“Business as usual” in the nonprofit world is hardwired to ruin their social media efforts.

Many nonprofit leaders are sick of hearing about how they need to use social media. Yes, there are lots of statistics about how social media helps, but by now, large numbers of nonprofits have tried social media. Most just dump the job of posting on Facebook and Twitter on their poor, overworked and underappreciated communications director (or worse, their development director). Some of the more financially well-endowed organizations hire consultants or even full time staff. And most of them find…that it does not benefit them at all.

I’ve seen it from my end too. In my experience as a consultant, I’ve found that it’s very difficult to get a small or medium-sized nonprofit to grow beyond a few thousand Facebook fans and Twitter followers. A little research showed me I’m not alone.

  • The top nonprofits on Facebook and Twitter (easily the largest social networks for nonprofits so far) have three or four million followers. By contrast, the largest accounts outside the nonprofit world have many tens or even hundreds of millions. In both cases, the top accounts have the advantage of superior brand visibility outside of social media—for nonprofits, it’s things like TED, NPR, the Humane Society, etc.—meaning that even the most “successful” accounts may not actually be using social media all that effectively. Sure enough, I spent a couple hours looking at the top 10 or 15 accounts on both social networks and found that that was indeed the case; I saw a few that were doing a good job but most were vastly inferior to their non-social sector counterparts.
  • For every 1,000 newsletter subscribers, nonprofits have 149 Facebook likes. It’s about a zillion times easier and cheaper to get a Facebook like than to capture an email address (a good ad campaign can get you a like for as little as $0.16; I ran one last week that picked them up for $0.03), so this is a stunning statistic.

What’s the problem?

By and large, in my experience, nonprofits have a very difficult time doing social media well. The problem isn’t with social media. The reason is that “business as usual” for a nonprofit is toxic for social media. In many cases, business as usual is hurting their fundraising efforts across the board, but it’s especially bad for nonprofits. Even with my clients, who tend to be more ready for social media (as evidenced by the fact that they sought out and hired a consultant), their policies and restrictions and content often severely curtail what they’re able to accomplish.

Here are three reasons why social media doesn’t work for nonprofits, using human personality metaphors.

1. Nonprofits are narcissists

Wait, you say. Isn’t social media all about narcissists? Don’t we read articles in newspapers about how we’re breeding a generation of narcissists?

Sure you do. But nonprofits are FAR worse than even the most self-obsessed teenager.

Even that teenager spends much more time commenting on things that other people are posting than he does posting about himself. By contrast, you can search for hours—even on the top nonprofit accounts, especially on Facebook—and have trouble finding a single nonprofit social account that posts about anything besides itself. The better ones find lots of ways to bring their organization to life, the worse ones just post boring updates and donation requests, but they’re all only talking about themselves.

Fact check: this is social media. And those nonprofits aren’t being social. (More on why in a moment.) Good social media engages the follower by talking about things that interest him—and nonprofits don’t do that. And what results do we find? 36% of people in a recent survey said they’d “unliked” a nonprofit on Facebook because it only posted about donating.

In the world of real people, only the most extreme narcissist (or someone with a mental disorder) runs around talking exclusively about himself and asking people for stuff without ever showing interest in others, or showing any awareness of the effect this approach is likely to have on people. Yet in the nonprofit world, I find it’s rare to find an organization that doesn’t operate this way. Institutionally, nonprofit only know how to talk about themselves. So the most successful causes on social media tend to be ones where—you guessed it—talking about themselves happens to play into people’s existing interests and emotional biases (so topics like animals, children, and health tend to do well). If your nonprofit exists to teach calculus to convicts in prison, good luck with that.

2. Nonprofits are control freaks

Fixing the narcissism problem is very difficult, because a good old-school nonprofit is concerned about “mission drift.” Nonprofits are run by people who want to help, so there has historically been a temptation for them to try to solve too many problems, risking the organization drifting away from what it exists to do.

This is an important concern. But the way it plays out with social media is that if the social folks try to post about anything other than the nonprofit, they get calls from their boss or even a board member demanding to know what they’re playing at. Too many nonprofit leaders, rightly concerned about their organization's image, think they can exercise an unrealistic degree of control over it by only letting people see the polished, focused side of it--rather than the human side. So even when a nonprofit’s leaders aren't typically the micromanaging types, "the social media guy" ends up being put in a straitjacket and then asked why he isn’t bringing in results.

The problem here is a lack of awareness of the medium. Social media isn’t asking nonprofit leaders to do anything they don’t normally do, but they’re mentally putting it in the wrong box. Nonprofit people think of their marketing in terms of their email strategy, which is usually an exclusively one-way and narcissistic communications medium. But social media isn’t like email marketing—it’s more like a cocktail party. When an executive director throws a fundraiser and mingles with his guests, he’s probably going to talk about their interests, current events, topics tangentially related to the nonprofit, etc. a lot more than he’s going to ask them for money. This is even more true if he’s at an event that isn’t about his organization. The reason, of course, is that he’s trying to build relationships, and strengthen the community around his cause, so that when he does ask for money, people give it.

But when his team tries to do this on social media, which is how the medium is meant to be used, even the most affable ED often becomes a control freak. Worried about mission drift, or his organization’s image, he shuts down an effort that might have doubled his budget over a couple of years.

3. Nonprofits are introverts

In all but the largest well-run nonprofits, the vast majority of staff is program-focused. Communicating what they’re doing to the outside world is an inconvenience that distracts them from their work. In fact, the communications people are the first to be laid off when things are tight—something that would be considered stunningly stupid in the for-profit world. (In my own business, I had to stop using the word marketing and start calling what I do “social fundraising” just to get nonprofits to look at the idea.)

In other words, they’re institutional introverts. They don’t want to seek people out and talk to them. They want to be left alone.

As a result, people outside the nonprofit’s walls often have a hard time knowing what’s going on inside them. They don’t see what the staff sees every day. The nonprofit world used to cope with this by releasing an annual report, and hopefully a regular (quarterly or monthly) newsletter.

But 67% of people who like a nonprofit on Facebook say they do so because they want to show their friends that they support a cause. When the nonprofit isn’t telling its story on an ongoing basis, when it’s not regularly showing people that their support is making a difference in a public way, the value disappears.

But doing that requires things like blog posts, day-to-day photos, video blog entries, research, and success stories. And hardly any nonprofits have the infrastructure to put together such an endeavor. There are creative ways around the problem (outsourcing, using skilled volunteers, etc.) but at the end of the day, it requires the equivalent of several full-time employees and a coherent strategy from someone who understands social media marketing. Even thinking about this gives an ED a headache. So he doesn’t think about it.

Wrapping up

If social media hasn’t “done it” for you in the past, there’s a good chance that whoever you had doing it wasn’t qualified. That’s par for the course for nonprofits, who usually either pawn social on existing staff or an intern or hire a social marketer who doesn’t understand the nonprofit world.

But there’s an even better chance that business as usual for your organization helped kill your social effort. And it’ll continue to prevent you from tapping into one of the most financially valuable fundraising resources available, as long as your organization remains a narcissistic, introverted control freak.