Social Media Marketing for Non-Profits



Chances are, you—or certainly your kids—have a Facebook profile. Perhaps you’re one of millions of Twitter users, following or being followed by others on this fast-growing micro-blogging site. Once the provenance of college students and young adults, these social media outlets have gone mainstream, and they are now being adopted for marketing purposes by businesses and non-profits, large and small. So is there a role for social media in your organization’s marketing mix? To answer that question, it takes a thorough understanding of this new communication medium—including its powerful potential and its inherent risks.

“Friend” is a Verb

Social media involves the unfettered distribution of personal connections facilitated through websites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. There are hundreds of such sites out there, and virtually every major media or search portal website includes similar community-building tools.

In this environment of user-generated content, the power of the individual is paramount. Facebook, for example, exists in a high-trust environment where people first “friend” each other and then are connected to each other’s friends, experiences and recommendations. According to some experts, this could eventually threaten Google’s dominance in how people obtain information on the Internet. Who do you trust more for advice: a Google search algorithm…or your best friend’s recommendation?

Social Media Marketing Defined

Social media marketing can be defined as the intentional leveraging of social networking websites to increase brand awareness, drive traffic to your website and open up new channels of communication with potential clients and donors.

Social networking, of course, is as old as when Og told Trog where to find the best mastodon hunting grounds. What’s new is the digital, instantaneous nature of social networking made possible by social media websites. The shift in influence to participants within these sites has led to a new power structure in which user-generated content is on par with official messages. In some cases, user-generated content is given even more credence. The concern for non-profit organizations is that this empowerment via social media—and the speed at which postings spread—can quickly disseminate false information. Any uninformed opinion or rumor can gain traction just as rapidly as an official announcement coming from the organization.

The Most Expensive Free Media in the World

The great thing about social media is that it is free and unfettered. The bad thing about social media is that it is free and unfettered.

It’s easy—almost too easy—to get started. Numerous organizations have jumped into social media too quickly, only to realize how complex it really is. Perhaps a well-meaning employee or volunteer has opened a Facebook or Twitter account for his non-profit and begins to make a few posts to the site. It is often months before the people in marketing or the organization’s leadership have any idea this is going on.

The other big danger of social media marketing is that as people become fans and friends, their personal data and photos can become connected to your organization’s page. It seems obvious to point this out, but social media postings are both public and traceable. That should give rise to caution before launching a social media marketing effort, and careful monitoring after launch.

The Main Players

While you will probably want to develop forums, blogs and other social networking tools within your website (these things also help with search engine optimization), you will also want to use some of the popular social media sites available to you. Here’s a quick overview of some of the bigger players:


With 300 million users, Facebook is the ultimate paradigm-shaper in social media. The site offers the ability to build organizational fan pages, distinct from personal profile pages. (Note: many companies have stepped out too quickly and built the wrong kind of page). Starbucks has 3.7 million Facebook fans. It’s possible to upload press releases, presentations, videos, photos and more to your organization’s fan page, so this can become a second home for your online communications. In fact, many people may end up connecting with you via Facebook before they ever find your website.


This is the world’s fastest growing social media site (1,300% annual growth) but it also has a huge abandonment ratio. Nevertheless, if you have a following—people who want to know what your organization is up to, specifically donors and volunteers—or if you have a specific expertise to offer, this can be a good way to connect with stakeholders and the media. Twitter users can follow tweets on their mobile phones or via their email accounts, making Twitter a powerful tool for reaching young audiences on the go and business people using mobile devices like Blackberries and iPhones.


Google paid $1.65 billion for this one, but it still fails to make a profit. YouTube’s ultimate business applications remain to be seen, so despite its 100 million video views a day, this may not be the best place to start your social media efforts. On the other hand, it’s not a bad place to upload PSA videos or coverage of activities and events, as it has become another search tool for millions of people.


For many organizations this is a waste of time, but if trying to reach young, single adults it can be a good platform similar to Facebook. But start with Facebook first, and let it serve as a template for MySpace.


This is a powerful business networking site, and its ownership group has great ambitions for continued growth and influence. LinkedIn is efficiently structured to avoid the frivolities of other social media sites, thus creating the opportunity for professional networking by your organization’s executives. It’s also a good way for satisfied donors to recommend your organization to fellow professionals. Within the unwritten rules of LinkedIn etiquette, it is okay to ask others for such referrals, but they must be members of LinkedIn to do so. It’s also good form to offer as many positive recommendations of others as you can.


