Can Social Networking Sites – like MySpace & FaceBook – Deliver for Nonprofits? (Case Study)

I recently read about the amazing primary victory by Peter Franchot, a candidate for Maryland Comptroller. It was amazing because the victory was generated primarily via volunteers recruited, motivated and managed through social networking sites – MySpace and Facebook to be specific.

What’s compelling about the Franchot campaign is the warp speed – only four weeks – with which 23-year-old organizer Jacob Colker recruited 80% of the entire volunteer base (by searching for college students in the region whose profiles indicated a poli sci major and liberal perspective) and put them to work making 15,000 phone calls and dropping 50,000 pieces of campaign literature. Pretty incredible, very inexpensive, very easy and very likely to have implications for your nonprofit.

Colker, who learned his social-networking tricks of the trade promoting his band, speaks here on how nonprofits can put these tools to work to increase visibility, raise awareness about time-sensitive issues (great for advocacy), and solicit donations and volunteers:

GA: What social networking sites have the greatest potential for nonprofits seeking supporters, donors or volunteers, and why?

COLKER:,, and, hands down.

MySpace and Facebook are built around groups. Using them successfully is based on a user’s ability to customize a unique online page that is a direct reflection of his personality. In this virtual world, choosing the color scheme, illustrative material, background music, and page layout is comparable to choosing a hairstyle or outfit in the physical world.

Recent research results tell us that regular users visit MySpace 10 to 20 times daily. Can you identify anything (other than email) that you do that much on a daily basis? This active participation creates a phenomenal opportunity for nonprofits to engage new and loyal audiences. And keep in mind that more than half of MySpace users are over 25.

Your nonprofit can place job listings in the classified ad section, announce upcoming events, post videos (a great channel for advocacy videos), and create your own group. There are over 10,000 nonprofit groups already. Experiment. The risk is low.

Until now, Facebook has maintained an exclusive approach to membership, with users having to attend one of a selection of colleges or universities to view the profiles of others attending the same school. However, Facebook has just opened up to the unaffiliated, and is a great way to reach a targeted audience at a specific school (at this point, most users are still college students) or in a specific location.
Register at Facebook to survey opportunities for your nonprofit.

Care2 represents a newer development in social networking – the niche social network, a vertical specialization representing specific interests. It’s similar to MySpace and Facebook, but with a nonprofit focus. Your nonprofit can use Care2 to create or join cause-focused groups; start, promote and/or sign petitions; share photos; and solicit donations and volunteers.

7,000 new members per day are joining Care2, so it’s growing very quickly. Total users now number 6 1/2 million, far fewer than the “commercial” sites. But remember, these are pre-qualified users, self-identified supporters of nonprofit issues and organizations.

Care2 works with close to 150 different nonprofit organizations, and being the first of its kind, is a pioneering vehicle for nonprofit advocacy via social networking.
Explore Care2’s communities in issue areas from environmental affairs to human rights.

GA: You are renowned for having used the same strategies you used to build your band’s loyal fan base to Franchot’s campaign. Tell me how this worked.

COLKER: Actually, volunteers, like fans, are never truly loyal. They come and go and you have to keep recruiting to maintain your ranks.

Here’s my six-step fan program:

  1. Develop loyalty by showing people that what they are doing is beneficial.
  2. Create accountability for each person. Provide goals, specific expectations, and follow up.
  3. Create incentive, time pressure and rewards.
  4. Reinforce training over and over again.
  5. Reward, thank, reward, and thank again. When you make people feel good, they will stick around. Retention is easier than recruitment.
  6. Include each person’s opinion in decision- making. If people feel that their input is valued, they are more likely to stay loyal and active.

GA: Of course, it’s vital to target the sites that match the demographics for a particular advocacy or volunteer campaign. Who’s using Facebook, MySpace, Care2 and the other main social networking sites?

COLKER: Traditionally, very young, technologically-savvy people use these websites. Recently, older individuals are gravitating to these sites as well.

It all comes back to the group mentality, the ability to customize or personalize a profile, and to share your personality with others. Older individuals are just as likely to want to take advantage of that provided they can get past the learning curve, and their peers are active in the same social network. It does require a critical mass of participation.

Here are some recent user stats:

  • MySpace: Broadest appeal throughout age groups — 58% of users are 25-54, 41% are 35-54.
  • Facebook: Winner in 18-24 niche. Keep your eye on post- college growth.
  • Care2: 6.5 million users, no stats yet.

More info on online community usage.

GA: Now that the election is around the corner, what would you do differently next round?

COLKER: This is actually my second round using social networking sites to push a particular candidate. The first attempt was a failure – I focused only on MySpace. This time around, I tried a host of social networking sites to pinpoint which ones worked best for Franchot.

We didn’t get the volume I was shooting for, but we did get enough to push our candidate over the top.

To provide a frame of reference, a political campaign – like any nonprofit advocacy campaign – is not exclusively about volunteers. It is a coordinated effort integrating fundraising, field, press, events and advertising strategies.

A good field program will bring in from 4 to 12% of overall votes cast for a candidate. I believe that the program we ran for Franchot brought in around 7% or roughly 15,000 votes.

Keep in mind that it’s hard to find volunteers for a “down-ballot” race (a race that is not exactly the most important race in people’s minds), to work in a time period still within the confines of summer vacation (very limited access to students who are traditionally the bread-and-butter volunteers), get them excited and trained, build a willingness to work very hard, and create a desire to return to volunteer day after day. You have to get creative. That’s where online social networking comes in.

GA: Playing the social networking game takes time, and some money. Any guidance for time-strapped nonprofit communicators who now, with the introduction of these social networking tools, have more channels than ever to handle? How should we prioritize?

COLKER: I think the first step is to get someone on the job – as a staffer or consultant – whom understands the concept and process of social networking into the mix of your organization.

The second step is trial and error. I have worked on campaigns on both sides of the country, and I can tell you first hand that every region or district is different. Every campaign is different. Tactics that may have worked for your organization once on a particular issue, may not deliver the same outcome under different factors. You have to find what works for your organization, diversifying your investment.

This approach necessitates the third step, which is developing patience. It takes time to build momentum and create a buzz.

GA: Any last tips for nonprofit marketers delving into the world of social networking?

COLKER: I believe that you need patience over all else, and the help of someone savvy with both these technologies and organizing to handle the day-to-day management of social networking initiatives.