Social Media for Nonprofits: 6 Ways to Make a Difference

These days, social media feels less like an idle distraction and more like an endurance blood sport. Between the constant barrage of outrage and headlines that would put The Onion to shame, engaging with other users on social media has never felt this difficult or punishing.

There is, however, some good news. Not every social media account is a Russian botnet or sock puppet (only about 100 million of them), and some of the world’s leading nonprofits use social media to great effect in their mission to make the world a better place.

In this post, we’ll be taking a look at several nonprofits that are making the most of social media in their work, as well as some tips and best practices for your own nonprofit social media campaigns.

8 Examples of Nonprofits Using Social Media for a Good Cause

#1: Amnesty International

Since its inception in London in 1961, Amnesty International has tackled some of the world’s most urgent social problems and fought to protect the world’s most vulnerable people. Amnesty International works across a range of areas, including the fight to end the use of child soldiers, sex trafficking and human slavery, protecting human rights in war-torn nations, the movement to abolish capital punishment, and many others.

Although much of Amnesty International’s work is bleak and deals with the very worst crimes against humanity, the organization uses social media masterfully. The organization maintains highly active profiles across all major social media networks (including Tumblr and Medium), and despite the shocking nature of Amnesty International’s work, it doesn’t rely on shock-and-awe tactics to motivate people to act.

Amnesty International’s Twitter profile is particularly powerful. With almost 4 million followers, Amnesty International uses Twitter to raise awareness of ongoing campaigns and urgent social issues. The organization’s social media content in general emphasizes education over all else, and uses statistics and research data to highlight how severe many of the problems the organization deals with really are.

Amnesty’s use of infographics and bite-sized charts are perfect for social media, and also encourage sharing due to their often highly emotional nature.

#2: National Audubon Society

Named in honor of renowned ornithologist John James Audubon, the National Audubon Society works tirelessly to protect the world’s birds. Incorporated in 1905, the National Audubon Society is comprised of almost 500 local chapters across the United States, and each individual chapter is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Although any of the local chapters could serve as an example of how to use social media for good, we’ll be focusing on the National Audubon Society’s social media presence.

The National Audubon Society’s social media profiles are all deserving of recognition, but its Instagram profile is particularly noteworthy. With almost 215,000 followers, the National Audubon Society’s Instagram feed is a visual feast for amateur birdwatchers and professional ornithologists alike. The photography featured throughout the Society’s Instagram feed is superb, rivaling the kinds of images you’d expect to see in renowned periodicals such as National Geographic.

The Audubon Society’s Twitter profile may only have roughly half the followers its Instagram profile has, but it knows how to leverage the strengths of each platform to great effect.

Although many of the Society’s tweets are accompanied by beautiful images of America’s birds, the Society takes a more hands-on approach on Twitter, offering a wide variety of tips for birdwatchers, fun activities like how to build seasonal birdhouses for migratory species, and ways to get involved with bird conservation and habitat protection at the local level.

#3: The Fight for 15

According to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are precisely zero places in the entirety of the United States in which a single person living alone can afford a two-bedroom apartment on a minimum-wage income, and roughly 12 counties in which minimum-wage earners can afford a one-bedroom apartment. This is among the many reasons that minimum-wage workers across the country have joined forces to fight for a fair wage as part of the Fight for 15 campaign, which advocates for a nationwide minimum wage of $15 per hour.

Graphic via National Low Income Housing Coalition

Although Fight for 15 is a movement rather than a “true” nonprofit organization, its social media presence is more than worthy of inclusion in this round-up given how effectively the movement has leveraged social media to advance its cause and raise awareness of and support for this crucial issue.

Much of Fight for 15’s work has been the result of grassroots labor organizing, and social media has been instrumental in these efforts. The movement’s Facebook page regularly serves as a rallying call for people who want to lend their voices to this increasingly visible and rapidly growing movement. Aside from its obvious uses as a communication platform and organizing tool, Facebook has also provided Fight for 15 with ample opportunities to inform and educate a wider audience about crucial social issues such as job insecurity.

Interestingly, Fight for 15’s Twitter profile has leveraged positive sentiment very successfully. We know that negative emotional triggers are often highly effective at driving engagement with social media content and ads alike, but it’s not often that positive emotional triggers are used in the same way – or with the same results.

Fight for 15 regularly spreads labor rights news from across the country, and shares success stories and legislative victories as it did when Target announced it would increase its minimum wage for all its 323,000 employees to $15 per hour by 2020. The movement has also leveraged its 41,000 Twitter following by sharing content from and working with other organizations such as the AFL-CIO.

#4: Beyond Coal

Despite low (and falling) costs, overwhelming public support, and the potential to create millions of jobs worldwide, renewable energy is still taking a backseat to coal – but not if Beyond Coal can help it.

Beyond Coal is a project of the Sierra Club, one of America and the world’s oldest environmental organizations, and aims to encourage the use of renewable energy with a view to eliminating our reliance on coal altogether. The organization operates in partnership with a sister campaign in Europe to spread its message on both sides of the Atlantic.

