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Social Networking for Nonprofits: Panacea or Hype?
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Social Networking for Nonprofits: Panacea or Hype?

By Ewart Newton – EVP, Electronic Services, Diversified Nonprofit Services

Social networking, such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and many others has created a buzz reminiscent of when Hotmail transformed email from being a business tool to a central part of everyone’s life. People are talking about social networking. More importantly, huge numbers of us are using these technologies to connect with friends, colleagues and the world at-large. Quantcast estimates that 65.6 million Americans used Facebook, 67.9 million used MySpace, 77.9 million used YouTube and 4.1 million used Twitter in January 2009.

Executives in organizations of all sizes really took notice when Senator Barack Obama used social blogs, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to build a massive network of supporters, volunteers and workers. His use of social networking transformed political campaigning and helped Senator Obama raise unprecedented funds.

Boards and managers of many nonprofits are asking, “How can we do what Senator Barack Obama did to mobilize many new volunteers…to raise money from new sources…etc?”

Lessons Learned From The Obama Campaign

Before we look at the lessons from the Obama presidential campaign, let’s define social networking. Broadly speaking, it’s a collection of people and/or organizations that come together to share interests. On the internet, this takes many forms including blogs, collaborative content creation, video sharing, socializing, business networks, and email blasts.

The Obama campaign mobilized over 3,000,000 people on Facebook and MySpace combined (over 3 times the number reported for Senator John McCain’s campaign), many of whom became volunteers and evangelists for his campaign. He uploaded almost 1,800 videos to YouTube that were viewed over 18 million times (9 times the McCain campaign). Senator Obama’s campaign reportedly raised over $600 million, much of it online (2,900,000 donations; 93% less than $100). Using 16 different social networks, his campaign kept his supporters (and the media!) updated instantly and constantly.

The Obama campaign had Senator Barack Obama at its epicenter. He is a celebrity and a charismatic leader. He had a strong message delivered into a highly partisan political scene. Many of his supporters were highly-interested, young people; the most active demographic of social networkers. A presidential campaign has vast numbers of potential voters, donors, and volunteers to target. Added to this was 24/7 media coverage which kept images, sound bites, stories and opinion about the campaign flowing constantly into homes, in the streets, at workplaces and so on.

But the “rock star” personality that Senator Barack Obama became and the perfect environment for social networking were not the total reasons for success. The Obama campaign made connection to supporters using social networks one of its strategic objectives. It had the support and participation of the highest levels of the campaign, including Senator Barack Obama. Significant talent, money and time were allocated to social networking, and the campaign maintained a highly-focused and detailed approach to managing its use of social networks.

So what about social networking and nonprofits?

Nonprofits want what Senator Barack Obama achieved… widespread awareness, large numbers of engaged supporters, many donors, network effects, and low-cost ways to reach these people, mobilize them and collect money from them.

But it is important to be realistic. Few nonprofits have the charismatic, celebrity leader, even in their local market. Having a celebrity or celebrities that support your organization is not the same as having the celebrity at the center of the organization.

Analysis of the Obama campaign numbers show that his campaign’s reach to users of Facebook, MySpace, etc., while large in absolute numbers, represented only a few percentage points of the total user base. So, even if a nonprofit could achieve the percentage reach similar to the Obama campaign, the absolute number of people it will reach will be quite small.

Social networking is not a silver bullet for fund raising. But it is useful and potentially valuable in many ways, including:

  • Connecting with clients and other stakeholders
  • Changing your communications to a more conversational mode instead of the one-way “publishing” approach of most communications to this point
  • Shifting the culture of your organization to listen more… to clients and other stakeholders
  • Establishing a cost efficient way to build awareness
  • Friendraising… the first step in cultivation and relationship building.

We’ll discuss these opportunities in more detail in future articles.

Suggestions For Getting Started

Future articles will provide more information about planning and implementing various social networking techniques. But you can get started now:

  • Learn about social networking, what it is, how it works, who uses it. Links to several useful sources of information are given below.
  • Try it! Open an account for yourself on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or one of the other sites. I suggest you ask a few of your friends if they have accounts and open your account on the same site. This way you will become part of their conversations quickly. Look at how it works, what happens, what results from it.
  • Talk to other people. Ask about their experiences… personal and business. Find out what they think works and what does not work. If they use it for business, ask how they measure the impact and cost/benefit of using social networking.
  • Keep an open mind. Things are moving quickly. Facebook started in 2004 and already claims to have 175 million users worldwide!!

Use Common Sense

As with most internet technologies, social networking sites are sometimes targeted by viruses and other bad software. You should apply the same techniques you use to prevent viruses in your email, etc. and be careful how you share confidential information about you or your organization. Awareness and common sense are needed here as much as anywhere.

Important New Way To Do Business

Social networking is neither a panacea nor hype. But it is already an important new way to do business and will become increasingly valuable for organizations that understand it and invest in it.

Note: Source material and other related information can be found using the bibliography and links below this article.



Masie, E:


Social network service:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Preston, C.:

The Internet and the 2008 Election:

The Washington Post: Greenwell, K. H.:


Wikipedia: TANSTAAFL:


About The Author – Ewart Newton’s technology experience spans the development of an electronic publishing system that reached 90,000 people in 100 countries in the mid-90’s, being one of the instigators of an intranet in a global 100 company, and co-founding a software company, to his present position as EVP for Electronic Services at Diversified Nonprofit Services. He has spent over a decade working with nonprofit organizations to implement and customize cost-effective technology solutions.