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What Social Media Strategies Work for Nonprofits?

Gelman, Rosenberg & Freedman CPAs is a member of CPAmerica International, an association of CPA and consulting firms that provides industry knowledge including insightful articles, to help member firms serve clients and other individuals and organizations.

Do you remember back in the good old days, maybe the nineties, when “social media” meant the local newspaper’s society column? Remember when only birds tweeted? Or, the days when high tech might mean blast faxing a press release?

That was then, but the Web and other technology are now. New communication and development tools are constantly appearing, as well as new methods for measuring the effectiveness of those tools.

social media names

The 2012 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study by M+R Strategic Resources and NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Network) provides insights into what methods nonprofits are using to reach community members and potential donors and how successful they’ve been.

The study analyzes data submitted by 44 nonprofits of different sizes, from different sectors: environmental, rights, international, and wildlife and animal welfare organizations.

The information provided is important not just because it reveals what strategies are being used, but also because it demonstrates what’s “normal” or the median for certain indicators. For example, nonprofit email-driven donation forms had a median completion rate of 17 percent.

Among the factors analyzed were what types of email messages – fundraising, advocacy, newsletters – were most likely to be opened by recipients. Advocacy messages were opened at a rate of 14 percent, compared to 13 percent for newsletters and 12 percent for fundraising requests. Advocacy messages also had a better response rate (prompted actions) than fundraising ones: 3.84 percent to 0.08 percent.

Nonprofits have also worked hard to increase their fan base on Facebook: The average nonprofit in the study increased its fan base by 70 percent between 2010 and 2011. The study found that for every 1,000 people on an organization’s email list, they tended to have 103 Facebook fans, 29 Twitter followers and 12 mobile subscribers.

Online technologies complement direct-mail fundraising. They don’t replace it. On average, 35 percent of online revenue proved to have originated with direct mail requests. The other 65 percent came from other sources such as unsolicited web giving and peer referrals.

The organizations that contributed data for this study were self-selected. They are heavily invested in using as many platforms as possible to get their messages out, engaging new members and retaining the faithful. This last factor is important as the median “churn” rate for organizations’ email subscribers is 19 percent. They are also intent on knowing which strategies are attracting positive attention and which leave readers/subscribers cold.

As your organization fine tunes its own online endeavors, it is vital to determine how many people you are reaching. Common website analytics tools such as Google Analytics let you see how many people have looked at your website, a specific page or a blog post over a given period of time.

If you post a video to YouTube, the number of views is automatically displayed. Facebook offers metrics on the popularity of your Fan Page if you have one. Thanks to relatively new broadcast email tools, the number of people who open your emails is no longer a mystery.

If you determine you are not reaching as many people as you’d like on line, it’s time to think about increased promotion. Find off-line venues that alert people to what types of information you are offering online. Check to see if you have adequate visibility on relevant search engines. Find inexpensive ways to advertise, such as community newspapers or public radio outlets.

Just as important as building your online base is how successful your online messages are in engaging your base. While it’s nice that people are interested enough to click through your pages, it is vital that as many visitors as possible take some kind of action as a result of what they’ve learned.

Donations and volunteer enrollment are the big indicators that you’ve succeeded, but there are other positive signs:

  • Comments. Are readers posting comments to your blog or writing on your Facebook wall?
  • Re-Tweets. Twitter applications like Tweetdeck reveal how many readers are passing on your information.
  • Online Mentions. While it is difficult to track how many people are posting information about you online, there are applications like Google Alerts that notify you each time you are mentioned.

At times, it can be difficult to know which online strategy engaged someone and then converted the interested party to an active supporter. An easy way to find out is to simply ask a new volunteer what promoted their enrollment.

More sophisticated methods might involve attaching source codes to a Web address that is used to register donations or volunteers.


Amy Boland and her GRF team make the annual audit as painless as possible! 

Kathy Farrell |  Vice President, Finance and Administration
Advocates for Youth