Like many of the nonprofits mentioned here, Beyond Coal makes excellent use of primarily visual assets in its social media campaigns, such as infographics and charts. This kind of content is perfect for platforms like Twitter, as it allows users to quickly and easily understand often-complex legislative issues surrounding fossil fuel use, as well as visualize just how serious our reliance on fossil fuels really is.

Beyond Coal’s mission is predominantly one of education; unless you have a coal fire in your home, there aren’t many opportunities to personally reduce your coal consumption (aside from being mindful of your personal carbon footprint in general). That said, it’s amazing how many people have no idea how much of our electrical power comes from coal-fired power plants, and the immense environmental impact coal burning has.

For these reasons, much of the community engagement with Beyond Coal consists of sharing petitions, highlighting the policies of major political parties and individual politicians that have an impact on the use of coal, and other sustainability-focused content.

#5: CARE International

Poverty is a complex social problem with dozens of potential underlying causes. This is what makes fighting poverty so difficult; with so many other interrelated factors to consider, it can be tough to know what to focus on and when. Fortunately, CARE International is a nonprofit that is tackling poverty – and its underlying causes – head on.

CARE International is, as its name implies, a global organization that works in some of the world’s poorest countries. This allows CARE to offer its social media followers a wide range of content from a diverse array of places.

One element of CARE’s social media presence that really stands out is the organization’s commitment to helping girls and women around the world. Women are often impacted much more significantly by poverty due to institutional prejudice in many countries, which is why CARE highlights this vital work across its various social channels.

CARE is still building its social audience on some platforms, having only joined Twitter in 2013. CARE’s Instagram profile, however, is a lot livelier. With significantly more followers, CARE’s Instagram feed (cleverly) focuses on the real people it works to protect and help, making it easier for CARE’s social audience to connect with the human side of the organization’s work.

It also reveals a lot about the lives of people around the world who are struggling with poverty and shines a light on issues that are all too easy to overlook in our media-saturated environment.

#6: Human Rights Watch

All over the world, particularly in developing nations, the human rights of the poorest and most vulnerable are routinely violated. From the illegal detention and torture of prisoners to young women and girls sold into sexual slavery, human rights violations are rampant, and getting worse in many parts of the world. That’s what makes the work of nonprofit Human Rights Watch so vital.

HRW is another global organization with a wide range of focus areas. Most recently, HRW has been actively involved in raising awareness of and support for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, including Rohingya Muslims fleeing genocide in Burma, the innocent victims of the Philippines’ “war on drugs,” and the millions of people who have been made refugees by the intensifying effects of climate change.

HRW uses social media to great effect in its numerous campaigns. With almost 4 million Twitter followers, HRW offers fascinating and urgent insights into the world’s worst human rights violations, including domestic issues in the United States that typically receive little or no mainstream media coverage, such as the shocking prevalence of child marriage across the U.S.

HRW’s YouTube channel is also an excellent example of how video can simplify complex policy issues for a wider audience, and HRW often incorporates animation and other techniques to diversify its social content.

#7: To Write Love on Her Arms

Despite its urgency as a public health issue, few people are willing to openly discuss mental health problems due to social taboos and the pervasive stigma associated with mental illness. Even fewer people are willing to talk about or even acknowledge self-harm. To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA), a nonprofit based in Florida that aims to serve as a bridge between people struggling with self-harm and mental health professionals who can provide vital help.

TWLOHA is extremely active on a variety of social media platforms. The organization has a modest following on Twitter, but has a significantly larger audience on Instagram and Pinterest.

Much of the social content published by TWLOHA focuses on the stories of real people who have personally struggled with and overcome self-harm, as well as inspirational messages for the millions of people still suffering from mental health problems.

Sharing these stories is more than just a strategy to raise awareness of a vitally urgent social and public health problem – it’s a way to remind people struggling with mental illness and self-harm that they are not alone, that there is hope, and that they can reach out to people who understand. For some, this could quite literally make the difference between life and death, a powerful demonstration of how social media can be used for good.

#8: The Trevor Project

Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 10-24, and LGBTQ youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. These shocking statistics are among the many sobering figures available at the website of The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to at-risk LGBTQ youths between the ages of 13-24.

The Trevor Project was established in 1998 by the creators of the Academy Award-winning short film Trevor. Since then, the organization has grown significantly and remains one of the most active LGBTQ advocacy nonprofits in the U.S.

Although The Trevor Project has a strong presence on both Facebook and Twitter, the organization’s Tumblr account is particularly interesting. Featuring predominantly user-generated content, The Trevor Project’s Tumblr page has dozens of stories from LGBTQ youth who have struggled with mental health problems and suicidal thoughts, as well as words of encouragement and inspirational stories of overcoming adversity in their communities.

Social Media for Nonprofits: 6 Tips and Best Practices

So, now that we’ve seen a few nonprofits in action on social media, it’s time to look at some broader tips and best practices that can help your nonprofit reach a wider audience on social media.

#1: Tread Carefully with Controversial Messaging

For people working to solve some of society’s most urgent problems and injustices, it can be frustrating to encounter so much apathy or indifference from the general public. This can lead to posting content that’s overly aggressive, forceful, or intimidating. While negative emotional triggers can be a powerfully persuasive tool to get people to take action, it can also deter potential supporters from joining your cause.

