How Nonprofts Leverage Social Media to Increase Impact

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The United Nations International Water Day uses social media to campaign and raise awareness. Photo by the United Nations.

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion at the 2013 Realize Opportunity Conference. Alongside Frank Knott, CEO of Vital Economy Alliance and Ian Clark, Chief Software Architect of Envisio, we discussed how organizations in the nonprofit sector can leverage their impact through greater use of technology.

I laid the foundation of my argument off of a talk Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, gave earlier this year at the XOXO conference, he stated:

“We often think of the internet enables you to do new things,” Williams said. “But people just want to do the same things they’ve always done.”

His perspective is a good reminder that the internet, like much of technology, is simply a tool designed to give people what they want. So really, it’s about doing the same things you already do, but better. With that in mind, here are some of the key takeaways from our panel discussion.

Back to Storytelling

Technology and more specifically social media is NOT a cure all. It’s important for organizations to be very clear about what their objectives are and invest in crafting their story from day one. One area that the internet can help us do the same things better is sharing stories. I’ve written about the importance of storytelling in social media before. For non profits, emotive content is inherent in their makeup, so leveraging storytelling is all about using that emotive nature to its fullest potential. In this respect, non profits are in a better position to use social media effectively than most big brands. They have a community that cares deeply about what they do and have meaningful stories to tell.

Charity Water is a great example of a nonprofit can use the power of storytelling to resonate with an audience and fund a successful campaign. In a short 3 minute video, the organization manages to both share the issue coupled with a hopeful solution.

By having a story crafted before you jump to technology for help, you equip yourself with a message to broadcast in order to connect with others. This way, you extend the reach of your message, reach broader audiences and will ultimately enhance your fundraising campaigns.

Remember, if you don’t have a clear story from the get go, you can’t expect anyone to care, share or promote your cause.

The Democratization of Technology

Finally, all things considered and assuming you have laid the right foundations to adopt technology into your organization, tech is cheaper, less risky and less complicated than ever before. The democratization of technology has lowered the cost of introducing new technology into your organization. New SaaS and freemium models are making previously enterprise-only software now affordable. In turn, the growth of cloud based computing continues to minimize the tech gap between corporate and social sectors.

This means SaaS products cost less, require fewer IT resources inside the organization and the barriers to entry are lowered.

Some tools are quite cost-effective and offer free, more basic options, like HootSuite’s free version and allow nonprofits to effectively use social media in their external communication strategy. This means getting your stories told in a cost effective way. If you have a compelling story and a community that cares about what you do, social media is the best way to to augment the offline word of mouth.

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“Faces Helped By Charity Water” Image by Sacca

How to Build a Brand on a Budget

Our experience of growing HootSuite in the early days taught us a thing or two about building your brand on a budget. Using social media is not only inexpensive when compared to other marketing initiatives, but allows you to listen and monitor the conversations happening in your space.

This way, you can not only target the influencers, but empower your employees and volunteers to share your story. Social media allows nonprofits to create greater awareness, take direct action, enhance fundraising campaigns and drastically enhance the reach of their message.

Emergence of New Business Models

We need to think more broadly about how technology can make an impact, since the emergence of new business models could really benefit the nonprofit space. The key question here is discovering how digital can eliminate friction in fulfilling your missions. The growing trend towards collaborative consumption and crowdfunding have changed the game when it comes to operating in the social sector.

Collaborative Consumption

Collaborative consumption allows people to more efficiently use assets that already exist, such as access to shared knowledge and resources. Ultimately, it lowers overall consumption by using resources you already have in new ways. If you own a power drill, but you only need it once or twice a year, you can benefit by sharing that resource with your neighbours (and vice versa).

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Collaborative Consumption Model by BHH Labs

The peer-to-peer rental market alone is worth $ 26 billion. Companies like AirBnB, Lyft, Uber and ZipCar are prime examples of successful collaborative consumption models. But its not just things people are sharing, skill sharing platforms are on the rise as well. Just look at companies like Taskrabbit that skillshare platform, from grocery shopping to house cleaning and handyman activities.

In the nonprofit space, skillshare platform Catchafire matches professionals seeking to find meaningful volunteer opportunities with nonprofits that have quite specific needs. This can be anything from accounting to web design — Catchafire matches the technical skilled professionals with nonprofits seeking pro bono assistance.


For the social sector, the growing trend towards crowdfunding has created new revenue streams and models for investment and funding. The idea of advocating for your cause, telling a story and attracting attention and funding through online campaigns is one of the biggest examples of non profits leveraging social media technologies to increase their impact.

Kickstarter, an American based private for-profit company founded in 2009, provides tools to raise funds for creative project via crowdfunding through its website. To date, Kickstarter has raised over $ 700 million for creative projects. Similar organizations, like Catapult and, have created crowdfunding platforms specifically for nonprofits.

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New technology to help build wells. Photo by the EU Commission.

I believe these two crowd-based trends can have a big impact on the social sector if nonprofits think about their operating models from a disruptive innovation point of view.

Social media will continue to have a huge impact on the nonprofit sector. Organizations that focus on using technology to ‘do the same things but better’ and that use social media to share impactful stories to build communities will flourish. I’d love to hear your thoughts. How is technology changing the social sector? How do you think nonprofits will adapt? Please share your ideas in the comments.

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