Social Media and Nonprofits: Some Preliminary Research on Use and Evaluation

The most common question I hear from organizations that are considering whether social media is right for them is, “what does the research tell us?”  It’s a question I love, not only because I believe in the importance of evidence-based practice, but because it also suggests that the organization asking the question is thinking critically and strategically.

For all organizations (nonprofit, corporate, government) it’s important to think about the value and payoff in developing a social media strategy. In a social media workshop I delivered to Ottawa-area nonprofits last weekend, I wanted to go beyond just a “show and tell” about the latest “shiny new objects” in media technology: my hope was to stimulate some reflection and to generate a discussion about what exactly is ‘new’ in the new media environment while noting the importance of staying ahead of the curve. There is no question that the nonprofit sector will be transformed by changes in media technology and the new forms of social organization they engender–it’s equally true that these technologies will continue to change as nonprofits and other organizations demonstrate their full potential. The real issue is about the tension between capacity and timing.

Getting back to the question of the “evidence base” for social media, the answer is simply that it’s too early to know because we are dealing with very new technology for which there isn’t enough research. However, two recent surveys of social media adoption in the nonprofit sector may shed some light on the emerging evidence.

The first study is by the global PR firm Weber Shandwick — the results are from a phone survey of 200 nonprofit and foundation executives and senior communication officers. A key finding is that a clear majority (89%) of nonprofit organizations are already experimenting with social media, yet only half of them (51%) self-describe as “active users”. The major impediments to taking fuller advantage of social media appear to be lack of capacity and uncertainty about payoff. Here is the slide deck for a fuller account of the findings and their implications.

The second study, by Philanthropy Action, focuses on mid-sized nonprofits and raises important questions about evaluation metrics for fundraising and volunteer recruitment. Although it supports the findings of the Weber Shandwick survey which point to widespread experimentation in social media use, it is less sanguine about the known benefits, especially for mid-sized nonprofits. The study reports that there is a “mismatch between perceptions, motivations, results and investment,” and concludes that despite the potential and promise of social media, the outcomes to date have been disappointing. A majority of respondents (70%) indicated that they either raised very little money or had no idea how much money their social media site helped them raise. The figures for attracting volunteers were about the same. Nevertheless, the survey also reported that “despite the lack of results, most respondents indicated they planned to increase their investment in social networking over the coming year.” In other words, the survey participants recognize that social media will be important to their organization’s work moving forward–they just haven’t figured out how it can best be used and measured.

Confronted with these findings, how should organizations proceed?

My advice is to keep in mind the principle of relentless incrementalism: don’t replace, change or transform your current communication activities overnight, especially if they are delivering at least modest results (if they are totally ineffective, then be more experimental). The answer is not to pretend the world around your organization isn’t changing but to figure out how it is changing, what its implications will be for the work your organization does, to monitor the research environment, and to sort out how you can manage the challenge of of committing enough resources to effectively produce meaningful results without going radically off in all directions.

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