Apr 012010

Across all sectors, social media has been heralded as being the great “leveler.”  We’ve witnessed its ability to give a voice to the little guy (or organization) and bring large corporations to their knees.  It has forced issues of transparency and trust to the forefront—to the dismay of some, and the elation of many others.  Nonprofits now have the opportunity to scale their efforts on par with organizations with far greater resources, thanks to tools like Facebook and Twitter.

It’s somewhat surprising then that many kind, benevolent nonprofits are struggling with the types of trust issues normally reserved for larger corporations.  A recent study by Cone, Inc. revealed the difficulties of converting the interest and awareness generated by social media into actions.  It seems that people are reluctant to put their money where their mouths (or Tweets) are, largely out of fear that their money won’t actually go toward helping the cause.  If social media is all about moving people up the ladder of engagement, then the question for nonprofits is how to get that ladder to extend into the offline world, to a place where people feel comfortable supporting with their wallets rather than just their ReTweets or Follow Fridays.

So how can this be done?  The underlying reasons for the disconnect between awareness and action found in the Cone study (each of which accounted for about a quarter or more of respondents) suggest several steps nonprofits should take.

Be transparent—Show potential donors the path that their donation takes, from the moment it leaves their PayPal account to when it reaches the populations you serve.  Kiva was a very public example of this in recent months, with the ultimate consensus being that it’s not wise to obscure your organization’s business model for the sake of marketing.  Ultimately, nonprofits face the same uphill battle as large corporations in gaining—and keeping—the public’s trust.

Promote offline engagement—Give people the opportunity to interact with your organization in person.  Facetime (as opposed to Facebook) with an organization was preferred by almost a third of respondents, so make sure people know how to connect with your cause offline.  This will help your organization build trust, reinforce transparency, and allow people to witness first-hand the impact your organization is having.

Show results—Assuming you can measure your impact (which is an entirely different, but equally important, issue), put this information front and center.  Along the same lines as being transparent with the path of the donation, extend your reporting to what your services did for your populations and what changes you witnessed.  Make full use of the community-building features of new media to connect your potential funders to the communities you serve, letting them serve as your strongest advocates.

Cut through the clutter—Clearly, free tools like Facebook and Twitter make it possible for an unlimited number of nonprofits to have fairly credible social media presences in a short period of time.  About 22 percent of respondents said they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of causes represented in the new media sphere, making it all the more important for organizations to differentiate themselves and find creative ways to use these tools.  It’s also critically important to hone in on your niche—find that narrow subset of supporters most attuned to your cause and figure out the best way to engage them, rather than try to be all things to all Twitterers.

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