How Do the Top Nonprofits Use Social Media?

Education. Information. Trust.

Some of the most successful nonprofit organizations place tremendous value in these three concepts when implementing their social media strategy. In a detailed analysis of Facebook and Twitter postings of four of the top nonprofit organizations (NPOs) on social media, I found that the organizations’ writing styles and shared content all focused on educating and informing followers while trusting both their intelligence and ability to act on behalf of the organization or their cause.

The Study

I selected the four nonprofit organizations based on several factors, most notably their separate Facebook ranking, Twitter ranking, and overall web ranking. The rankings were determined by the website Topnonprofits.com and while it is important to note where I found these rankings, I will not discuss the method that site used to determine the rankings. For more information, you can visit the site. These four nonprofits are well known, have a strong presence on social media, and have very different missions, but their approaches are quite similar.

I wanted to examine a Twitter leader, a Facebook leader, and other organizations that are well represented on social media. National Public Radio (NPR) has nearly 2.7 million likes on Facebook, while Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has about 1.3 million likes and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has nearly 1.5 million likes. The American Red Cross, well known across the globe, only has about 528,000 likes. On Twitter, the numbers shift a bit. NPR has nearly a million less followers than on Facebook with 1.8 million, while MoMa holds steady with about 1.39 million followers. HRC’s followers dip significantly to 281,000 on Twitter while the American Red Cross sees about 85 percent more followers on their Twitter page versus Facebook. These organizations all have strong followings on both platforms but some excel on one more than the other.

As a Canadian research study reported in “Paper: The Social Media Presence of Nonprofit Organizations” found, most nonprofits are limited in their number of employees and therefore must streamline their social media presence to two or three platforms. The most popular are Facebook and Twitter, so I limited my research for this study to those platforms.

The patterns and trends reflected by these organizations were based on information collected from their tweets and Facebook posts between May 1 and May 31, 2013.

The Messaging

While these nonprofit organizations are very different in their missions, overall content type, tone, posting frequency, and commenting practices are very similar. I was surprised to find that these NPOs don’t use very many marketing tactics that a business might use on social media but rather use the platforms to inform and educate their followers.

Content

As I mentioned, these nonprofits focus on different causes, but the type of messaging is quite similar. A news organization like NPR covers a wide range of topics, but an art museum like MoMa or an organization dedicated to one particular civil rights issue like HRC only posts about their specific industry or cause. The American Red Cross has more targeted messaging toward disaster relief but also promotes preparedness for a variety of disasters, both in the home and nature-related. These topics vary, but each organization distributes information that educates their followers on that topic.

MoMa updates visitors on Rain Room wait timesMost of these NPOs share their content between Facebook and Twitter. The differences reflect the community and nature of the platform. For instance, most organizations will post more to Twitter than Facebook, since tweets only remain in a followers feed during real time and will be replaced by more recent tweets as they occur. American Red Cross tweets shelter openings, storm preparednessTwitter posts are shorter and essentially either introduce a link or inform the follower of an event in succinct terms. For example, MoMa uses Twitter to update followers on the wait time for their Rain Room exhibition. The American Red Cross uses the platform to issue brief warnings about tornado activity or where to find shelters.

Facebook posts elaborate on the content a bit more before sharing a link. They also can feature photos and videos directly on the platform while these would have to be within a link on Twitter. Here is an example of a post about the same topic with different presentations on Facebook and Twitter:

Red Cross Facebook post with image Red Cross Twitter post with link

The Facebook post with a picture shows the viewer what is happening, while the Twitter post can only tell the viewer what information the link will provide.

#MoMaBusTourTwitter can be used for live-tweeting events, which MoMa has done in the past for bus tours. In these situations, they post information as it is revealed, including a hashtag so people not at the event can follow along from other locations and still learn the same things the people on the bus tour are learning.

