Nonprofits & Social Media

“Nonprofits have a unique opportunity to use social media to grow and scale their causes and donations online.”

The summer after my sophomore year at Boston College I worked as the Social Media and Marketing intern at a nonprofit cancer society. It was a 10-hour, unpaid, virtual internship. I went into the office the first day to meet my manager, and for the rest of the summer I did my work from home. For me, it was the perfect setup. I was able to continue earning money at my summer job from the previous year, while also gaining marketing experience. My main responsibility was to control the social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a blog) for their big, annual fundraising event.

Nonprofits are often tight on funding, so in some ways it makes sense to have an unpaid intern responsible for something that is not seen as a vital aspect of the organization. However, social media is becoming increasingly important and can have a huge effect on organizations, nonprofits in particular. After being in this class for only a few months, I now see the benefits of having a knowledgeable and strategy-driven employee in charge of social media. It is not just an added bonus; it is a powerful tool. Although I was technically qualified for the position description, the organization could probably have benefited more from having someone more experienced than a 20 year-old marketing major, who had only taken one marketing class!

I think it is safe to assume that everyone knows about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. This is an excellent example of how a nonprofit benefited from social media. The ALS Association raised over $115 million through the spreading of videos in this campaign. Although it is not likely that all nonprofits have the potential to have such a successful, and somewhat lucky campaign, social media can definitely benefit these organizations.

A major advantage of social media for nonprofits is that it is more cost-effective than big marketing campaigns or expensive fundraising events. One reason it is less expensive is because social media allows for more specific targeting, without needing to waste money on a broad audience. Additionally, it also allows for messages to be sent out more quickly and in real time.

Furthermore, organizations that use social media often benefit from network effects. People are more likely to be influenced by a post made by their friends than a post made by a company. For example, an individual might be more likely to donate to or join a Relay for Life team if a friend posts about the event rather than if the American Cancer Society posts to their own Facebook page. This feature also helps messages and news spread quickly.

Additionally, social media provides a platform for supporters to interact and work together. In the past, this may have only happened at big, live events. Now, people involved with these organizations have an opportunity to share news, collaborate, plan, and stay in touch through groups within social media platforms.

As can be seen by these benefits, social media can be a powerful and effective tool for nonprofit organizations. Currently, nonprofits are focusing on email and websites as their main avenues for engagement. Additionally, the Case Foundation found that “lack of manpower is still the biggest challenge facing nonprofits.” However, once these organizations realize the power and potential of this tool, they may be more likely to devote more manpower to it. It is also important that nonprofits establish ways to effectively use social media metrics to inform their activities. Lastly, the Case Foundation also stresses the importance of ensuring websites and newsletters are mobile-friendly.

Although many of these benefits apply to for-profit companies too, they are especially applicable to nonprofits because these organizations usually do not have big marketing budgets or departments. It may not seem like one of the most important aspects of running a nonprofit, but social media has huge potential to make an impact. Organizations should be putting more  effort into learning about these opportunities and putting them into practice, especially as the social landscape continues to change. I had a great learning experience throughout my internship; however, I think it definitely benefited me more than it did the organization!

What are your thoughts?


How Nonprofits Use Social Media to Engage with Communities



  1. This is interesting to hear about from someone who has experience with a non-profit because it provides a unique perspective. I feel like non-profits oftentimes underestimate the potential of social media, but also might not have the means to utilize it effectively even if they did properly understand the power. The comment about not having the manpower is too true, which is why unpaid internships are so important to these companies. Having someone like yourself to help the company out with SM is better than no one, after all.

  2. Great post. I think that social media is certainly a very effective tool when used correctly by non-profits, as demonstrated by the ALS ice bucket challenge. I think the main issue, like you said, is that non-profits generally have a lack of man-power. The people running these organizations are more often than not older generations that may not realize the potential that social media can actually have so they are probably going to be hesitant to devote resources to this. Changing the culture of many non-profits to become more in touch with social media will certainly be a challenge but could have huge benefits.

  3. My mom started a nonprofit 20 years ago so I asked her what her thoughts are on social media for nonprofit foundations. She said that it’s exceptionally important because it helps these foundations to build their database with the next generation and to communicate important urgent information and create conversations that support the mission of the foundation. Also, foundations need to be careful that if they’re going to try to initiate a social media campaign that they do it correctly. While it’s true that the ice bucket challenge brought in a lot of money for the ALS Association not as many people heard about Stand Up to Cancer’s #KissCancerGoodbye campaign.

  4. Very nice post. I think that the lack of manpower and probably also of manpower is definitely what hold them back for now. I also think that since they measure their engagement rate and success based on donations, emails are still the best way to actively get some. I found the UNICEF campaign “Likes don’t save lives” very interesting in that regard: Here’s also a post with some infographics and tips that I found interesting and that you might like:

  5. That’s unfortunate for those non-profit organizations that they have not seen social media as being as valueble as it really is. But things might have changed since the time that you did your internship. Even if it wasn’t that long ago, stuff is changing so fast with social media that I wouldn’t be surprised if they have already started taking social media more seriously. I hope that that is true because nonprofits do a lot of important work and they will improve their ability to do that work if they become more adept at a method of promoting themselves that is more cost-effective than traditional advertising.

  6. This post really caught my eye, since I’ve spent my whole life working in the nonprofit field, and can totally relate to this. The first job I worked at was at a local hospital in the fundraising department, and I was there when social media was really starting to get big. My boss put me in charge of the social media accounts, and I felt like you did because I was like, “Um…I guess I can do this, but I know nothing about it, I think someone else who knows more should do it.” It turned out to be fine, and I learned a lot while managing the social media accounts, but so much changes around social media, that it really is a full-time job for someone to really do it right. You are absolutely right though that organizations, especially small ones, face the problem: Hire a grant writer or a hire a social media manager…when you are faced with a decision like that, you tend to hire anyone but the social media manager, because it’s hard to justify to your Board that you weren’t able to raise as much money that year because you hired a social media person instead of someone who could fundraise for you. I still think it’s really important though that a trained professional be hired to manage social media. Not only will you see immediate results in terms of followers gained, posts shared, etc., you will also see long-term results when you have built a strong base of loyal supporters who are excited and supportive of your mission and work.

  7. what in interesting experience, fascinating to hear(read) about it and i am glad you have a positive take away. I agree 100p, social media is an amazing resource that nonprofits must utilize in this day in age. Its essentially free to use and (in my opinion) the best way to connect with the future generations that will be running the world. It helps keep money going in the right direction, the cause that started the non-profit in the first place. bravo

  8. Great post! I’m glad you see the huge impact potential for social media and non-profit organizations. Such a bummer that although they may lack the resources, nonprofits should still take notice of the huge upside social media could have on their organizations. Just to be more connected with other organizations and exploring a different platform to raise funds in this way is a HUGE benefit. Thanks for sharing your experience, it really pulled this whole blog post together!

  9. Nice post, Caroline! I’m working with a non-profit right now and part of my job is to help with their SM too. I can definitely relate to the feeling that someone with a little more business know-how should be in charge — I’m in a good spot where I work with someone with marketing experience who needs help on the creative side. I think that non-profits can definitely benefit from thinking of the different audiences that use different platforms. Who are they trying to contact? Parents? FB. College students who can volunteer/spread awareness for causes they can relate to? Twitter.

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