Breaking News about Your Nonprofit’s Social Media Strategy: It Doesn’t Measure Up

Breaking News!

Many nonprofits post on Twitter throughout the day to keep constituents up to date


This just in: Many nonprofits post on Twitter throughout the day to keep constituents up to date.”  Woo-hoo! I’m jumping for joy! Over the moon! Popping champagne corks! I’m….

Wait just a dog-gone minute…  Is this really a news story? What does this really tell me? How does this help me? Well, perhaps if I read the story I’ll…

Learn more.

What story?  Oh… this is a real headline, sent to me by my friend Jimmy (a really smart marketing guy who works in the business sector), for an article that appeared in eMarketer which claims to provide “the world’s top brands, agencies and media companies with the most complete view of digital marketing available.”  Yet really all the article does is report on a study by Vertical Response showing that nonprofits were more likely to be present on social media channels than small businesses surveyed in a similar study.

So, great.  We’ve got some data on how nonprofits are behaving digitally.  They’re putting up Facebook pages and starting Twitter accounts. Whoop-de-do.

What we do not have is a fully fleshed out narrative that tells us why nonprofits are behaving this way, who they’re targeting with their social conversations or what they’re getting out of it. We have no knowledge of their engagement plan or their engagement metrics. As I told my friend Jimmy, the fact that nonprofits are doing incrementally more on social media doesn’t really tell much of a story.

It’s more interesting to ponder whether your organization knows how to measure if you’re reaching your intended outcomes through social channels. In other words, what are you trying to get out of the endeavor? Are you trying to simply generate awareness? And, if so, what good is that if you don’t have some actionable plan to translate that increased awareness into a measurable desired action response somewhere down the line? Are you using it to build stronger ties with your constituents? Is it working? How do you know? My guess is that for the majority of nonprofits using social media today the answers would be:

We don’t have a clue. But we’re keeping up with the Joneses!

Are you measuring if the ice cream is getting eaten, or if it’s just melting?


Doing it because everyone else is doing it is not a strategy that measures up. “Just because” is a meaningless reason for doing something. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:  The Mantra you Need to Succeed with social media is engagement, engagement, engagement.  If you’re not consciously working towards, and measuring, your levels of engagement (aka relationship building) you’re not going to get meaningful, sustainable results.

Social media is a tool.  Only a tool.  If you don’t know what you want to accomplish with the tool, guess what?  You’ll get some sort of random outcome that may or may not meet your needs.  Using a hammer to drill a hole?  Oops!  No hole.  But a nice dinged in wall.  Using a Facebook wall to build your alumni organization by sending out “please fan us” posts?  Ding, ding, ding! 21 new fans but no meaningful connections or donations made.

And what does “using Twitter to keep constituents up to date” even mean?  Up to date with what?  The fact that your organization is the biggest, best, oldest, most cutting edge, blah-de-blah nonprofit out there? The fact that you just plopped up a Facebook page? I fear too many are still in the Why Nonprofit Social Media is a Waste of Time territory. Here’s a sampling of nonprofit tweets I just picked out of the Twitterverse (I’m not using twitter handles because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but these are all real):

Like us on Facebook

I posted a new photo on Facebook

Donate to us!

We’ve joined Twitter!

How’s your day going?

Loose Tweets Sink Fleets

Stop measuring things like # of tweets. Think quality and measuring engagement, not quantity.

Folks: You should not be tweeting just so you can tell your boss how many tweets you sent this week.  That’s not what matters. Tweeting (and all social media) — the smart kind that builds up a targeted list of engaged followers and friends — takes time to do right. It’s not that hard to simply build a list of followers.  But who cares if they won’t engage with you?  If they aren’t really that interested in what you do? If that’s the case, they probably won’t share with their friends – so they won’t bring you any new traffic or new prospects. Less can definitely be more here.  Wouldn’t you rather have 750 followers who have a genuine interest in your mission than 5,000 who really don’t care and just want to raise their own numbers?

Social media done right requires allocation of resources, planning and systems to measure outcomes. My blood boiled when I read this next line in the afore-mentioned article sent to me by my friend Jimmy:  “Nonprofit organizations operating on tight budgets want to generate as much publicity and excitement as possible surrounding their initiatives—and at a low cost — so a considerable percentage are turning their attention to social media.”

The problem when we think that something is free is that we don’t value it much.  If you don’t place a high value on your social media strategy, it doesn’t really matter if it fails.  If it’s okay for it to fail, you don’t really have to think much about application of best practices — like measuring whether it works ( I know, I know – we can learn a lot from failures; don’t try to rationalize your lack of commitment!).

Before you know it, social media in your organization represents nothing more than a lost opportunity cost.  You’re doing it (poorly) at the expense of something else you could be doing (well).

Don’t just throw something out there and hope it sticks.  Have a plan.  Then implement that plan strategically.  Then measure your implementation.  Evaluate. Recalibrate. Improve.  Too many nonprofits engage is what I call social media diahhrea.  They just explode it out there, like an illness. Explosive diahhrea makes an impact, sure.  But is it the kind you want to make?

You’ve got to choose whether you’re in the game or out; if you’re in, you’ve got to play to win. There’s just one other little thing:  We’re in the midst of a digital revolution that has fundamentally changed the way people communicate and do business.  If you sit on the sidelines and choose not to play — you can’t win. Ouch!

This may seem harsh, but merely getting in the game won’t cut it anymore. Playing, but not playing to win, is like being in limbo.  You’re neither here nor there. It’s pointless.

Your task ahead:  Figure out what you need to play the social media game to win. Resources? Staff? Expertise? Leadership support? If your strategy doesn’t measure up, why not? What’s holding you back? Please share.

 Photos: Flickr Kelly Garbato; Bryan Lane Winfield Moore

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  1. This post was so funny. You know I always wondered about the “posting to constituents” on social media. It’s such a touchy subject. I have very little faith in social media. It’s one mode of communication, but should not be replaced as “the” method of communication. Thanks Claire.

    • Don’t lose faith! It’s here to stay. We just have to use it strategically, as with anything else. Thanks for the comment Nikki.


  1. […] nonprofits are not strategically testing or measuring digital media. Yes, data is collected and stored in excel spreadsheets. But the hard questions aren’t being […]

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