The Ultimate Social Media Guide for Nonprofits

Marketing July 07, 2021

Tatiana Morand

By Tatiana Morand

Whenever Kathleen thought about ramping up her nonprofit’s social media presence, she quickly found herself overwhelmed. When she’d started the organization, social media didn’t even exist! She’d invited people to the first organization meeting with photo-copied flyers. Now, somehow she was supposed to be some kind of expert. 


Kathleen had started accounts with whatever seemed to be popular in the past and posted on them haphazardly. Last year, she’d had a marketing intern who’d taken over social media, but when the summer ended, she was back where she started.


Still, while the intern was there, regularly posting, the organization had built a small audience. Kathleen knew that if she kept, let alone grow it, she needed a social media strategy and plan for her nonprofit. 


What about you? Is your nonprofit succeeding on social media? Are you having trouble keeping pace with Facebook changes, new social media trends, and telling a social media fail from a win? And what, exactly, is TikTok, anyway? 


In this post, you’ll learn:

  • How to choose your nonprofit’s social media platforms

  • The critical parts of a nonprofit social media strategy

  • How to create engaging social media content

  • How to use social media for fundraising

  • The data to track and analyze

  • Lessons from nonprofits that are succeeding with social media

Pick Your Platforms

Most nonprofits don’t need to be on every single social media platform. Instead, the best social media platforms for nonprofits will depend on the kinds of content they want to share, the audience they hope to reach, and where their supporters are already active. 


Facebook: Widely used by people of all ages (though teens are the smallest age group of users), Facebook is an excellent place to share events, fundraising, images, video, and text. Facebook’s live streaming and story functions continue to gain popularity. 


Twitter: Character limits make Twitter best for quick updates, discussions, and interacting with the media. Nonprofits that do a lot of advocacy or activism may also find Twitter a good platform for organizing and communicating about actions or running hashtag campaigns. 


Instagram: Instagram is a highly visual platform, perfect for photos, videos, and impactful captions.


LinkedIn: Designed for professional networking, LinkedIn connects you with talent when hiring and can help reach out to corporate donors and learn more about your existing donors’ careers and connections.


TikTok: A video-based platform popular with teens, users record and share 15-60 second video clips set to music. Users also participate in challenges and projects that benefit nonprofits by raising awareness and funds. 


Kathleen realized she didn’t have much use for LinkedIn and Twitter and decided to focus solely on Facebook and Instagram. That instantly felt more manageable. 

Start with Strategy

One of the common mistakes nonprofits make with launching social media is jumping on a platform because they think they have to, then posting things haphazardly. Then the social media doesn’t really do anything for them, and they become discouraged or overwhelmed. 


You’re much more likely to be successful with social media if you start with a strategy. It doesn’t have to be incredibly complex, but your nonprofit social media strategy should, at minimum, include:

A Clear Purpose and Goals

Why do you want to use social media in the first place? What do you hope to accomplish? Do you want to:


Once you know your purpose, you can begin to set goals. A “SMART” goal format can keep you on track. A SMART goal is:


Specific: Layout precisely what you’re trying to accomplish.


Measurable: Instead of a vague target like, “be better at social media” try “post X times a week” or “increase our number of followers by X%.” 


Attainable: If you’re a one-person marketing/fundraising department, you shouldn’t have the same goals as someone with a staff of ten. Your time and budget will influence what you can get done, so set your goals accordingly. 


Relevant: Is your goal in line with what your organization needs and your social media purpose? If your primary purpose is to educate your followers, your goal shouldn’t be about fundraising numbers. 

Timely: When will you know you’ve reached your goal? How long will you try a strategy before evaluating it? Your goal should have a calendar date on it. 

A Target Audience

Who are you trying to reach? Look at your current followers and supporters, and consider their interests. What kind of content are they the most responsive to? Which platforms are they active on?

 

You may already use donor personas in your fundraising communications, and if so, you won’t be surprised to find that they can be useful in social media, too. A persona is a character sketch of your ideal audience member that includes the demographics, interests, pain points, and involvement history. This fictitious person allows you to humanize and target your communications.

 

More precisely, Kathleen adapted the donor personas she was already using to target her social media, focusing on the fictitious “Angela Activist” and “Penelope Programs.” 

 

Angela, Kathleen imagined, was a 20-something woman who cared about the cause and always wanted something to do. She was ready to hit the streets, protest, or host a letter-writing campaign and value content like news articles, online petitions, and photos from political events. She’d be interested in sharing cause-based content as an advocate. 

 

Penelope, on the other hand, wasn’t very political. She was in her forties, established in her career, and interested in the organization’s programs and wanted to know more about what the organization was doing to help people hear their stories. While Penelope appreciated the larger picture, her focus was local. She’d value stories from the field, videos showing the work in action, and volunteer updates. In addition, she’d be interested in sharing heart-warming content. 

