Social Media for Non-Profit Organizations – First Steps

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Social media is a term used to describe a cluster of tools and activities that have taken the world by storm in the past few years. With the growth of internet use, social networks that have been around since humans began living in groups, are now connecting and expanding exponentially in this new online environment.

To really appreciate the power of social media it helps to have a basic understanding of how social networks operate. Connected – the book (and their website) offers an excellent overview of the power that social networks have to influence and change behaviours. Two of the key terms explored and explained are:

Contagion – what flows across ties (germs, money, violence, fashions, organs, happiness, obesity, etc.)

Connection – who is connected to whom (ties to family, friends, co-workers, etc.

Image from Connected – The Book

For non-profit organizations, social media is way to leverage social networks to spread information, gain support, elicit funding and connect with stakeholders including clients and potential champions for their cause.


One of the challenges non-profit organizations face when it come to the use of social media is around integrating it into existing communication and engagement strategies. One way to address this challenge is take a close look at the existing strategies and see if there is a fit or a need. Approaching social media in this way, I believe, helps avoid a focus on “tools” and keeps the discussion grounding in values, vision and strategy, where it belongs.

I’m not suggesting that the tools aren’t important. I believe tools reshape how we live, work and in the case of social media tools, the way we relate and connect to others. However, jumping in and using new tools without a basic understanding of how they work is rarely the best way to go.

First Steps

When beginning to look at the possibility of using social media, revisiting the agencies values, vision and existing communication, engagement, knowledge management and information sharing strategies is the first step. In some ways it offers a great excuse to revisit these often neglected areas. Once that has been done the next step is looking for tools that fit and that can be used in alignment with the agencies needs and wants.

In some cases agencies find that what makes most sense is to go where their stakeholders are. For example, with Facebook’s reach approaching 50% of the Canadian population and over 500 million worldwide it is probably going to be a tool of choice. It’s a space that you probably want to be in because it’s where you will find many of your supporters, clients and other stakeholders. Entering into the Facebook space with a clear idea of how you want your organizations presence to be perceive and what your want to accomplish will save wasted hours down the road.

Local Example

Just looking at Chilliwack and Facebook as an example, close to 30% of adults of working age and living within a 16km radius of the city centre have Facebook accounts. What this means is that if you are non-profit organization operating to promote a cause in the Chilliwack area many of your current and potential supporters are already using Facebook. This then becomes an opportunity for you to connect with these folks in a space that they are already in. You go to them rather than expending time and energy getting them to come to you.

But again, just because they are there doesn’t mean you should just jump in and crash the party. You don’t need an invite to join Facebook or even to create your own branded Facebook page but to be welcome you should think about how you can join that space in a way that adds value.

Think of it like going to a dinner party at someone’s house. You might want to bring something, contribute, know the cultural norms of the hosts and other guests, dress appropriately, etc. If you do that people at the party will probably “like” you. It’s the same on Facebook and on other social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn.

Are you part of a non-profit organization thinking about adding social media to your community engagement and communication strategy? Do you have questions, concerns, sticking points? Post them in comments and we can explore the answers together.


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Your friends have more friends than you do.

Reading Time: 1 minutes

The concept that “your friends have more friends than you” is called the Friendship Paradox and it is one of the many ways to look at social contagion, the diffusion of innovation, adoption curves and social networks in general. That is one of the ideas presented in Connected – The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives by Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH and James H. Fowler, PhD. If you haven’t read the book (yet, cos I know you want to) you can check out their website which includes downloadable slides, multimedia and lots of links to take you further into the research. Another great place to see their work explained in a multitude of ways is their YouTube Channel.

There are many humanistic and ethically right ways to use information like this. Like a lot of new technolgy and knowledge there are also ways to use these kinds of things disruptively. I recently watched the movie The Joneses (Demi Moore and David Duchovny), not a bad movie and a great example of both the friendship paradox, adoption curves and disruptive use of the theories behind social network contagions.

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