Why charities get social media ROI better than for-profit businesses

Posted by Emma Walter on 5/13/11 4:26 AM

By Paul Furiga
What do charities know about return on investment that every for-profit business needs to learn? Plenty, based on recent social media experience and research.

Recently, my colleague Sam Wannemacher and I had the privilege to present at the 2011 Digital Impact Conference hosted by the Public Relations Society of America. The fourth annual event, held in New York City, offered two full days of shared knowledge and new thinking on topics from mobile marketing to personal branding from speakers as varied as yours truly to senior leaders at Microsoft and Google.

Among the most compelling sessions I attended were two breakouts on the use of social media by nonprofits. Nonprofits, perennially challenged by limited resources and staff, are the last sector that conventional wisdom would pick as examples of best practices and bleeding edge social media usage.

Yet that’s what Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes of the Society for New Communications Research and Gloria Huang of The America Red Cross revealed in their breakout sessions. This is such an important topic, I’m going to break it into two parts so it’s easier to digest.

First, the big picture. And for that, we need the research done by Barnes, who is Chancellor Professor of Marketing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Barnes, who has studied social media usage by charities, higher education and business for the last several years, found that 97 percent of the top 200 U.S. charities studied have a Facebook profile, 96 percent have a Twitter presence and 64 percent have a blog. In 2010, for the first time in the past four years, Barnes and her team at the UMass Center for Marketing Research found that every charity surveyed reported using at least one form of social media. The study concluded that social media has become an incredibly important part of the communication strategy for US charities.

Most surprising to me: nonprofits DO NOT use social media first and foremost to raise money. While that’s among the top three uses reported, engaging and staying connected to stakeholders was tops. And in our experience at WordWrite, that is always the fundamental first step, whether you represent a business-to-business company trying to connect with clients and potential clients, or a charity looking to make a difference in the world.

Barnes and her team found that social media usage among higher education and businesses pales in comparison. For example, 2010 research by the center found that even among Inc. 500 companies, which are smaller and faster-growing in comparison to staid Fortune 500 behemoths, social media usage was uneven and in some sectors (government services, energy and financial services) lagging.

According to the Center’s 2010 report, “The largest charities continue to outpace businesses and even academic institutions in their familiarity, use, and monitoring activity. These top organizations have found a new and exciting way to engage employees, volunteers and donors. They are connected and react quickly, as evidenced by responses to recent disasters. They have truly embraced social media tools in a way no other sector has.”

That’s a great segue to the social media experience of nonprofits. And for that experience, the American Red Cross is clearly blazing a new and unchartered path in disaster response. I’ll share that experience in my next blog post.
WordWrite President and CEO Paul Furiga



Paul Furiga is president and CEO of WordWrite Communications.

Topics: social media