July 22, 2014


Trend Spotter: Using social media

In the eighth survey of Trend Spotter, a special project of the Institute for Nonprofits at NC State University, we asked small North Carolina nonprofits with budgets under $600,000 to tell us about how they use social media to support the work that they do. Seventy nonprofit organizations completed the survey. The vast majority of these organizations report that, not only does their organization have a website, but most use at least one form of social media.

With respect to the websites, almost all of the respondents indicate that, in addition to providing basic contact information, their websites list the organization's mission statement and provide a description of the organization's programs and services. About three-quarters of the respondents indicate that the websites also include a calendar of events and a donate button and list the organization's vision statement. 

More than half of the respondents report that the website contains the names of the board members and the values of the organization and provides notices about volunteer opportunities. In contrast, fewer organizations (only 20%) note that their websites provide information about employment opportunities, and even fewer provide copies of their IRS Form 990 or financial and budgetary information on their website. 

When asked if they use social media, the vast majority (86%) of survey respondents tell us that their organization uses Facebook. About one-third reports using Twitter, and one-quarter reports being on LinkedIn and YouTube. Yet, few organizations report that they used blogs (13%), and even fewer (less than 10%) report participating in Pinterest, podcasts, Instagram or message/bulletin boards. 

The majority of these organizations report that they are using social media to target volunteers, funders and the broader community (in contrast to targeting policy makers, clients, staff or other stakeholders). While most of the organizations report that they do not dedicate any funding for social media outreach, the responsibility for using or managing social media typically falls on staff or the executive director (or is shared), with very few organizations relying on volunteers or outside contractors. 

When asked about the benefits or successes in using social media, Julie Meyer, executive director of Positive Wellness Alliance, reported that social media helps her organization to raise awareness and get people involved in volunteer opportunities and fundraising events. Others also describe how social media helps them to publicize their events and activities, get information out quickly to large groups of people and reach out to younger audiences. Some Trend Spotters note that social media helps them to generate in-kind support and funding and attract new volunteers. 

Yet, the Trend Spotters also express some concerns with using social media. Not surprisingly, most of these concerns have to do not having enough time, staff or capacity to use or manage social media. One respondent expressed a need for "technically skilled and savvy personnel" to help with messaging. Another respondent acknowledged, "We are not using [social media] to its potential." A third described how they didn't have a plan for how they used social media. 

Others Trend Spotters are more concerned about the effectiveness of using social media and wonder about the return on the time and investment. As Olivia Lawrence, director of community relations for Cornucopia Cancer Support Center explained, "The greatest concern over social media usage is determining whether or not it is cost effective. We have limited resources, and social media is not always a top priority - when in many cases, it should be. It is difficult to gauge how much time should be spent on social media and what the ROI should be for our organization." Yet, she went on to note that "it connects us with our cancer community in ways we never thought possible!" 

Another Trend Spotter expressed a similar concern in this way: "I think we're fighting a social media myth. It's easy to spend a lot of time and energy (= money) managing social media with little or no verifiable results. The cold truth is that a remarkably few organizations are able to build an effective and viable social media strategy that shows verifiable ROI." He went on to say, "We do this because we don't want to be left totally behind on the off chance it might actually work." 

We shared our findings with Jennifer Jones, a research assistant at the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research at the University of San Diego who not only studies nonprofit leadership but also helps nonprofits to develop social media policies. She said, "Social media is just one part of an organization's overall public relations strategy. I believe in the next few years, it will become increasingly important component, especially in the areas of fundraising, friend-raising and advocacy. But nonprofits should think strategically about social media outreach. There are ways to be successful without spending a lot of time or money. It's also for critical nonprofits to develop social media policies." 

She suggests a number of resources that are available for nonprofit organizations seeking to invest in using social media, including:

Joanne G. Carman is an Associate Professor in the Political Science and Public Administration Department at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Her teaching and research focuses on program evaluation and nonprofit management, and she is the coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.


Richard M. Clerkin is an Associate Professor in the Public Administration Department at NC State University. His teaching and research focuses on philanthropy and management and he is the director of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

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