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5 Social Media Tips that will Help Increase Your Donations by 50%

Recently, I was delighted to be invited to contribute to Hootsuite's blog as part of an effort they're making to provide more nonprofit-specific tips and resources. Here's my first entry (the original can be found here).


Did you know 73% of first-time donors never give again? They don’t feel a part of the organization, they don’t feel appreciated—often they don’t even get a thank-you note—so they leave. That means the vast majority of what your fundraiser does will actually just be plugging holes, rather than growing your donor base.

But here’s another stat: if you get even a 10% higher donor retention rate, your donations go up by 50%. Immediately. Think about that for a minute. Your $1 million budget could become $1.5 million, if you just got a few dozen more of your donors to stick around. And social media can play a huge role in making that happen.

The first trick is building a thank-you culture that extends to your social media. Supporting a nonprofit is usually a social act. Mega-philanthropists put their names on art galleries so that other people will see it. 67% of people who like a nonprofit’s Facebook page say they do so because they want their friends to know they support the organization.

Here are 5 tips to help you build a Thank-You culture on social media:

1. Make sure your social media team and development team are well connected. You need to know what’s going on in the fundraising calendar so you can be of value to it, but it works the other way too—you’re going to be learning things about your donors and their trending interests that are gold for your development director. Get a CRM that helps with this, and preferably one that integrates easily with your social relationship platform.

2. Follow your donors and talk to them a lot. The easiest place to do this is Twitter, by creating lists and adding them to your dashboard. Monitor it daily and talk to your donors about what interests them. Let them know you’re listening. Consider doing this on both staff individual profiles and the corporate one. When a chat involves John from development, the organization, and the donor, suddenly you’re working as a community on a shared project. You can talk about your organization, but only a small percentage of the time, and only after you’ve figured out what elements of your work interest them most.

3. Connect the social to the real. For example, if you have events, use tools (EventBrite is one) that allow people to see which of their Facebook friends are going, and after they sign up, have a confirmation page that invites them to share the event with their friends. If you can, set up automated emails afterwards for people to share it, and thank them for helping. Take photos of the event, and post them on social media afterwards and tag your donors, thanking them for coming.

4. Tell your donors’ stories. There’s an art to telling your donors’ stories. (Learn more about how to do it here.) Why do they support your organization? Why do they care about this kind of work more broadly? What personal stories do they have that illustrate why it’s important to them, or how your organization’s work has touched them? Regularly write brief blog posts (with photos if possible) sharing their stories, tagging them, and telling the world how special your supporters are!

5. And… say thank you! The obvious one. When somebody donates, post on social media saying “thank you” and tag them. Link it to the donor’s story or a brief reference to something you know about them, or to what that amount of money allowed you to do. “Thanks to Joe Ross for his donation this week! We provided water for four more kids in Africa with your dollars!” or “Megan Carter, you are the best! Thanks for all the help licking envelopes (and talking Star Trek!).”

Not only do these public thank-yous make the donor feel appreciated; if these kinds of things happen regularly, they can create a culture of giving on your social profiles. Other people who don’t give see this stuff and start to imagine themselves being thanked like that; or at the least, think of giving to you as something that people like them do. If they see giving to you as a normal part of membership in that community, rather than as a big jump, you can help your donor acquisition as well as your donor retention!



Should Obama Have Gone Between Two Ferns?

Some right-wing pundits disapprove (oh my!). Should they?

(Excuse the title, I couldn't resist.)

In case you missed it, the president of the United States was on a hipster comedy show recently. Some folks at Fox News and other places think he demeaned his office by doing so.

As far as the "demeaned the office" part goes, I don't see how this is any different from going on plenty of other shows where humor is the order of the day (late night TV, for example).

From a larger perspective, though, this was a fantastic move. Obama wanted to drive young people to the new site, and quickly, "Between Two Ferns" was the #1 referrer to the site.

I agree with social marketing expert and Johns Hopkins professor Alan Rosenblatt's assessment:

"The challenge for campaigns and advocacy groups is to make sure that regardless of what channels they prefer to use to talk with their audiences, they have to use all the channels that their audiences prefer. That does not mean organizations have to use every social media channel. But it does mean that they have to know where their audiences are and use those channels to reach them. Trying to force your audience to come to your website, read your email or watch you on TV when they prefer to check their Facebook newsfeed or their Twitter timeline is ineffective at best and disrespectful at worst. Not giving your audience information through the channels they prefer is like giving your audience the heave-ho."

It was this kind of thinking that led Obama's campaign in 2008 to surpass the 20 year-old Clinton fundraising machine, the best the Democratic party had ever seen, in less than five months.

The takeaway for anybody interested in fundraising--political campaigns or nonprofits--is that your engagement strategies need to be built around who your supporters (and potential supporters) are, not rigid structures and models interior to your organization. If you're not building supporter profiles and communications strategies unique to each major profile, this is a good place to start.



Why Social Media Doesn’t Work for Nonprofits

“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.



Why is social media so expensive?

If these tools are free, why does it seem like it costs so much to get anything tangible out of them?

Why is social media so expensive?

The real issue: you are not currently budgeting for social media outreach, so when you start hearing about Facebook ads, or hiring a new full-time staff member or a consultant, you can feel the weight of that extra cost, and it’s not fun. If these products are almost entirely free, why does it cost so much money to make them work? Is there a cheaper way to do it?

No, there isn’t. You can hire your college sophomore nephew to save money, or try to do it all in-house, but the reality is doing those things usually won’t get you actual financial results. That’s why most nonprofits (which tend to try to do social media these ways) languish with feeble Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts that are really just press release outlets that nobody reads. So why spend even half the money if it doesn’t buy you anything?

What if I told you that there was a free agent development specialist out there who I could pretty safely promise would bring in several hundred new donors in his first year? Maybe you couldn’t jump and get him instantly, but wouldn’t you be inclined to try to find the money in the budget next year? After all, most new development directors will barely have gotten started by the end of their first years; the learning curve is steep, they don’t know your donors, and they far too often end up drowning in paperwork just trying to keep up with old grants. A fundraiser who could sidestep that entire process and start dramatically increasing your base quickly would be a godsend—not least for your existing development director, who could suddenly start focusing on growing relationships with individual donors rather than finding them and bringing them on board in the first place.

Oh, and I almost forgot—this development guy is willing to work for you for less than half of what you’re paying your current one.

This is how you need to think about social fundraising. Done poorly, it’s nearly worthless. Done right, it’s like tripling or quadrupling the capacity of your development director, creating a pipeline of new donors and dramatically reducing the need for her to waste her time proving your value to people.

If you’re like a lot of nonprofits I know, your budget is pretty stagnant and it’s a lot of work just closing the gap at the end of the year. If you knew that spending some money now could expand your budget year after year, and you’d be consistently ending your fiscal year with conversations about what to do with the extra money, you’d be silly to complain that it cost money to make that happen. This, of course, doesn’t mean you can afford to do it right away—but it’s something to plan for.

(Feel free to get in touch with me if you want to discuss this further.)