 

Ensure your social content balances shock tactics with care and discretion.
Image via Salvation Army/CareHaven SA.

When devising your social media content strategy, it’s important to balance negative information with educational content. Too much negativity can harm perceptions of your nonprofit or the cause you’re working to advance, so take care to ensure there’s a balance of content intended to spur people into action and more informational, educational content to raise support for your cause.

#2: Foster a Strong Sense of Community

Nonprofits rely on crucial support from their followers, donors, and supporters. However, the need to create a strong sense of community online isn’t just a necessity from a fundraising perspective – it’s also vital to growing your audience and maximizing visibility of your cause.

As we saw in several of the nonprofits profiled above, social media is arguably the most effective way for nonprofits to build their base and reach new potential supporters. And one of the best ways to foster a strong sense of community is to actively solicit and publish stories from your nonprofit’s supporters, followers, and fans.

Image via Movimiento Consecha

Think of it in terms of the ways in which commercial brands engage their followers on social media. Rather than highlighting brand evangelists’ love for your products, you’ll be sharing the stories of people whose lives have been affected by the issues your nonprofit is working to improve. If you opt to go the user-generated content route in your community building efforts, be sure to get permission before sharing the accounts and experiences of your followers before posting anything.

For more tips on building strong, inclusive communities, check out Elisa’s interview with Erica McGillivray from Moz.

#3: Use High-Quality Imagery in Your Posts

Numerous data tells us that the inclusion of images in your content can boost engagement significantly, which is why this should be a cornerstone of your social media strategy.

 

Image/data via CoSchedule

However, using high-quality imagery in your social content isn’t just about improving engagement – it’s about providing a crucial glimpse into the very real lives of the people you’re trying to help. Several of the nonprofits featured above focus primarily on visual content, and while text-based content definitely shouldn’t be overlooked, opting for a more visual approach can boost engagement and put real faces to real problems.

#4: Focus on Platforms That Deliver Results

A common mistake that many organizations make – and not just nonprofits – is spreading themselves too thin or trying to cover too much ground. Even with a dedicated full-time social media team, it’s not always easy or even advisable to try and maintain active social media profiles on all social media sites.

 

Evaluate your social performance regularly to ensure you’re working
toward tangible gains. Image via
Buffer.

Take some of the nonprofits above, for example. Although many of these organizations do have profiles on all the major social platforms, it’s obvious that some are significantly more effective than others. For this reason, it’s important to focus on the platforms that offer the greatest return, whether that’s in terms of engagement, conversions, or both.

For example, it might not make much sense to maintain a YouTube channel if your nonprofit only produces video content periodically, or to spend too much time on Twitter if your Facebook presence delivers stronger engagement.

Use your resources wisely and be sure to take a data-driven approach to determining how and where to focus your social media strategy.

#5: Leverage Paid Promotional Tools

Social media is an amazingly powerful way to reach new audiences and rally support for your cause. Unfortunately, as many marketers have noticed in recent years, the landscape of social media content has shifted from primarily organic to a “pay to play” model in which paid promotion has become increasingly necessary.

 

The most infamous chart in social media. Image/data via social@Ogilvy.

It’s no secret that organic reach on Facebook has plummeted in recent years, forcing many marketers to evaluate their content strategies. Although regularly publishing high-quality organic content across your social channels is incredibly important, it’s worth considering how paid promotion can help you achieve your goals.

Before committing to spending money on content promotion or social advertising, you should carefully evaluate the strengths and relative return of each platform. It’s also important to choose a platform that aligns closely with the business objectives of your campaign. If you want to drive conversions, Facebook’s myriad targeting options and relatively low costs may make it a strong, reliable contender for your next paid campaign, whereas if you’re looking for relatively cheap impressions to drive greater awareness, Twitter Ads may be worth exploring.

#6: Test – Then Test Again

I know, I know – it seems as though we’re always telling you to A/B test everything, but with so much competition vying for attention on social, it’s that important.

A/B testing your social content isn’t just vital if you want to increase your conversion rate; it’s also crucial for determining the best angle to take if your nonprofit works in a controversial vertical, such as animal rights.

 

A sledgehammer isn’t always the right tool for the job. Image via PETA/Mediaite.

Take PETA, for example. PETA is arguably better known for its vociferous, often tone-deaf activism as it is for championing the cause of animal rights. Whether intentional or otherwise, this polarizing aspect of PETA as an organization serves as a valuable lesson in testing your social content to ensure the messaging is really resonating with your audience – in the right ways.

Of course, A/B testing your social creative is also important from a conversions standpoint. Many nonprofits have little choice but to work with modest promotional budgets, and some organizations literally cannot afford to waste ad spend, impressions, or clicks on ads that don’t advance their mission. It might take more time to thoroughly test your social content, but it could make a world of difference further down the line.

Good Campaigns, Good Causes

Nonprofits face unique challenges, especially when it comes to social media. Hopefully the examples and tips above have given you some ideas on how to spread the word about the work your organization is doing and how to get even more people excited about making a difference.

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