5 min Read
March 3, 2010

Make your next campaign a social media success

Looking for inspiration for your nonprofit’s next social media campaign? Look no further than the Robin Hood Foundation’s “I Fed” campaign, a volunteer-driven, social media fundraising effort to provide 120,000 meals to New Yorkers in need over the 2009 holiday season. The six-week campaign played out on Facebook and Twitter, mobilized hitherto-unknown ranks of volunteers, and brought in hundreds of new donors. In fact, 82% of contributors to the campaign were new to Robin Hood.

A number of the campaign’s collaborators came together a few weeks back, along with some fellow experts from the world of nonprofit social media campaigns, to participate in a panel for social media week on “Social Media: Working Your Online Charity Mojo” and share their insights. I’ve summarized a few highlights from the conversation below.

When in doubt, Facebook.

Asked to identify their go-to social media tool, three of the five panelists quickly chose Facebook. It makes sense. Over 100 million Americans are active Facebook users–as Ruth Gallogly said, “It’s where the people are.” Twitter, though it obviously has some powerful potential, is still a baby by comparison.

Celebrity power is overrated.

Online and off, panelists agreed, the search for celebrity endorsements is generally not worth the effort. That said, a few tips for your nonprofit to keep in mind.

First, target celebrities with a close connection to your mission. The Great Schlep, a campaign co-founded by panelist Ari Wallach to get out the Jewish vote in Florida, sought out Sarah Silverman’s participation because they knew it would be a great fit for her: Jewish, Obama supporter, comedienne. Similarly, the “I Fed” campaign found that reaching out to food celebrities, whose work was already an obvious connection to the campaign’s mission, produced great response.

Second, social media can offer a nice way to lower the bar for celebrity participation on both sides. Tweeting about your event or participating in a live chat is a lot easier for a celebrity supporter than showing up at an event. And because the stakes are lower, you can afford spend less time on the ask, and keep your request casual (e.g. a direct message on Twitter, or an email).

Third, focus on value, not just on big names. A well-chosen endorsement from a lesser-known celebrity whose issue aligns with yours and who cultivates a small but dedicated group of followers might generate a lot more activity than a casual tweet from a big name. As Jason Wojciechowski said, we’re an engagement culture now–it’s not just about the number of eyeballs, it’s about the degree of the response.

Email rules.

Panelists identified email as “the most important thing any nonprofit can do”. And it’s true–in the context of online campaigns, email is still likely to be your most important tool. At the same time, America’s inboxes are becoming ever more crowded, so if your nonprofit emails hope to stand out from the pack, they have their work cut out for them.

The good news, Jeremy Goldberg reminds, is that it’s not that people don’t want email–it’s that they don’t want bad email. So make your emails relevant and purposeful. Request specific actions, mix in a few cultivation message that validate your supporter’s participation, and make the case for why it’s worth their while to spend their precious time and attention on your message.

Don’t skip the strategy.

When a nonprofit doesn’t achieve what they hope to online, the panelists agreed, it’s rarely a failure of technology–it’s nearly always a failure of strategy. Facebook and Twitter can bring about some exciting results, but it’s important to see them a means to a larger end. Some thoughts from the panelists on how to craft a great strategy:

  • Make it results-driven, sustainable, and holistic.
  • Start with goals, and choose the tools that help you achieve them.
  • Be discerning–don’t try to be everywhere at once. It’s exhausting, and ineffective to boot.
  • Soraya Darabi recommends thinking carefully about who your audiences are, and choosing the best ways to reach them. If you’re a local organization, target local bloggers and tweeters; if you’re trying to reach East Coast college students, Facebook ads might be a good way to go.


What’s a good discussion of social media without a caveat or two?

One panelist suggested that for the cost of a direct mail program, a nonprofit could do a lot more online. True; online tools avoid costs like postage and printing. But over time, do your online efforts bring in the same results?

Social media are exciting, immediate, ever-changing. But they encourage a short-term view: build our Facebook fan base so we can win the corporate giving contest. Set up a Twitter feed so we can get Oprah to tweet about our campaign. What’s often missing is a critical element of any social media strategy: return on investment.

The “I Fed” campaign is a great example of short-form success. Robin Hood and its partners invested a small amount of capital, worked hard to leverage the opportunities available through social media, and saw impressive returns. But before your nonprofit rushes out to try and duplicate their success, be sure to think through to the long view. Once you’ve brought in those eager new donors, what’s your plan for keeping them on board? Over time, how successful are you at retaining them and turning them into regular, committed supporters?

Asking for votes or retweets may turn out to be a win-win–easy for supporters, and rewarding for you. But if you’re like most nonprofits, you aren’t looking to offer a disposable do-good experience; you’re hoping to make a life-long connection with supporters. So as you move forward in social media, keep asking yourselves whether your strategy is really getting the results you want, and helping you build a solid base of supporters who are responsive in the short-term and committed in the long-term.