Charities compete for volunteers, time, and money. That competition, like it or not, forces non-profits to adopt promotional and branding strategies similar to those of businesses.
For a decade, I have asked students in my writing and business courses to create online campaigns for real clients. Most students choose to work with non-profits because they believe in the causes. Volunteering also looks great on graduate school applications and sounds great during job interviews.
My students work with either non-profits or industry… and they quickly discover that both require human capital for success. This realization that capital is limited, that scarcity applies to more than money, forever changes how these students think about non-profit work.
Non-profit organizations need social media presences to compete for volunteers and donations. This begins with establishing at least a simple, easy-to-use, mobile-friendly website presence. The website needs to be a virtual brochure, explaining the mission of the charity and disclosing important information such as the leadership.
Unlike ten years ago, websites no longer exist to be primary destinations. Instead, websites point visitors to social media feeds and custom apps. Knowing this, I encourage students to design sites that include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and other social media feeds.
The website must make clear what the charity does and how it uses resources. I encourage charities to include general budget information, to prove that donations are used wisely. People want to give time and money to the mission of a charity, not to the charity’s employees or overhead expenses.
Of course, there will always be capital costs to fundraising and to operating any non-profit.
Capital refers to any limited resource required to make an enterprise successful. For non-profit organizations, the capital required includes time, knowledge, special skills, donated materials, physical space, and media attention. Research suggests there is even a limited amount of human empathy we can endure before we become too overwhelmed to care about others. Empathy, therefore, meets the definition of a scarce resource, too.
The best way to reach out to potential donors and volunteers is to tell stories. These stories might appear in long-form on the website, but today they should also be told via social media and streaming digital media.
Once you have a website that conveys the mission and trustworthiness of the non-profit, be sure to link to a Facebook page. Yes, other social media are trendier now, but Facebook connects more people to causes than any other platform. You must have a Facebook presence as a charity.
Link the Facebook page to an official Twitter account, too. Whatever appears in one social media feed (or stream), should appear in the others. For a charity, you want to reduce work and one way to do this is to consolidate social media feeds to Facebook.
The Facebook page should not allow unmoderated posts from visitors. I encourage charities to approve posts, because you don’t want offensive or politically loaded postings to a non-profit social media account.
Twitter is ideal for sharing retweets of relevant news headlines and information that might appeal to supporters of your charity. Retweeting and short links have replaced blogging as the best way to connect to larger audiences.
Do not saturate Facebook or Twitter. Post with moderation so supporters do not block your charity or unfollow the feeds.
Remember that what works today might not work tomorrow, though. Some charities report success with podcasts, while others have found podcasting already fading in value. For example, I now discourage non-profit and business blogs, since the traffic to blogs has declined dramatically in the last five years. Blogs start active and then fade away as the writers lose their enthusiasm for the medium.
Blogging is for the most dedicated of advocates. There remains a place for blogs, because they do reach influential readers. For charities, however, maintaining a long-form text- based blog becomes an issue of personnel and time.
For non-profit organizations, Instagram and YouTube offer great ways to harness digital storytelling. But, these social platforms require regular posts to sustain followers. Instagram is perfect for large public events, for example. If your charity has regular events, then you should be sharing images from those to Instagram and other image sharing platforms.
A note of caution. If your charity works with marginalized communities, be sure that the people appearing in images you share do not mind being associated with the cause. Some of the charities with which my students and I collaborate have adopted “no children” policies when posting images from events. Always seek permission before posting someone’s image or voice online.
Stories need heroes. For non- profits, you have to depict the heroes receiving supports and the heroism of volunteers. If your non-profit serves non-humans, there are still great stories to tell about nature, places, and artifacts. The key to narrative is that people want to appreciate a journey through challenges.
Document before, during, and after photos of the work your organization does. Post those to social media and write short taglines or captions that tell the story. Use hashtags to connect stories so people can follow posts on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere.
A charity I support is preparing for their annual gala. There will be photos of planning meetings, the hanging of decorations, the arrivals of guests, the awards ceremony, and so on. The last photos will be of the ballroom after the event. Following the event, photos will be posted of services being provided to families. That’s a complete storyline.
We also plan to interview volunteers and families during and after the gala. The interviews will be edited and posted to YouTube. Those interviews will be shared via Twitter and Facebook. Again, notice how one interview reaches at least three social media platforms. And the interview should fit into the story of the charity.
Donating time to one cause means that we have chosen that charity over others. Thinking about all the charities to which we cannot give time would be overwhelming. In the end, we seek out charities and causes with stories we understand and value.
Ensure your non-profit uses social media to tell stories in which donors and volunteers want to appear. And then, share the stories of those individuals. This cycle of narrative offers an effective online advocacy strategy.