Revised with new information: March 23,
Organizations, NGOs & Online Social Networking:
Advice and Commentary
Your reaction to reading the words online social networking (OSN)
for the first time is probably, isn't that just another description of
the Internet? And you would be right: the Internet
has always been a place to exchange ideas and to create networks
and communities that can defy traditional community structures and
hierarchies, and to show how we are all connected to different people. It
has always been about
engagement, not just one-way communications.
This techie buzz phrase online social networking or Web 2.0
is meant to describe web-based online communities meant to encourage
members to socialize with each other online and have their friends
and colleagues publicly listed. These platforms, like Facebook or
Instagram or SnapChat, are friend-of-a-friend networks: when you join, you
note who else on the network is your "friend" or associate, and others are
able to see these associations. These platforms are also set up for
members to frequently update each other ("I'm queuing for the concert" or
"I'm being thrown off the airplane" or "I'm listening to a boring speech"
Some of the most popular OSN sites worldwide are FaceBook
and Twitter. There are also professional
online networks that use online social networking features, such as LinkedIn,
and issues-focused online networks, such as Change.org.
Wikipedia hosts a relatively
of online networking platforms; however, note that this list doesn't
distinguish between social networking sites and professional
networking sites, as I do. Also, note that I have to frequently update
this page because the popularity of social networking sites changes so
For someone who remembers the criticisms of America Online, which had exactly
the same exclusive appeal for many people in its early days, these
social networking platforms can seem exclusionary and limited - you have
to be a member of the social network in order to read its posts and
interact with people using such.
Another criticism: using these sites generates a lot more work for
nonprofits trying to reach current and potential clients, volunteers and
donors: you have to re-type information over and over again, to reach the
audience on each platform (yes, there are apps that will automatically
post something across some platforms - but none will do it all, and what
works on Facebook does NOT work on Twitter).
Outreach is done generally the same way on each platform:
- An organization can create its own user profile or a fan page and ask
volunteers, donors and other supporters to make the organization a
"friend" or to "like" the organization. Other users will see this
association and may be prompted to click on your organization's profile
to learn more about your work.
- An organization can ask volunteers to put information about their
volunteer service into their profiles on whatever networking platforms
they use. This is probably best done under the section to list
employment: under "title," they should list "volunteer" and under
"company," the name of your organization; they can describe their
volunteering activities in any other fields provided. Having volunteers
highlight their service in these profiles benefits your organization by
giving your work exposure to potential new volunteers and donors, and
perhaps even media contacts, who will see the listing as they use the
platforms to network with others.
- Staff members, acting as representatives of the organization, can
post questions and respond to such in the various discussion areas
within different platforms (as appropriate). This creates more
opportunities for other network members to see the organization's name
and associate it with a particular topic or issue.
- Nonprofits can ask current volunteers what OSN sites they use, and
encourage them to:
- occasionally post new information about their own service or new
activities to the organization on their OSN blog or announcement
- post public events hosted by your organization under
"Events I'm Attending" or whatever that feature might be called on a
- be on the lookout in any OSN platform they use for someone
commenting about your organization, positive or negative, and to let
you know /what's being said
However, THERE ARE DOWNSIDES that nonprofits need to be aware of
when using online networking sites, particularly social networking
Your organization should have a written policy regarding how paid staff and
volunteers should and should not engage as representatives of your
organization online, including on OSN platforms. Make it clear to
volunteers, for instance, that while it's fine for them to highlight their
role as volunteers for your organization in their online conversations, that
does not necessarily make them official representatives of such, and any
comments or questions about your organization they see online, including on
OSN platforms, should be brought to the attention of appropriate member of
the organization's core staff.
- A volunteer may engage in or promote activities via his or her web
site, blog or online profile on a social networking platform that your
organization does not wish to be associated with. Perhaps there are
pictures of the volunteer on the site, or links to videos, that make you
uncomfortable. Of course, the reality is that your volunteers may be
engaging in offline activities your nonprofit wouldn't
necessarily want to be associated with either (think about the t-shirts
organizations hand out to volunteers -- did you give your volunteers a
list of where they should and shouldn't wear such?). You may want to
consider creating a policy regarding why your organization might refuse
to link to a person's profile on a social networking site, and share
this policy with your volunteers. You could even ask for their help in
drafting such; by involving them in the discussion, you create a sense
of ownership among your volunteers regarding the policy.
