Local nonprofits go online to drive real-world change

BEING SOCIAL: Connecting with supporters and clients through social media has been a boon for many local nonprofits. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others provide mission-driven organizations with nearly unlimited opportunities to showcase their work and impact. Still, figuring out how to maximize the value of social media tools, avoid pitfalls and maintain a consistent voice and message present challenges for nonprofits small and large.

“Social media and technology: It’s amazing what it can do. It has magnified our awareness in people’s minds so that we can be in touch with people more often,” says Kara Irani, who has served as director of marketing and communications at MANNA FoodBank since 2015. “Our work is so daily and so in the minute and so tangible that it has been wonderful for us to be able to tell a story immediately for people.”

MANNA, which has operated in Asheville for over 30 years, works with a network of more than 200 partners to provide food to thousands of people across 16 counties in Western North Carolina each year. While the organization continues to use traditional forms of community engagement such as printed mailing lists and media relations, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have widened its scope of donors and support.

“We work with thousands and thousands of organizations to make this happen, and hundreds of thousands of people probably through all of that. So community engagement is vital for us. It is absolutely vital,” Irani says.

The direct access that social media provides also results in quick action during crisis relief efforts. Irani says that by using Facebook and Twitter to manage and connect to the organization’s more than 7,000 volunteers, MANNA can communicate specific needs even during the confusion and misinformation that often follows a natural disaster.

“With the hurricanes, we had people who immediately wanted to donate water, donate food,” Irani says. “We were sharing things about what the most-needed items are, because honestly, a big risk and a big challenge in those kinds of situations is having to work through materials that we can’t use. Making sure that people understand what we need most, that’s really important for us, and Facebook is a big piece of that.”

Feel the love

Social media outlets also provide an opportunity for fundraising. According to a 2017 Charitable Giving Report by the Blackbaud Institute, a philanthropic research group that studies trends within nonprofits, online donations grew by 12 percent between 2016 and 2017, with online donations making up nearly 8 percent of all fundraising in 2017.

“Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are really effective for us. Part of that reason, of course, is that pictures of animals do really well on the internet,” says Leah Craig, director of engagement for Friends of the WNC Nature Center. “Overall, it’s just been really positive for us, and it’s just so incredible to be able to connect with people that way.”

Craig says online engagement has boosted both the WNC Nature Center’s presence in the community and its ability to raise money for specific causes. Earlier this fall, for example, the zoo experienced the loss of Pisgah, one of its two sibling cougars. After posting an announcement of Pisgah’s passing on Facebook, Craig says, she was overwhelmed at the level of support from the community for the animal and the center’s staff.

“It was really great to see how they had such a personal connection to the cougar, and they were able to express that on social media and be joined by other people who felt just like them,” Craig explains. “Everybody was really having a conversation about it and supporting the staff here.”

The emotional reaction from the community inspired Craig to create a Facebook fundraising campaign for the remaining cougar, Mitchell, to buy an enrichment item that would help him cope with the loss. Again, she and the Nature Center’s staff were stunned by the response on social media.

“We raised almost $700 in three days. We had all of this is caring and community and engagement and support, and all of it is only happening because of social media,” Craig points out. “Ten or 15 years ago, none of that would have happened. People wouldn’t have been able to connect in that way.”

Pay to play

For many nonprofits, a major advantage of social media lies in the ability to share ideas, tell stories and reach critical donors and volunteers, all for free. As some platforms shift to paid advertising and promotions, smaller nonprofits with minimal funding may soon fall behind.

Hana Bieliauskas, board member and marketing chair for the youth-focused nonprofit Girls on the Run, says changes in Facebook’s advertising-driven algorithms have resulted in less visibility for organizations that don’t use paid advertising.

“Nonprofits don’t have as much budget as other organizations or companies might in general, and it’s become harder for everyone, including nonprofits, to really reach people,” Bieliauskas says. “We do some Facebook advertising or Twitter advertising, but we don’t have the budget to do a whole lot, so the people who see our content organically have drastically fallen.”

According to Bieliauskas, Girls on the Run uses various social media platforms to share content several times a week. Social media, she says, provides a personal connection with coaches, parents and youths who participate in the program.

“I think that social media content is extremely authentic,” Bieliauskas says. “Being able to show photos and videos is a way for people to actually see the looks on the girls’ faces and see why they love this organization and what impact it’s having on them. We’re able to tell it in our voice and really tell that authentic, true story behind the organization straight from the people who are on the ground.”

But as social media sites increasingly require payment to promote campaigns, Bieliauskas argues, many nonprofits miss out on an opportunity to connect to potential supporters. “We might be sharing really high-quality content, especially on Facebook, but it’s only being seen by 50 of our 2,000 followers,” she says. “That shift has made it very difficult for nonprofits to really be seen without investment.”

Go viral

While some nonprofits have experienced growth through the use of social media, Angelica Wind, executive director of sexual violence crisis intervention and prevention agency Our VOICE, says her organization has been revolutionized by it.

Wind notes that Our VOICE, which was born out of the feminist movement in 1974, has traditionally relied on flyers distributed in public places to reach those in need of the organization’s services. But social media and the #MeToo movement that begin in the fall of 2017, she says, have helped to drive a 27-percent increase in people seeking help this year.

“The #MeToo movement has grown substantially just as a result of social media,” Wind explains. “On the average, we serve 650 people a year, but in this past year, due to the #MeToo movement and everything else that is happening at the national level, we have grown to a little over 800 and then some.”

Wind says social media provides an outlet for survivors to share their experiences with others — either anonymously or openly — which fosters dialogue and space for healing. Our VOICE uses social platforms not only to offer a safe place to connect for survivors of sexual assault, but also to spread awareness to those who may not otherwise seek out information.

Because social media allows people to learn from respected peers in their personal networks, those platforms are particularly helpful for sharing messages about sensitive subjects such as sexual violence. “Social media plays such a pivotal role in how our culture and social norms are formed,” Wind says. “By having someone repost something we posted that educates on what positive cultural norms look like or how they can take steps in this sexual violence prevention movement, I think that’s really powerful.”

Old school

Despite its apparent advantages, not all nonprofits have jumped on the social media bandwagon. Debra Kiliru, director of engagement at the Roots Foundation, a nonprofit which aims to enrich public schools with outdoor learning opportunities, says face-to-face engagement remains key to developing long-term support.

“We’re really building within that school culture and trying to go deep with the communities and the neighborhoods that we’re working in, as opposed to being on a national, massive level,” Kiliru says. “We’re really just trying to take time to build those relationships because we’re looking for that long-lasting impact, and it takes that personal time.”

Justin Holt, the organization’s garden director, asserts that the most successful campaigns result from personal appeals, not Facebook notifications. “I remember we did a little bit of a social media push on Instagram and Facebook while we were to try to get people in the area excited about putting a community orchard in. Hardly anyone showed up from there,” he recalls. “But we knocked on doors and found the neighbor who knows all the other neighbors, and he was like ‘Oh yeah, I’ll get some people out.’ And we got a bunch of neighbors to turn out, but it was from that direct, personal invitation.”

Kiliru says that as the Roots Foundation grows, she hopes to integrate an online presence with direct community involvement to keep up with modern, fast-paced lifestyles.

“We’re kind of at that point where we might start using those platforms more to push out the story, now that we’ve had some time to figure it out. We’re trying to synthesize what we’re doing in a mobile-friendly way, as far as being able to say who are we, what do we do, how can I participate,” Kiliru says. “People don’t have much time. They have the right intentions, but not always the right amount of time. But I do think in-person is always really wonderful.”

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