How a nonprofit makes smart use of Twitter

Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery development and communications director Joel Bergstrom suggests that social media done poorly may be worse than no social media presence at all.

Most nonprofit organizations do a lot with a little. Their small staffs are stretched just trying to achieve the group’s basic goals. Given that, it can be a challenge deciding how to most effectively use social media to promote their mission.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms can be tremendously powerful and inexpensive communication tools. But getting the most out of them requires some smart thinking in advance.

The best approach: Be targeted and strategic. Have a plan – don’t just throw out random content. And be prepared to commit at least a modest amount of staff time to the effort.

The Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery, which fights child abuse and offers assistance to parents in crisis, recently decided to step up its social media efforts. But a lot of thought went into the effort, said Joel Bergstrom, the crisis nursery’s development and communications director.

“There’s a common wisdom that says you have to be present in social media,” Bergstrom said. “But if you’re not doing it well, it doesn’t help you – and it may hurt you.”

First step for the nursery: open a Twitter account. Twitter has become primarily a news and promotion service. It’s less about establishing a personal connection – that role has been taken by Facebook – and more about broadcasting a message to an interested audience that will help spread it.

The nursery decided to launch its Twitter account in April, because it’s Child Abuse Prevention Month. April also includes Volunteer Appreciation Week, and it’s the month the nursery was established in 1983.

Bergstrom and other staff members planned a news budget for Twitter, much as media outlets plan their stories. They also chose organizations to follow on Twitter, and to target with their own tweets.

The planning paid off immediately. In the first week the nursery’s Twitter account was active, the nursery put out a tweet thanking a group of volunteers from UPS. UPS retweeted to its 15,000 followers. More important, it was also retweeted to 10,000 additional followers by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an influential nonprofit focused on issues of children’s well-being. It’s no coincidence that the Casey family happens to have founded UPS – and the foundation could be expected to notice a positive tweet about the company.

In its second week, the crisis nursery Twitter feed thanked another crew of volunteers from Yoplait. That resulted in a retweet from Yoplait to its 20,000 followers.

Bergstrom’s advice to other nonprofits interested in Twitter:

  • Check out nonprofit peers on Twitter – see who’s doing it well and who’s not.
  • Think about how you can use Twitter to connect with your constituency and others interested in your mission.
  • Make sure the content you’re putting out is consistent with your key messages.
  • Stay engaged – you can’t put it on autopilot.

That last point is important. Social media require a time commitment. It needn’t be huge – Bergstrom says the nursery staff spends a couple of hours a day monitoring and interacting on social media. But once you join the conversation on social media, you have to stick with it.

“We don’t have the resources to make a huge splash in this,” Bergstrom said. “Some corporations have an entire department dedicated to it. But it’s all about getting your name and message to people you otherwise might not have been able to reach.”

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