- Your organization's volunteers AND staff may want to keep their
online social networking activities separate from their professional and
volunteering activities. Most staff and volunteers will be happy to note
their service to your organization on a professional networking
site such as LinkedIn or an
issues-focused network such as Change.org,
but don't require any volunteer or staff member to link to your
organization via a social networking site, such as FaceBook
or Flickr or Snapchat.
Note in your invitation to be a "friend" online that you won't be
offended if the invitation is declined.
- Staff members and volunteers may be asked to link to other staff and
volunteers as "friends" on social networking sites, but they may not
want to do so with everyone. We don't all define "friend" the same way.
It's easier for an individual to turn down a link request on a
professional networking site such as LinkedIn
with criteria that doesn't sound personal, such as, "I'm sorry, but I
only link to people I've worked with directly for at least six months,"
than it is to tell someone requesting a friends link on an OSN platform
that he or she isn't really a "friend." Staff members that decline
friend invitations from volunteers or even other staff members via OSN
platforms may end up hurting the feelings of those they work with.
Encourage staff and volunteers to respect that some people may want to
keep their OSN activities separate from their work or volunteering
- Many OSN platforms are blocked from being used by employees at
various businesses and government organizations. Many of these platforms
are also not accessible for people using assistive technologies, for
people with certain disabilities, or for those using older software and
hardware. This means an organization should not switch any of its
outreach activities, such as blogging, instant messaging or photo
sharing, entirely over to OSN platforms, as many people are prevented
from accessing such. In other words, your OSN outreach activities should
not replace your other online outreach activities, as they will exclude
- There is no way an organization can be on every social or
professional networking site. As well, the popularity of networking
sites waxes and wanes - a site that was the site even just two
years ago may not be now, and the site today may be bankrupt in
a few years. Don't try to join every network; ask your current
volunteers and staff what they use, read news articles about which OSN
sites appeal to which demographics, and think strategically about what
you really want out of your organization's OSN activities (see Evaluating
Online Activities: Online Action Should Create & Support Offline
Action for tips on creating such a strategy).
Where to get started?
Start with Facebook and Twitter. Look for organizations that are similar
to yours, and spend time looking to see how they use it. Also see this
list of Daily,
Mandatory, Minimal Tasks for Nonprofits on Facebook & Twitter.
Also see this blog I wrote about what
nonprofits I think do a great job with Facebook. No book or web page
will teach you how to use these platforms as well as trying to use them
yourself, and looking at how similar organizations use them.
You will eventually need to expand your social media use to other
platforms. Which ones? Don't worry about that yet - the popularity of
social media platforms comes and goes. You will know which additional ones
to use as you hear from volunteers and employees about which they are
using. And, yes, social media platforms will come and go; what is hot now
won't be in five years. You don't have to use every one that comes along,
but you do have to use the ones that your employees and volunteers are
Wikipedia hosts a relatively
of online networking platforms; however, note that they don't
distinguish between social networking sites and professional
Here are some organizations that "get" FaceBook, in my opinion:
- Kentucky State Parks
- posts about upcoming special events at different parks, or special
deals, like women-only retreats. Every post makes me want to go! I'm
"friends" with a lot of state parks, and in comparison, all the others
are oh-so-boring in what they share on FaceBook (if they share anything
at all). Are you listening, Oregon?
- PeaceCorps - posts
mostly about what PeaceCorps members are doing in the field and special
recognition or events where members are honored. I imagine thousands of
former PeaceCorps members, as well as current members, swell with pride
with every post, being reminded of what a fantastic institution they are
a part of, and are further energized to become advocates for PeaceCorps
with friends and colleagues.
- U.S. Agency for
International Development - USAID - posts about what USAID is
doing and accomplishing in the developing world, and what new strategies
they are about to incorporate. Every post says "We're active, we're
focused on what people really need, and we're getting
results." Your tax dollars at work!
International - This organization is based in England and is
focused on humanely changing the stray dog and cat situation in a
variety of countries, including in Afghanistan, by encouraging people to
become responsible pet owners and by dispelling myths about stray
animals. They don't post endless photos of animals in awful conditions;
their posts give me hope that this is a battle that can actually be won,
and dogs and cats can be valued and bring joy in any country, in any
Society of Henderson County (Kentucky) - Here's an incredible
success story, an organization that a few years ago was being attacked
by PETA and the public for its
horrific conditions and practices, and now, is an organization that
welcomes the public and volunteers into the organization and is a model
for other animal shelters. And their Facebook use is part of that amazing
What do all these FaceBook users have in common? Their status
updates are so compelling that I want to read them! They
are using FaceBook to micro-blog about "wow" things. And I feel like there
is a caring human writing their posts, not a cold PR person trying to
manipulate me. I feel like they are my "friend."
