThread for nonprofits

flickr/ //amy//

flickr/ //amy//

When I first found out about VoiceThread a while back, it struck me as something that foundations and nonprofits could make good use of. It’s a cool way to capture people’s engagement with a topic and image—to weave the threads of their voices into the story being  told.

A VoiceThread is a multimedia slideshow of photos, video, or documents that allows people to easily leave comments and join the conversation. Visually, it’s a slideshow screen surrounded by a mosaic of little avatars of all the people who comment on the image. When you click on the avatar you hear them or see what they’ve written or drawn. People can comment in five simple ways: by telephone, by computer microphone, by web cam, by writing text, or by drawing.

Once you’ve created the central slideshow story—you can invite people to view it and comment on it. Thus the conversation grows.

Wondering how you might use this free tool?

  • How about getting your donors to add their voices to a story about a common cause they all support, telling why they support it?
  • How about showcasing your grantees’ work by asking them to add their comments to a VoiceThread story you create about an issue they’re working on?
  • How about showing how real living human beings are affected by the work you do? Ask them to add comments to a VoiceThread about how one of your programs has helped them.
  • Honoring someone special? Create a VoiceThread testimonial to them including all the voice of people whose lives they’ve touched
  • Trying to build a social movement? Here’s a very visual way to start—tell your VoiceThread story and ask supporters to add their supportive comments. Watch the little avatars multiply!

These ideas should help you get started thinking about ways you might incorporate VoiceThread into your website, social media platforms, emails to help achieve strategic communication goals.  It’s very easy to share—embeddable, emailable, etc.

Now, for a little introduction from the Voicethreads folks. And here’s a great step-by-step how-to slideshow, and an example of how educators are using VoiceThread to carry out conversations with students. It’s a very versatile tool…as you’ll see as you browse through the collection of existing VoiceThreads; everything from podcasting tutorials to art exhibitions to children’s voices about what’s happening in Darfur.

As usual, I played around with this free tool—just enough to create a very simple 1-slide central story about the issue of homeless teens. When you get to the page, just click on the lone avatar for the ABCD Foundation to hear the story. (I pretended I was a foundation interested in highlighting the work of its grantees working on that issue.) You’re going to have to IMAGINE other little avatars surrounding it—each from a grantee talking about the impact of their work with homeless teens. (It would be terrific to have some of those voices be the teens themselves.)

There are a few different pricing levels beyond what you can get for free (3 min. maximums on recordings, max. of 50 comments, etc.). But, even the Pro account, which gives you the most creative freedom is only $60 per year.

I see a lot of potential of this tool for the nonprofit sector–and not just for educators. Nothing is more fascinating to us than other people–what they think, what they say and do, what they support. VoiceThread is a unique way to combine your organization’s voice with the voices of your supporters or beneficiaries. It makes for richer, more inclusive, more credible storytelling. Plus—it’s pretty darn easy to use! Try it.

CC photo credit: //amy//


Free tool of the week: Tutorials on taking better photos



In my last post, I encouraged budget-conscious nonprofit staff members to consider taking their own digital photographs instead of hiring professionals every time they need images for Web sites or publications.

But I also cautioned that those photos had better be good, or you really haven’t saved any money. You’ve just compromised the quality of your communications.

Spend 20 minutes a week on these few sites to become a much better photographer. As powerful as visual images are, it’s well worth the effort to master the basics of this art form. (Oh, and the first rule is READ YOUR CAMERA’S MANUAL!)

Start with Amateur Snapper’s 10 top photographic composition rules and Digital Photography Schools’ composition tips.

Then explore DPS’s 10 ways to take stunning portraits and idigitalphoto’s list of 60-second lessons to improve your photography.

Finally, check out 10 questions to ask yourself before you take the photo.

And don’t forget to explore free online photo editing applications like Picasa, Piknik, and Gimp.

NOTE: At long last I’ve added the page of nonprofit social media case studies I promised a couple of months ago. If you’ve got a good candidate to add, please let me know in a comment. Thanks.


31 ways for nonprofits to save money on communications

flickr/Daniel Y. Go

flickr/Daniel Y. Go

If you’re really chafing under 2009 budget constraints, try this exercise.

List all your communications projects for the rest of this budget year and prioritize each from the standpoint of how important it is in meeting your strategic communications objectives. Eliminate the bottom 20% of that list.

