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Engagement 2.0: Cultivating Volunteer Relationships Online

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Winter 2009

Jill Friedman Fixler & Josh Fixler

Summary

We have been hearing a lot of buzz in the media about the impact of Web 2.0 on nonprofits.  Many nonprofits are starting to incorporate social networking and social media into the work they do.  However, we have also found that many nonprofit leaders feel overwhelmed and confused by this new trend and are having trouble imagining how it will enhance the work that they do.  It can seem like a large and chaotic wilderness; it is difficult to find the path to incorporating the social web into their work.

In this time of financial crisis, volunteer engagement is becoming even more vital to nonprofits and their work.  Many community organizations are finding themselves with more demand for their services and fewer resources with which to meet this need.  In this climate, organizations are turning more and more to volunteers to do high-level tasks.  We must engage the people in our circle of influence to give of their time and their skills so that our organizations can survive and thrive, even in lean times.  Within our circles, there is already an abundance of talents and abilities just waiting to be cultivated. We can deepen the relationships with the people who are already connected to our organization so that they will want to share their passions, skills, and energy with us.  Social networking is an excellent tool for strengthening relationships with the people who are already interacting with your organization.  And in these troubled times, it is comforting to know that most of these social media services are free.

Online social networking offers the opportunity to engage with our volunteers where they already are.    It presents us with the chance to participate in the spaces where our constituents spend time socially and professionally, and to engage with them around their interests and passions.  In this way, we are able to create deeper and fuller relationships with the people who are already in our circle of influence, and hopefully give them compelling reasons to give more of their money, time, and skills.

What is Web 2.0?

Web 2.0 is all of the parts of the internet designed to allow people to interact with each other.  Whereas the traditional web is about getting information to people, the social web is about people creating and sharing information with each other.  One might describe most organizational websites and email newsletters as “Web 1.0.”  Websites that encourages sharing, such as blogs and wikis, fall into the category of Web 2.0.   For more on this subject, take a look at this blog post by Leigh Householder.

It is important to note that the term “Web 2.0” is somewhat of a misnomer because it implies that it is an upgrade to the rest of the internet.  This is not how social networking should be viewed.  Instead, one should think of these two different parts of the web as complementary.  For instance, websites are a vital way for organizations to share information about their activities and mission, but websites that incorporate social elements, such as discussion boards, can also help the organization’s members to build community.  These two goals are not mutually exclusive, and they can be achieved simultaneously.  Similarly, an organization’s e-newsletter can be a great way to share information about upcoming events, and an organizational Facebook Page can be a great place for potential participants to learn more about the organization and each other.   Social media provides an excellent complement, not a supplement, for the ways that many organizations are already using the net.

Organizational Concerns

The integration of social networking strategy into a nonprofit’s work tends to be a source of great anxiety for nonprofit leaders, especially those leaders who are not currently using social media in their own lives.  Many concerns about loss of control, security, and work/life balance often arise in conversations about how nonprofits should utilize Web 2.0.  Some social media experts have written extensively about how to counter these concerns, including Beth Kanter, Marshall Kirkpatrick, and the We Are Media Project wiki.  In most offices there is also a generational and technological divide between people who grew up with these technologies and people who didn’t.  The former, Generation X and Generation Y (also known as Millennials), use these technologies frequently and are able to incorporate them easily into their working personae.  Older generations, for whom these technologies seem like a departure from their comfort zone, may be more skeptical and hesitant about using them as a workplace tool. 

We propose that this generational divide represents an opportunity, not a threat.   It means that, in your world, there are social media experts who are adept at managing online identities and communicating in social networks.  They can be a resource for you as you look to get started with Web 2.0.  There are almost certainly people among your staff, volunteers, and donors who have experience in these spaces, whom you can engage to lead you there.  You probably know a few Millennials who would be able help you set up a profile on a social networking site like Facebook or Flickr.  They could train some of your staff in how to use these sites and even help manage your presence there.  In this way, you would be engaging these volunteers around their skills and interests, and, at the same time, you are set up to begin interacting with your other supporters online.

Start Small

Our work with our clients has shown us that the issue for many nonprofits is not a lack of desire to incorporate online social networking into their work, but rather a difficulty indentifying where to start.  With an ever increasing number of social media websites and tools, many people find themselves overwhelmed by the possibilities.  Our advice: start small.

Our experiences is that it is best to experiment with one or two small initiatives before diving head first into the world of social networking.  These tests should be built around engaging the people who are already involved in your programs, not around marketing to new supporters.  The key question should be: “How can we cultivate deeper relationships with those people with whom we already have connections, such as volunteers, donors, and event participants?”  We have three suggestions of low-cost but high-impact initiatives that you could try:

  1. Share their pictures:
  • Send out an email before your big event (dinner, run/walk, service day) asking the participants to bring cameras and video recorders.  Then ask them to upload their pictures and videos to Flickr and YouTube when they get home.  In your post-event communications, you could ask them to send you the links to their albums and videos.  In this way, you will encourage them to share their positive experience with you, and with their networks.  At the same time, you can collect excellent footage of your programs.  All the while, you are meeting participants where they are to cultivate a deeper relationship based around their interests and skills. (Of course, you’ll want to make sure that you have all participants sign a photo release waiver as part of their registration so that you know you have permission to publish their images!)
  1. Share their donation:
  • Do you accept online donations?  Do you give your donors an opportunity to share the fact that they donated with their friends?  On the “thank you” page of your online donation form, suggest a few ways to get more involved.  One of these suggestions could be to share the fact that they just donated with their networks on sites like Facebook or to send an email to their contacts saying “I just donated and I think you should, too.”  Provide a link to the donation page and some sample text to share.  You could also ask them for recommendations of people to contact to follow-up for further donor cultivation.
  1. Share their blogs:
  • Have you asked your volunteers who, among them, currently write blogs?  You could engage these people to write about your organization.  Perhaps some of them already have.  And, if they haven’t yet, you could ask them to write about their experiences and send you a link to their posts.  Then you could send these articles out to the rest of the volunteers.  This could be a good opportunity to collect and share these positive stories from people who are deeply involved in your work.  In this way, you would be helping the volunteers to share their experiences with each other and their other readers and, at the same time, you are helping them to promote their blogs and share some of their other interests with their fellow volunteers.