What happens when these organizations post to FaceBook? People
respond: They click "like". They post glowing comments. They
repost to their own status on FaceBook. They blog about it. They tell their
friends. My guess is that these organizations see greater attendance at
events, greater numbers of volunteers signing up to help, and probably an
increase in donations - tangible
results that make online activities worth doing.
Do I use any networking platforms?
I've started, and abandoned, participation on at least five other online
networks. For me, simple theme-based online communities via YahooGroups
or an email platform remain the easiest to use and the best way to reach
colleagues, find valuable new resources, and to cultivate new colleagues and
- I have an an account on
Twitter, both of which I use to post links to my
most-recent blog posts and to micro-blog. Here is a blog that
I use Twitter, as of August 2011.
- I have a professional profile at LinkedIn,
have joined a few groups on the site, and have frequently answered
nonprofit-related questions on its questions forum. This activity has
lead to one job interview, a few clients for my
CV consulting service and, I hope, an easy way for potential
employers to review my credentials.
- I have a
fan page on Facebook, and it's where I post links to my
latest blogs, as well as links to articles and announcements
related to my areas of interest (nonprofits, NGOs, charities, volunteer
engagement, aid/development, etc.). While I limit my connections on
LinkedIn only to people I can say that I know, anyone
can like me on Facebook and, therefore, receive updates about my
own resources as well as those by others that have caught my attention.
- I've got a
profile at Change.org; it's been a good place to learn about
causes I care about personally, but hasn't lead to any networking.
- For Schools: You Should Be Using
Social Media. Here's How.
There are a lot of web sites saying what the benefits are for schools to
use social media. But there's few that give specifics on what a public
school should be sharing via Facebook, Twitter, etc. This advice talks
not only about exactly what your school should be posting to social
media, but the consequences of not doing so, as well how to handle tough
questions and criticism. It also links to legal advice.
- For Local City & County
Governments: You Should Be Using Social Media. Here's How.
To not be using social media to deliver information and
to engage means you are denying critical information to much of your
community and promoting an image of secrecy and lack of transparency.
In fact, the lack of use of social media can be seen as your city
council or county government trying to hide something, and even lead
to rumors that are much harder to dispel than they would have been to
prevent. This advice talks not only about exactly what your school
should be posting to social media, but also how to handle tough
questions and criticism.
(was 13) things you do to annoy me on social media
A tongue-in-cheek effort to encourage mission-based organizations to do
a better job with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social
- Getting More Viewers for Your
Organization's Online Videos
Videos are a great way to represent your organization's work, to show
you make a difference, to promote a message or action that relates to
your mission, etc. But just uploading a video isn't enough to attract an
audience. This new page on my site offers specific steps that will get
more views for your organization's videos on YouTube. Note that many of
these tasks would be great for an online volunteer to undertake, with
guidance from an appropriate staff member.
Potential Power for Social Good – with REAL examples.
- Evaluating Online
Activities: Online Action Should Create & Support Offline Action
Hundreds of "friends" on an online social networking site. Thousands of
subscribers to an email newsletter. Dozens of attendees to a virtual
event. Those are impressive numbers on the surface, but if they don't
translate into more volunteers, repeat volunteers, new donors, repeat
donors, more clients, repeat clients, legislation, or public pressure,
they are just that: numbers. For online activities to translate into
something tangible, online action must create and support offline
action. What could this look like? This resource can help organizations
plan strategically about online activities so that they lead to
something tangible - not just numbers.
- Online culture and online
It's becoming the norm for mission-based organizations (NGOs, NPOs and
others) to use Internet tools to work with volunteers (including board
members), staff, donors and others. This section of my site has been greatly
updated, providing even more ideas and resources on how to work with
others online, in language that's easy to understand for those
considering or just getting started in using online technologies with
volunteers, donors and other supporters.
- For Nonprofits Considering Their Own
Podcasts: Why It's Worth Exploring, and Content Considerations
(includes my own podcast)
- For Nonprofit Organizations: How to Handle
See more resources re: Outreach &
Engagement, With and Without Technology
consulting services & my
workshops & presentations
credentials & expertise
My book: The
Last Virtual Volunteering
Community Outreach, With & Without Tech
Free Resources: On
Community Engagement, Volunteering & Volunteerism
Free Resources: Technology
Tips for Non-Techies
Free Resources: Web
Development, Maintenance, Marketing for non-Web designers
Free Resources: For
people & groups that want to volunteer
or from my web site
Coyote Helps Foundation
Jayne's Amazon Wishlist
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