Tone

HRC educational tone postThese nonprofit organizations generally use an informative and educational tone throughout their posts on both Facebook and Twitter. The same tone is used when introducing a link to more information on a topic. As a news organization, one might expect NPR to introduce a story with as little tone and as much objectivity as possible, but both the American Red CrossRed Cross objective tone tweet and Human Rights campaign also tend to use this tone when introducing links and stories. Of all the organizations examined for this study, MoMa is theMoMa #rainception tweet only one that tends to deviate a bit from the objective educational tone to insert friendliness and excitement toward art and exhibitions.

In specific situations and messaging, they may take on an additional tone, usually one expressing emotion or urgency. Red Cross Urgent TweetFor example, when a disaster hits, the American Red Cross will express sympathy for those affected by the disaster. They use an urgent tone when severe weather is approaching an area, warning residents to evacuate or seek shelter. HRC Urgent PostThe Human Rights Campaign also injects urgency into their overall tone, but for a different reason. While not informing followers of a physically life-threatening situation like a tornado, HRC uses urgency when asking followers to contact their representatives before an important vote is scheduled regarding marriage equality. While the reasons for using an urgent tone differ, it is always added on top of the existing informative and educational tone that is consistently used by all of the organizations in this study.

The final tone that came through in three of the four organizations was that of gratitude.Red Cross Gratitude Nonprofit organizations, including the American Red Cross, Human Rights Campaign, and Museum of Modern Art, all rely on volunteers, supporters, donations, and/or visitors to keep the organization running. In the posts that thank supporters, the genuine feeling of appreciation comes through in the messages’ tones. 

Frequency

I was very surprised to see how frequently these organizations post to Facebook. I have been under the impression that organizations, for-profit or not-for-profit, should not post more than one to two times a day, for at least two reasons. First, multiple posts could annoy followers and they might hide the organization. Second, one post could be overtaken by another post due to Facebook’s mysterious and complicated algorithms, therefore rendering one post potentially useless and unseen. However, it appears that for these organizations, more is better. From a user standpoint, I will admit that I see posts throughout the day from these organizations on my Facebook page and I now realize it’s because they’re posting so much that it’s hard to miss. They might assume that the more the post, the greater likelihood that a follower will see at least one post a day, if not all of them.

These NPOs tend to post at least once a day to Facebook, with the American Red Cross and Human Rights Campaign posting on average two to three times a day. NPR exceeds the average by posting about 20 times a day. However, I would expect that frequency in a news organization. The other NPOs tend to take weekends off from posting, except when a significant event occurs, like severe destruction from a tornado for the American Red Cross.

On Twitter, the average amount of posts per day is higher, hitting about three to four times a day for all the nonprofits studied except NPR. Again, NPR posts links to their news stories throughout the day, about 35 to 45 times. The frequency increases for the other nonprofits when special events occur, like an approaching tornado for the American Red Cross or a legislative vote regarding marriage equality for HRC.

Commenting Patterns

None of the NPOs featured in this study comment on their own posts or others’ comments about their posts frequently. There is not a lot of engagement between the organizations and their followers. It appears that they use the social media platforms to distribute information but not to build a community on the platforms. Some of the NPOs will monitor and delete inappropriate or obscene comments from their Facebook page, but not all of them do.

The Red Cross does not appear to delete inappropriate comments from their Facebook page, as one person posted a video with obscene images and another person requested that the Red Cross remove it from their comments section, but they never responded. While they do not regulate comments on their Facebook page, they do respond to direct questions. They also retweet a lot of messages from people mentioning the good work they’re doing and share photos and stories from others regarding their work, which supports their goal of using social media as a public relations tool, as stated in the case study “Keeping Up with the Digital Age: How the American Red Cross Uses Social Media to Build Relationships.”

Contrary from the Red Cross’ lack of censorship, it appears that the Human Rights Campaign may censor some offensive comments on their Facebook page. In my research I noticed a response to a seemingly offensive comment but could not find the reference comment itself, leading me to believe that the HRC removed it. Not all potentially offensive comments are removed, but perhaps some of the extreme ones.