All of these actions serve to engage the social networking experts in your organization to talk about next steps.  There is a tremendous opportunity to engage the digital experts who are already in these spaces to work with you to develop initiatives that align with your mission and your organizational priorities.  And, these specialists will also be willing and able to help you to run these initiatives.  By turning to this abundant resource, we can begin to facilitate conversation and deepen our origination’s sense of community.

Conclusions

All of these suggestions have a few things in common.  They all meet the volunteers where they are and encourage them to share their skills and passions.  But most importantly, they all encourage your volunteers to share their positive experiences with you, with their networks, and with each other. In his blog about social networking and marketing, David Brazeal suggests that “The question to ask about your own organization is whether you're doing all you can to enable people to tell the stories of what you do.” Volunteer engagement and social networking are, at their core, about building community so that people can share their stories.  They allow people to share their experiences and their passions in new ways.  They invite people to empower each other.  Using these tools we can incite innovation and create room for people to share their passions and skills in ways we may not have even thought of yet.  Online social networking allows us to cultivate our profound circles of influence in ways that were never possible or practical before.

Let’s Keep Talking

Our intention was that this article could be the beginning of a conversation, not only among the staff and volunteers of your organization, but also with those of other nonprofit organizations. We invite you to “become a fan” of our newly launched Facebook page ttp://www.facebook.com/pages/Englewood-CO/JFFixler-Associates/49039198933 and to share your experiences with us and others like you in our discussion board.  We want to hear what you have tried and what has worked well.  Please feel free to share your thoughts, triumphs, and trials with us, but more importantly, with each other.


References and Resources

10 great articles/blog posts/publications:

  1. Starting a Social Media Strategy by Chris Brogan
  2. Eight Secrets of Effective Online Networking from Techsoup
  3. First Steps in Social Networking for Nonprofits from Wild Apricot’s nonprofit technology blog
  4. Using Facebook for Your Nonprofit from Techsoup
  5. How To Develop a Social Media Plan in Five Easy Steps by Beth Kanter
  6. A DigiActive Introduction to Facebook Activism from DigiActive
  7. How Nonprofits Can Get the Most Out of Flickr by Beth Kanter
  8. Should Your Organization Use Social Networking Sites? from Techsoup
  9. OMG! comment me! Here’s how organizations large and small are using social-networking sites to tap into a whole generation of trendy supporters who, with a little effort, could turn into BFFs and future donors.  From Fundraising Success Magazine
  10. Questions people always ask me: Facebook page or Facebook group by ADVERGIRL (Leigh Householder)

Definition of terms (from Wikipedia.com):

  • Blogs: “a website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video.   ‘Blog’ can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog.”  For a video explanation, click here.
  • Social media: “Internet- and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings.”  For a video explanation, click here.
  • Social Networking: “Building online communities of people who share interests and/or activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others.”  For a video explanation, click here.
  • Web 2.0:  “The changing trends in the use of World Wide Web technology and web design that aim to enhance creativity, communications, secure information sharing, collaboration, and functionality of the web.”

Four social networking sites that every nonprofit should know about:

  • Flicker (pictures and video)
  • YouTube (video)
  • Facebook (general)
    •  www.facebook.com
    • In their own words: “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.”
  • Twitter (micro-blogging)
    • www.twitter.com
    • In their own words: “Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: ‘What are you doing?’” 
    • For a video explanation, click here.

TIPS

  • Start small.  You don’t need to be in every social network to have an impact.  Choose one or two places to experiment with first.
  • Decide what site is right for you.  Different social networking sites have different audiences (for instance, here is some information about age and gender on a few popular sites, and here is some information about member overlap on popular sites).  You should choose your target sites based on where your volunteers already are.  And, if you find that your circle of influence is not currently networking online, then you should not either.  Just wait, they will get there soon.
  • Listen.  Social networks thrive on authenticity.  The best way to learn to be authentic in any space is to listen more then you talk.  Find out what your peers and colleagues are doing in the space.  Engage the “digital experts” around you to help you to be authentic participants.
  • Set realistic goals!  Ask yourself what you expect to gain and how you will measure your achievement.  Know that online supporters are notoriously hard to convert to real world activists and set your expectations accordingly.  Build your campaign with your goals in mind so that you can measure your effectiveness.  Many nonprofit technology bloggers have written about the Return on Investment of Social Media, such as this article by Jason Falls and this one by Beth Dunn.
  • Be prepared to give up some control.  Sometimes social networking seems to represent a loss of control for some organizations.  For instance, you cannot control whether someone’s blog post reflects positively or negatively on your organization (but you can decide to share it or not). Still, this loss of control facilitates greater communication and innovation that could not have existed otherwise.  The smaller you start, the more you can ease into this.
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