It may seem drastic, but it also might surprise you how little effect it has on your communications impact. There’s never been a better time to cut programs and products that don’t contribute significantly to your end goals. It can give you extra time and money to focus on more effective tactics.

Below are some other ways you can squeeze impact from a smaller budget. But first, a word of caution.

You’re top priority is always effectiveness. If you find cheap paper but it doesn’t do what you need it to do, or you find an internal staff member who can take photos but they aren’t high quality–those savings are not really savings. The goal is to explore small ways of cutting costs without lessening the impact of your communications. Keep that in mind as you look over this list of ideas.

  • Cut down on meeting time. Free your staff up to get more work done so you have to outsource less. Eliminate most information-sharing meetings by using other kinds of internal communication. Meet only when you need a decision or action.
  • Hold your staff accountable for managing their budgets. Monitor slippage and tie it to performance review.
  • Attack all areas of cost, not just what you spend out-of-pocket. Look at internal staffing/overhead costs, and ask the tough question: Would I better off outsourcing this function?
  • Curb your enthusiasm. Do what you absolutely need to do well. Then—only if you have extra time and money—take on new projects. This is a time to think about what you can take off your plate, not what you can add.
  • Find volunteers, unpaid interns, or short-term lower-paid staff to keep up with the daily routine of maintaining relationships and accurate contact data, and doing follow-up tasks. Once the routine has been explained, these workers shouldn’t require a lot of supervision.
  • Cull and update your mailing lists. You cannot believe how much postage you’ll waste if you don’t. Add “address service requested” to the mailing label of one of your newsletters (or another mailer) to improve the accuracy of your list.
  • Be ruthless about which publications you really need to produce. Don’t rely on: “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • Eliminate some of your printed publications and publish online PDFs instead, to save on printing and mailing.
  • Group print jobs together to save on press time. This means you have to plan in advance.
  • Have your printer/designer analyze everything from paper stock and size to number of halftones and colors to see if you can shave costs.
  • For important publications, ask your designers to try to leverage free or discounted paper from paper companies.
  • Take your own digital photos and video. There are plenty of online sources that can teach you to do this well. (My Thursday blog post this week will give you some resources for this.)
  • Use free online stock photos. (See my April 16 post for sources.)
  • Can you eliminate a conference or workshop and replace it with a less expensive webinar?
  • Ask your board members if they know printing or design vendors who might offer discounts or even pro bono work to your nonprofit.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel unless you have to. Adapt the great ideas of others (but absolutely no plagiarism!) There are many places online to find design inspirations for all kinds of communications.
  • Instead of attending professional conferences, make use of free professional development opportunities online in the field of communications (webinars, blogs, etc.).
  • Use every free tool you can get on the internet—photo and audio editing tools, jargon finders, Web site analytics, PitchEngine, Google Docs, SlideShare, JS-Kit, and much more. (For ideas, select “freetools” on the ImpactMax tagcloud. I highlight a new free tool every Thursday.)
  • If you’re still using a clipping bureau to track media coverage of your organization, use free online Google alerts instead. Set up alerts for your organization’s name and acronym, your CEO’s name, and other top executives’ names. You can also set up temporary alerts for special keywords related to your media relations tactics.
  • If you’re considering using a low-cost, online vendor for emails, enewsletters, teleconferences, or webinars, be sure to take advantage of the free trials they offer to test their services.
  • Small nonprofits may want to put wish lists for in-kind contributions in their newsletters (e.g., perfectly working electronics like digital cameras, video cams, printers, etc. and new office supplies—whatever is needed).
  • If you need a quick, low-cost design, consider 99 designs, where you can hold a little online contest for a project.
  • Talk to instructors at local colleges offering design courses to see if you can make the design of one of your major publications into a class assignment or contest. This takes advance planning to give instructors enough time to prepare. Be sure you control the final decision.
  • Talk to journalism or creative writing program graduate program directors to explore what kind of talented writing interns you might be able to place with your organization.
  • Cut spending on special events and galas. Think about lower cost events that have more of a programmatic context.
  • Do more fundraising through email than higher cost direct mail. (But make it permission based.)
  • Use free Web 2.0 media as alternatives to traditional paid communication channels. But remember, while they’re free, these media take staff time and thoughtful planning to use well.
  • Use email news releases rather than printed snail mail. You save on paper, printing, and postage, and reporters prefer email.
  • Explore partnerships with businesses related to your issues or in your geographic area. They can sponsor events, underwrite publications and advertising, etc. But know they will want recognition in return.
  • Leverage your staff expertise. Encourage staff members to publish articles and accept speaking engagements to help you raise your organization’s visibility.
  • Network, network, network. Partner and collaborate to cut costs. Share video cams. Share webmasters. Share copywriters.

