June 4, 2013
As a social media professional, it has been a difficult undertaking to shift the culture of a nonprofit organization from one that is defined by a geo-specific community to one that participates in the greater digital community.
There are valid concerns: Will digital engagement dilute the mission of our organization by focusing on Likes and retweets rather than advocacy development? Are we exploiting the people we serve by using real-life situations for PR gain? Is there any point in connecting with people outside our geographic community?
Building a digital community at an organization that has its geographic focus on a 10-block radius in Manhattan has been a challenge. Progress has been slow but steady.
Proving the value of social media to senior management and a board of trustees is an uphill battle. We can provide engagement statistics and meaningful interactions to prove the value of digital community development.
However, the counter argument is that individuals are more willing to publicly share what is happening in their day-to-day lives (cat pictures, anyone?) than they are willing to publicly participate in the initiatives that they care about on a moral and ethical level — and that could be considered controversial to others.
During Superstorm Sandy, the value of connecting geographic and digital communities came to light for my organization. Individuals within our local community fell victim to the lack of electricity, food, running water and the ability to have their most basic needs met. As it is our organization’s mission to serve the emerging needs of our geographic community, our employees and volunteers rallied to provide emergency services to our neighbors in need.
Living in Brooklyn, N.Y., I could not feel farther removed from our geographic community. Unable to physically reach our organization’s location due to the weeklong shutdown of mass transit, I took to social media channels. Somehow, I hoped to connect with those in need through our digital community. If I couldn’t be there in person to support the cause, then I could make the community aware that we were working to provide them with assistance.
In lieu of more traditional forms of communication such phone service, our social media channels became the information hub for our community in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, providing emotional support in a time of great adversity. More important, they provided us with necessary information that helped us serve individuals who could not reach us.
We received information about senior citizens trapped in their low-income high-rise apartments without food, water or the ability to walk down flights of stairs, and as a result, we were able to meet the basic needs of these stranded individuals. Social media allowed us to provide the necessary support to those who desperately needed help — the same people that our organization is committed to serving regardless of the conditions.
I had expected that our presence on Facebook and Twitter would provide the necessary emergency information about food distribution, electronic charging stations, etc., to those who were looking for it.
But I didn’t expect the spike in our engagement statistics that followed, during a week in which New York City was decidedly “unplugged.” While our organization’s analytics skyrocketed and our social media visibility has increased, this ultimately proved that social media is about connecting people with people. It’s about providing information and support at the most basic and human level.
As social media professionals, we work hard to figure out what will engage our audience. What can we post today that will make a difference?
For community-focused nonprofit organizations, the answer is simple: The stories are meaningful and the community already exists.
Social media is about sharing what you do for your community. They will support your presence because you support theirs.