Blogs are powerful communication vehicles for demonstrating your organization’s unique expertise and capabilities. The more specific your niche, the more likely your blog will be viewed as authoritative with readers. Blogs can be hosted on websites like or Of course you’ll want to host your blog on your organization’s website. Blogs can be used as one-way communication tools, but also benefit by inviting comments from others in order to build meaningful dialogue and input on your ideas.

Getting Started

If you are intrigued by the potential upside of all this, here are a few tips on how to implement a social media marketing initiative for your organization. First, decide what your goals are. Is it to drive traffic to your website? Is it to get prospective clients, donors and volunteers talking so you can learn more about their needs? Is it a low-level PR tool? How will you measure results?

You may want to build a social media presence merely as a defensive posture just to lock in your page name on various sites. (Note: this is not like registering a domain name for a website, where the registration companies respect copyright and trademark laws. For example, anyone can use any name—including yours—for their own Twitter account.)

Before launching out, get professional guidance on best practices, either by reading the relevant literature, by investing in the training of an employee, or by hiring an outside agency that professionally manages social media marketing. You’ll want to establish a social media code of conduct for employees and determine precisely who has control and access to manage the sites you use.

It’s important to begin by assessing where your organization currently stands. Many non-profits probably don’t realize it, but they may already have multiple social media pages built by well-intentioned volunteers or employees. If those employees leave without sharing the access password, those sites could stay online for a long time with outdated, inaccurate content. When you eventually launch a social media page, it is important to label it as the official page sanctioned by your organization.

Post content frequently. Nothing says unprofessional like a blog or a Twitter page that has gone weeks without an update. In fact, the expectation by Twitter users is multiple daily postings. Blogs should be updated at least twice a month.

Roll out your social media efforts one site at a time. It takes a while to learn the rhythms of this medium, and it is better to execute well on fewer sites than be spread too thin on multiple sites. Monitor your website traffic (using a free tool like Google Analytics) to see if social media is really making a difference.

If You Build It, They Will Come…NOT

Social media pages need to be promoted. Just because you create a presence doesn’t mean people know it’s out there. Think about promoting your social media sites in terms of concentric circles, by first getting employees to sign on as fans and followers, then inviting donors, volunteers and others to join the discussion. This can be done by announcing each new social media page with an email that invites people to join by clicking on a live link in the email. A free but effective way to develop a following is to have all employees use an email signature containing links to your blog or social media sites. You may even be able to get donors and volunteers to do the same. Finally, be sure your organization’s website includes a social media referral tool like “Share This” which allows visitors to add a link from interesting content on your website to their own Facebook, Twitter or other social media pages.

Keep in mind, social media marketing initiatives will need to be bolstered by other forms of brand-building and public relations, because the one thing that has not changed in the age of Twitter is this: brands are belief systems, and that makes your organization’s brand more important than ever before.

As a highly interactive medium, social media marketing requires a commitment to fast response times, an always-on attitude, a willingness to continuously monitor activity and the ability to quickly respond to comments, both positive and negative. Social media is relational marketing…and relationships take commitment.

David Heitman is president of The Creative Alliance, an award-winning marketing and public relations firm serving businesses and non-profit organizations. He can be reached for comment at

© 2009 David Heitman. All rights reserved.



About the author

David's award-winning creative direction has been recognized in both consumer and B2B marketing contexts, specifically in the development of various creative themes, advertising campaigns, art direction, headlines and taglines for the agency's clients. With degrees in history and theology, he leverages a wealth of fascinating ideas, translating them into unique marketing directions. As brand strategist, David assists the agency's clients in building a compelling, systematic brand architecture, that enables them to increase their influence within their respective industries, while building long-term equity in their organizations. David has directed numerous video and multimedia productions for clients in a wide range of industries, including financial services, travel and tourism, consumer/retail and non-profit organizations. David oversees the agency's public relations and social media services, helping clients develop influential media relationships and also launch and maintain multiple, integrated social media platforms. Media strategy is also his responsibility when clients need to make wise, cost-effective advertising investments with measurable returns on investment in radio, television, web, print and out of home media. For nearly twenty years, David has served a wide variety of organizations as a speaker and consultant on topics including creativity theory, branding, business ethics and media literacy