What cost-saving ideas would you add to this list?

Thanks to LinkedIn contributors Janet de Acevedo Macdonald, Bridget Bevis, Jonathan Carter, Jill Eckhoff-King, Elizabeth Flynn, Jeffrey Kramer, Randy Milanovic, and Ed Peabody. Their smart ideas are part of this list.

CC photo credit: Daniel Y. Go


Free tool of the week: Build your nonprofit communications expertise online


There’s never been a more dangerous time for a nonprofit communicator to stop learning than right now. Communication channels, tactics, and tools are undergoing radical transformation. As Alice in Wonderland said, you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in place. The good news is that you can attend class while sitting in your office chair!

With travel budgets squeezed hard, you may not be able to attend professional development conferences this year—but a universe of online education is at your fingertips. Here are a few free ways you can keep up with developments in the field and build your communications expertise. The real challenge is setting aside a few hours a week (Friday afternoons?) to build your expertise and then sticking to it!

Alltop Nonprofit

This site aggregates the best blogs by topic. The Alltop Nonprofit page is a gold mine of the latest advice and news in communications, philanthropy, and social media. You can also search for related pages, like marketing, fundraising, facebook, etc. I defy you not to find something that’s both fascinating and useful.


SlideShare is a visual university, a vast collection of slide presentations by all kinds of experts. If you want to browse you can search for topics like “nonprofit communications” or “social media.” But it’s good  for more specific topics, too–like “nonprofit annual reports” or “fundraising on Twitter.”  You can also search by name–say you want to see all the presentations by Beth Kanter, for instance. (And she’s got some great ones!) With some presentations, you may miss not hearing the audio portion of the talk, but many contain all the information you’ll need on slides. I’m betting some of the presentations from those professional development conferences you can’t travel to anymore will be on SlideShare very soon after the event.

The Communications Network

The Communications Network supports communicators who work in philanthropy, but many of the resources they offer are equally applicable to nonprofits. One of their latest offerings is Are We There Yet? , a communications evaluation guide. Some of the presentations at their SRO fall 2008 conference are available on the site as slide shows or summaries. Their Ideas You Can Use, and Research and Reports are useful, too. And the site includes a trusty Jargon Finder.


The Nonprofit Good Practice Guide website offers a pretty rich section on Marketing and Communications. The SPIN Project site provides a great set of tutorials on communications topics from working with PR consultants to planning strategic communications and developing relationships with reporters. The site also offers a Strategic Communications Plan Generator that allows you to create a full communications plan for your organization or campaign by filling in a simple web-based form. The Getting Attention site offers a free Nonprofit Tagline Report, and MarketingProfs library has some great articles and case studies.

Webinars and Podcasts

There are some wonderful opportunities out there for free webinars and podcasts on nonprofit communications topics–many offered by experts who have blogs. Sometimes you can capture these by doing a search or by reading the latest blog posts on Alltop Nonprofit. For instance, in the past few weeks you might have found: a free webinar about how to write a great elevator pitch on NonprofitMarketingGuide; a series of free webinars on social media and storytelling by NTEN; a regular Chronicle of Philanthropy podcast series called Social Good by Allison Fine on how nonprofits are using social media; and a Chronicle of Philanthropy Live Discussion about social media and raising awareness and funds. Most of these webinars and podcasts are archived, so you can access them even if you missed the live events.

Do searches for specific communications topics you’re interested in, and you might be amazed at what you find!

What other treasure troves of professional development content are out there?

Free tool of the week: DIY social media strategy for nonprofits

I wanted to share Beth Kanter’s recent Slideshare presentation on how to create your organization’s social media strategy. It’s a great starting place for thinking about your organization’s social media objectives, tactics, and policies.

By the way, Slideshare is a place you should visit often to search for new presentations related to your work. It’s also someplace you should be posting your most useful presentations.