A Schedule

How often do you want to post on each platform? There’s no perfect number or frequency, and you’ll need to experiment to see what is engaging to your audience and sustainable for your organization. In general, consistency and quality outweigh raw frequency--it’s better to post high-quality content once a week than several random posts, followed by gaps of silence. 

 

Kathleen decided that she could handle two posts a week with the help of a few social media tools. She planned to increase frequency as she became more comfortable, ideally working ahead to schedule posts.

Channel Integration

Social media is only one part of a content marketing and or communications strategy. In addition to your social platforms, you probably communicate with your audience through email, on your website, and direct mail. Maybe you have a blog or a print newsletter, too. It’s best for these channels all to work together to tell stories and engage your supporters.

Imagine you see a hilarious interaction between a dog and a pigeon on your walk in the park. The way you’d talk about it on the phone with your friend is different from the way you’d tweet about it, right? If you had a video, you might post it on Instagram with a single caption, but email it to someone with a longer note. The story would be the same, but telling it would be different depending on the communication channel.

 

In the same way, your nonprofit story will change form to suit the communication channel but remain the same in its essence. Maybe that story is, “Kids learn better when they eat breakfast.” 

 

In that case, you might:

  • Share a note from a volunteer at your school breakfast program via email

  • Post a picture of breakfast on Instagram

  • Tweet stats about child hunger on Twitter

  • Invite people to dedicate their birthdays to raising money for breakfast on Facebook

  • Post a static page on your website about your program

  • Send a longer fundraising appeal that tells the story of one child who benefitted from your program

 

Wherever your audience encounters you, the message is reinforced. 

A Social Media Policy

How do you want to present yourself on social media? A social media policy is a collection of guidelines for everyone who uses your organization’s social media accounts. It can include:

 

  • Roles and responsibilities (who will post what?)

  • What kinds of content you share

  • The voice and tone you aspire to

  • Your policy on responding to comments

  • How to handle conflicts on social media

  • How you handle data and privacy

Best Practices for Posting

What exactly should you post on social media? It will depend a lot on your mission and your audience. However, these five best practices will help you develop engaging content, no matter what kind of organization you are in.

 

1. Make It Visual

Social media uses text, of course, but its real power lies in visual content.

 

Visual content includes graphics, videos, and photographs. It’s the backbone of platforms like Instagram, but it’s essential on other platforms, too. People are more likely to engage with, remember, and see content with some visual element. 

 

Taking photos and video at events is a great source of visual content, but don’t forget infographics, illustrations, and slides are all visual, too. 

 

2. Provide Value

Why do supporters follow you? What do they “get” from interacting with you on social media? Pay attention to the kind of posts your audience interacts with, and give them more of those. Ask yourself, “What’s the value to followers?” with every post.

 

As a general rule, 80% of your content should be inspiring, informative, or entertaining for your supporters, and 20% can be purely self-promotional.

 

This post from the World Wildlife Fund gives animal lovers the content they crave, reinforcing the reasons they follow WWF. 


 

3. Ask Questions

Nonprofits using social media successfully don’t just broadcast their news--they start a conversation. Ask your audience for their feedback, opinions, and ideas. Then, invite them to participate with your social media through questions, polls, and surveys. It’s more engaging for supporters and helps you learn more about them.

Even a light-hearted conversation can point to your mission, like the Tree House Humane Society’s questions for the long-haired cat lovers of the world.


4. Respond to Your Audience

Social media is interactive. When someone asks a question or makes a comment, they’re hoping your organization will respond. So make an effort to respond promptly, even if it’s just, “Thanks for your feedback!” or “That’s so good to hear!”

5. Be Authentic

Social media allows you to showcase only your brightest moments. Like many Instagram influencers, some nonprofits keep their social media presence superficially flawless. It’s tempting to do so, but if you never dig deeper, you’ll miss out on authenticity.

Your nonprofit’s social media is a chance to be authentic and give your followers a real inside look at your work, the people doing it, and the change you’re making. While you should remain professional, don’t be afraid to show who you are as an organization--talk about what’s bringing you joy, driving you mad, and keeping you going. It’s much more interesting and authentic than a perfect shiny image. 

Nonprofit Fundraising on Social Media

Social media gives nonprofits an unprecedented opportunity to reach new audiences and engage with their existing ones, making it a potentially great fit for fundraising. From #GivingTuesday campaigns to Facebook fundraisers, there’s a lot to experiment with. 

 

Fundraising on social media works best when you tailor your content to the platforms you choose, like focusing on images for Instagram vs text and video on Facebook. It’s particularly well-suited to fundraising that directly involves your supporters, like crowdfunding and peer-to-peer campaigns. 

Analytics and Tracking for Nonprofits

When your nonprofit is active on social media, you’ll get a lot of data to analyze. First, consider your SMART goals: what are you hoping to achieve? Then, track your progress towards getting there. Next, consider adding some or all of these data points to your list:

Traffic:

Which social platforms drive traffic to your website? How much? When?

Followers:

How many followers do you have on each platform?

How many people are reached by each post?