MoMa is the most interactive with their followers on both Facebook and Twitter. Occasionally there are discussions about art on their Facebook page, which includes some criticism.MoMa responds to criticism on Facebook page Instead of ignoring it, they respond through non-confrontational, clarifying terms and tones. They respond to questions about exhibitions on Twitter and also address concerns and complaints by requesting the person send them a direct message so they can resolve the problem. This practice of addressing criticisms and trying to clarify misunderstanding can help them build trust with museum visitors and social media followers.

NPR shares the general trend of publishing information but not often responding to comments on their social media pages, but they do break the mold when it comes to the community forum. While none of these NPOs foster a community forum on their social media platform pages, NPR’s Facebook comment section has become a place where news consumers go to discuss the stories underneath the posts. NPR never engages in the conversation, however, and it does not appear that they censor the comments either.

The Trends: Within NPOs and Outside of Them

Based on my examination of these nonprofit organizations, I have found that despite having different missions and goals, they tend to use similar tactics on social media. They all share content that is valuable to their supporters that helps keep them educated and updated on the cause, whether that is legislation, disasters, or new art exhibitions. Generally their tone remains informative and educational as they push out this information. They post whenever they have relevant information, often multiple times a day, without marketing or fundraising agendas.

The pattern of using social media to promote awareness of each NPO’s cause mirrors the findings of another study, conducted by Chao Guo and Gregory D. Saxton, and published in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector QuarterlyIn their study, which analyzed how 188 nonprofit advocacy groups use Twitter, they found that most of the groups use the platform as an educational tool instead of one that results in a call to action. These researchers further suggested that after awareness, social media messages should then help build an online community and then include frequent call to action messages.Red Cross supporter retweet While most of the messages from the NPOs in my study focused on awareness, some did focus on community, like Red Cross’ retweets of supporter stories or MoMa’s art discussions with others on their Facebook page. Amidst educational posts, HRC call to action tweetHRC would insert call to action messages when legislation votes were occurring.

As these NPOs use social media platforms as a communication tool to keep their supporters informed, we see other trends occurring. People share their support stories with the Red Cross and they retweet those stories. MoMa visitors take pictures at an exhibition and share them on social media. These supporters are sharing part of their experience with the organization on social media, just as sports fans move beyond cheering in the stands and take their passion to social media. Any organization, be it the Chicago Cubs or the Human Rights Campaign, gives supporters better access to their team or cause through social media so they can stay informed and show their support through social media, even with a simple like or follow.

The content the NPOs publish can also help their cause—from awareness to fundraising. Just as small businesses must create interesting content to garner likes and follows,HRC partner donation request they also need to get customers into the store, be that online or on the street. NPOs like the Red Cross need monetary donations, which they can solicit through appropriate content on social media, but they also need people to leave the computer and walk into a blood donation center or volunteer with relief efforts. While NPOs primarily use social media platforms to educate and inform supporters, occasionally they use it to fundraise or boost sales to help with costs just as small businesses do. Both types of organizations can take tips from the other on how to build reputations and conversions to sale (even if the sale is just blood donations).

As Saxton and Kristen Lovejoy found in study published in May 2013 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, nonprofit organizations can leverage the power of social media through increasing supporter awareness with educational posts, sparking dialogue to build a community on these platforms, and finally mobilize the audience for whatever the cause needs. As we can see from the patterns that emerged in my study, the top NPOs on social media are using these tactics to various degrees. Certainly all are sharing educational information in their posts to increase awareness. Some are focusing on community-building, and others use the platforms for calls to action. Despite the differences in their causes, nonprofit organizations are using social media platforms similarly in the types of content shared, the tone used, and the frequency of posting.

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One thought on “How Do the Top Nonprofits Use Social Media?

  1. Great analysis! We love to see our lists used to help create resources like this.

    I want to give a hat tip to the Red Cross who’s organization and communication models include active local chapters who collectively reach many more people through their localized content and accounts.

    Again, impressive work. I’d love to extend an open invitation for you to guest post (or repost) articles like this onto TopNonprofits at any time.

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