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Why Social Media Matters: Networking and Engagement

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Networking is the new professional currency in our increasingly connected world, says Beth Kanter, and successful charities are changing their mindset to emphasize social media, openness, engagement and authenticity.

Kanter, author of The Networked Nonprofit and her forthcoming Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, will be one of the featured presenter at the 2012 Nonprofit Management Institute, Sept. 11-12, cosponsored by AFP and the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Kanter hears from a lot of charities who still aren’t sure about moving deeply into the social media realm and are skeptical about putting resources into something that won’t immediately return huge fundraising results.  But, she emphasizes, embracing social media is all about changing an organization’s way of working and recognizing that we’re living in a world where connections and networks are paramount.

“The new language of business, of nonprofits—of how we relate to the world—is networking and connections and social capital,” says Kanter. “We expand our impact in our world now by connecting, building relationships, and establishing trust and thought leadership through social media.”

Social media isn’t about fundraising and campaigns—where charities are constantly asking for money— but connecting people together through useful content and resources and engagement. Organizations build up trust—and networks—by providing engaging content, and at that point, their social media efforts begin to pay off by leading to donors and gifts.

“A good social media program is very similar to a successful major gifts cultivation and stewardship program,” says Kanter. The final product isn’t a major gift, but a contribution, an engaged donor and his or her networks that may bring in additional donors in the future.

Getting Started

The biggest challenge Kanter sees with most nonprofits with integrating social media isn’t technology concerns. Cut through all the comments and issues, she says, and what social media success typically boils down to is culture. Organizations that are risk-adverse, or don’t have a culture that is agile and nimble, may not be able to embrace best practices.

On the other hand, organizations that are willing to embrace the principles of social media—transparency, openness, authenticity, agility—can do well regardless of size, budget and technology capacity.

The second challenge relates to human resources—who’s in charge of social media, and if organizational leadership is truly supporting the effort. If senior leaders aren’t solidly behind a charity’s social media work, it’s not going to be as successful, Kanter maintains.

She also sees problems when organizations assigned an intern to social media, ensuring that it won’t always be  a priority. A charity’s social media program has to be linked to its strategic goals—in other words, have content and substance behind it. That requires strong staff leadership and experience, as well as an understanding of how social media fits into the organization’s overall communications program.  Also, it helps if the organization senior leadership is also engaging.  “One tweet by a CEO is worth more than 1,000s by staff.”

Facebook? Twitter? Pinterest? Help!

With so many social media channels to choose from, and skepticism from charities about how they can possibly use all of them, Kanter points to a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Focus on one or two to begin with, Kanter says, then once you’ve learned to walk, expand to others. She calls Facebook “an easy on-ramp to social media,” as it’s easy to become familiar with, use and measure progress and success. Twitter is also another channel that many nonprofits also embrace in their early efforts.

Once an organization has a handle on those two outlets effectively, then she recommends it incorporate additional channels, blogging and videos (via YouTube). After that, an experienced charity should be able to identify and experiment with other social media outlets and determine if they make sense for its cause and culture.

Kanter stresses that all of a charity’s decisions about social media channels need to be learning and metric-based. There may be internal and external factors and metrics, but if a particular effort does not succeed, then it requires looking at how improve results in another experiment.    For many nonprofits, dramatic wins can emerge from these initial failed experiments.

Taking an incremental approach that incorporate experiments and learning to evolve social media practice is the pathway to successful practice.    Don’t worry about trying to move from crawling to flying in a few months, improve your organization’s social media practice one small step at a time.

Beth Kanter, author of Beth’s Blog, will be presenting at the 2012 Nonprofit Management Institute on “Becoming Networked Nonprofits: What Nonprofit Leaders Need to Know to Succeed in Age of Connectedness.” Her new book, Measuring the Networking Nonprofit, will be published shortly.

To register for the 2012 Nonprofit Management Institute, Sept. 11-12, on the Stanford University Campus in Palo Alto, Calif., click here.