Engagement/Connections:

  • Email Subscribers

  • Mentions

  • Comments

  • Retweets

  • Facebook Likes

  • Shares

4 Top Social Media Trends of 2021 

Social media is famously ever-changing. New platforms emerge, established ones change their algorithms, and users find new ways to engage with content. In 2021, these are the social media trends for nonprofits to watch. 

 

1. Everybody Still Loves Video

Video streaming accounts for a huge portion of all web traffic, and demand for it continues to grow. From YouTube to Netflix to Facebook live stream, people want to watch videos, so make sure you include it in your social media strategy. 

 

2. The Popularity of Ephemeral Content Continues

Time-limited content, like Instagram and Facebook stories and Snapchat snaps, is very popular. A short video or photo storytelling series is quickly digestible, with the added benefit of implying urgency--it’s going away soon, so you’d better watch it now.

 

Nonprofits can use ephemeral content to highlight an issue, quickly tell a story, or update followers on progress or projects. 

 

Instagram allows you to pin important stories to the top of your account if there’s something you don’t want to lose. For example, the American Red Cross features several stories about a range of topics on their Instagram. 

3. Augmented Reality Continues to Grow

Augmented Reality (AR) is the integration of virtual elements into the real world. It usually relies on a smartphone or tablet, using the camera to import the “real” part, Think Pokémon Go, or a Snapchat filter. 

Nonprofits can use AR to gamify fundraising and create new experiences for their donors. Look at how charity: water used AR to illustrate a girl’s journey to get water for her family. 

4. Personalization is Expected

 When Netflix knows which new movies your donors will like, and Amazon knows when they’re running out of dish soap, you have to keep up by personalizing your communications. The days of sending one mass message to everyone have come to an end; now, donors and members expect you to know their names, preferences, and interests. Software can help you keep track and offer every donor a personal experience. 

5 Top Nonprofit Social Media Examples

1. Truth Initiative

The #ThisIsQuitting public service campaign encourages people to commit to quit vaping. First, they text to take the pledge and get education and support. Then, they make TikTok videos of themselves destroying their vape pens. The campaign attracted tens of thousands of people.

@dymesismine

Was this painful to watch?😳🤔 ##ThisIsQuitting ##fyp ##fypシ ##fy ##dontletthisflop ##iswearttogodiwillikeandfollow ##share

♬ Dance2Ditch - truthorange

Why It Works:

  • It uses a youth platform to reach a youth audience
  • It’s built on participation, giving participants several things to do
  • It asks participants to use TikTok the way they’re already using it (making tiny music-backed clips)

2. St. Baldrick's

The children’s cancer charity uses its Instagram to celebrate volunteers and kids, educate about cancer, and introduce its staff and programs. Yet, it manages to do all these things in an upbeat way. 

Why It Works:

  • The content is highly visual, with photos and graphics.

  • It’s celebratory and high-energy in tone, even when taking on tough topics.

  • It creates a community--volunteers, staff, and followers all unite in support of the honored kids

3. Water Is Life

This social media video from Water Is Life is an excellent example of how stirring a simple video can be. It’s just two people in the field, inviting the audience to join them on the journey. 

 

Why It Works:

  • No bells or whistles, just two concerned people sharing a real story.

  • A clear call-to-action about what they want followers to do in response.

4. Keep A Breast

Keep A Breast enlists supporters to raise awareness for their cause with the #CheckYourSelfie campaign. Supporters are asked to post a picture of themselves with three fingers to their breast, symbolizing the importance of early detection and self-examination to prevent and treat breast cancer. They use a hashtag to unite the posts and share followers’ posts on their social media. 

Why It Works:

  • Supporters are asked to do one simple thing

  • The hashtag directly relates to the cause

  • Like the Truth Initiative’s TikTok videos, this campaign asks followers to use social media in a way they’re already using (posting selfies).

5. Crisis Text Line

Crisis Text Line does a great job with Twitter. They communicate their important message in the style of the platform, retweet their followers, and comment on topical issues. 

_ --

Why It Works:

  • They make the most of Twitter’s brief style

  • They tie their mission to current events and trends

  • They use memes and jokes, which are also part of Twitter’s style

Social Media Success in 2021 and Beyond

Kathleen felt ready to tackle social media for her nonprofit with a strategy in place, and several ideas for creating content her audience would enjoy. She slimmed down her list of platforms, targeted specific audiences, and committed to a posting schedule she could manage. She was deliberate about her content and soon saw her audience beginning to engage more and even grow. 

 

Kathleen’s success (and, for that matter, St. Baldrick’s or Crisis Text Line’s) with social media wasn’t magic. It was simply a matter of following best practices, creating valuable content, and engaging with her audience. These things are achievable for most organizations, regardless of budget or size. 

 

If you’d like to take the next step towards nonprofit social media success, check out Julia Campbell and Wild Apricot’s free webinar 5 Ways Nonprofits are Actually Attracting New Members with Social Media.  

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