When most of us, individuals and nonprofit organizations, consider social networks, we first think of Facebook. The 800-pound gorilla is said to be worth billions, and its membership grows close to a billion world-wide. For nonprofits, establishing a Facebook page seems a no-brainer. Features like Timeline, which, allow organizations of all kinds to present a story of their development, their milestones, and their goals. The pool of potential Friends is so vast that an hour or two a week could bring in thousands, or millions, of new fans.
But will those hours result in a larger pool of donors or volunteers? Will friends of friends come to your Facebook page ‘cold’ and want to get involved? The numbers are not good. But should we even pay attention to the numbers?
As theput it last December,
I must confess that I sometimes think that Facebook is overrated as a communications and community-building tool. Nonprofits with national and international name recognition do great on Facebook in terms of growing a large fan base, but many small to medium-sized nonprofits struggle to achieve the elusive Facebook ROI (Return on Investment) – website traffic, new e-mail newsletter subscribers, mobile subscribers, online donors, thumbs up and comments i.e, community engagement, etc.
Pointedly, still no one has ‘Liked’ the post, though numerous people have added insightful comments and accounts of their own successes and misgivings about organizational outreach via Facebook.
The discussion in social networking and consultation circles has been moving toward expanding outreach opportunity or attaining organizational goals, with work on social networks being but one component. Expanding outreach can seem a rather fuzzy metric, especially for the accountants at a nonprofit, but in this model the goal is to offer as many channels as possible. Such ambitions are critical, but not quick: “Don’t stress out from week to week. If your producing good content, you’re following will grow. Instead, keep track of how many times your brand is mention for the course of 6 months & then determine how successful you’ve been.”
The ever-insightful Beth Kanter draws from a fascinating at The Institute for Research and Reform in Education to bring a ‘theory of change’ to how a nonprofit might want to use social media. “In its simplest form, a theory of change consists of a series of “so then” statements that guide an organization’s programs to achieve socially meaningful outcomes. It requires stakeholders to articulate underlying assumptions which the organization can test and measure, and it charts an incremental path toward results.”
Questions to ask your staff and volunteers when drawing up your overall outreach strategy (social media and otherwise) concern ideas like “Is our plan doable given our resources?” – “Can we test our trends towards our larger goals?” – and “Are our strategies toward the goal(s) also meaningful in themselves?” That last one I find especially inspiring, as it challenges all of us to ask, “If my organization does not expressly achieve goal X, did we still make an appreciable difference in our work?”
What these new models have in common is that they take some of the pressure of ‘show me the numbers’ in a fixed time frame. Which is not to say you should develop a plan that has no goals or inducements! But these models also help nonprofits appreciate the many ways they can gain from investing in social media along with other tools. Facebook might not bring in the donations, but it likely will encourage brand awareness, which will make a difference when people receive the mailer asking for donations to your cause.