This post is the first in a series from a session at SXSW in Austin about how social networking is changing advocacy for nonprofits. Whether you work for a nonprofit, or are a constituent or supporter of one, this series will give you some important perspective and ideas.
Email alerts and letters to congress are “one-way communications.” While still important, their impact is becoming more symbolic than real. Congresspeople are as good at ignoring online petitions as they are at ignoring written ones. And over the last three years, social media has begun to evolve into a preferred method for engaging people in concrete action on behalf of important issues.
Social media allows organizations to bring messages to places on the web where their constituents already are. This is a lot better than struggling to drag them to nonprofit websites and hope they will dig through layers of other information to find advocacy messages. In other words, social media allows us to pull key messages out from the depths of our websites.
Advocacy used to be anything that was not “transactional,” meaning anything that didn’t generate money. Younger people are more likely to act than to donate; to get them engaged, social media is a must. Obviously, when it comes to direct fundraising, most organizations are biased toward people over age 55 because they are more likely to donate. However, involving younger people in advocacy will eventually “pay off,” too. It acts as a prospect acquisition funnel because financial support will follow activism.
Many people still believe that social media causes organizations to “lose control of the message.” But we never totally controlled the message because we can’t dictate how people think and react. Still, we trieds to maintain control by only issuing carefully worded, official messages that would sometimes take a week to craft, even in a crisis. We no longer have that kind of time and we need new ways to increase our reach.
Social media taps into people’s natural desire to share and to be recognized. Nonprofits have an advantage over for-profits in tapping into trusted networks. Advocacy messages will be amplified by friends, going much farther than we could push them on our own. And as long as we keep listening, we can redirect anything that goes off track.
Not everything has to be negative or strident in advocacy. There is a role for positive messages and actions aimed at building constituency over the long term. In a later post, I plan to give you some examples of nonprofits that have used fun, nontraditional ways to get people involved.
We can’t all have successes like Lance Armstrong wristbands. But with social media, we have a new set of easy, scalable tactics to engage our constituents in advocating alongside us about important issues.
Acknowledgment: The session was led by Andrew Magnusson, a consultant to Convio.