Social Media for Non-Profits

Doreen Fleming
Responsible Business
11 min readSep 21, 2015

When it comes to social media, non-profits are anchored in an odd place between two opposing truths. Their missions are often “social” and that positions them as great candidates for social media — other people are much more likely to engage with a social mission than with a for-profit organization or brand. But most non-profit resources charged with handling social media report they don’t have the time or the expertise to do social media well.

How can we overcome these obstacles and start using social media to help further cause-based missions?

STEP 1: MAKE A COMMITMENT TO START. You don’t need a huge time investment, something as little as 1–2 hours per week would suffice to start. And you can split tasks and time across 2–3 people.

STEP 2: WHERE / HOW DO WE START? We need to simplify handling content for social media. In this post I try to deconstruct social media and put it back together as simply as possible, touching on the two basics of content; then look at which platforms to choose (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), and finally provide a few simple answers to general questions (frequency of posts, how to get more followers, etc).

Let’s get started!

CONTENT: What should I post?

When thinking about social media content, people often think first about posts, photos, updates. But we need to think about content as having two distinct, equally important parts. 1) PROFILE CONTENT: The content contained in your profile, cover image, profile photo, details about your organization. People unfamiliar with your organization should be able to understand within a few seconds who you are, what you do, what your mission is, how and why it matters to them. And, of course, 2) POST CONTENT: what’s inside your actual posts, tweets, photos, updates.

1) Social Media *Profile Content*

Each platform provides it own intuitive tools to assemble a meaning profile and lay out an effective message about your organization. If, for example, your mission is to feed the world, make sure in your cover image there’s a clear photo or series of photos showing people receiving meals, baskets of grain or fruits or other feeding photo or montage. Users should be able to look at the cover and say immediately “Ok, this organization is about feeding people.”

To maintain consistent branding make sure your profile picture is the same (or similar) across all platforms you use .

See that inside your profile your mission is easy to find. If someone wants to learn more about your organization how deep do they need to dig to find it? In this profile content area you can focus on your mission, your efforts to advance your cause, who are your target beneficiaries, and what is it you want in terms of help — donations (be specific about what kind of donations you need and what will be done with the donations), increased member numbers (here outline what members do, again answer the question for visitors “what does this mean for me?”) help spread word about a cause, attract board members, sell tickets to events, etc.

Once you set up your profile, ask someone outside of your organization to review your profile to see if it’s immediately clear who you are and what you do. If it isn’t, stop and revise until who you are is obvious to a new visitor within 3–4 seconds of viewing your page.

2) Social Media *Posts* / Tweets / Word Art (Captions) etc

Now on to what you “should be” posting. I’ve pulled together some guidelines and a few theories about percentages of content types to post. (A note on citations— I’ve tried to locate and cite the original source of content theories and rules of thumb. If you see something you think has a different origin please let me know so I can update the attribution.)

RIGHT WAY TO THINK ABOUT POSTS: Use social media as a way to search out and communicate with people and organizations, to connect, to network, to be social. Make friends, do a service to people interested in your cause by educating them; provide news (local or global) about your cause, mission or beneficiaries, about issues you’re working to improve or eradicate.

WRONG WAY TO POST: Using social networks as a closed PA system or megaphone, posting content and photos only about internal events and activities, making requests of your visitors. Try to hold back promoting your organization directly on social media, use it instead as a way to connect with others and to be of service to your community.


First decide what your organization’s voice is (and here you can experiment). Keep the voice consistent — are you, as an organization, kind, approachable, light? Or are you more academic? Nerdy-scientists-who-try-to-do-good-in-the-world types? Whatever your voice engage with users using that same tone.

There’s online debate about whether it’s better to create or curate. The short answer is — do some of both. When you curate you share, and sharing is one of the main reasons social media was created in the first place. Sharing makes friends, friends make for more lively interactions, engagement, and for more friends. And when you share content always try to include the source by tagging or tweeting them. When you create content, post with a positive spin wherever possible. If you need to post about a difficult topic also refer to a potential solution you organization or a sister organization might have in the works.


There are multiple theories about the ideal mix of content types to post, some of the ones I think are good are listed below and cited in notes.

4–1–1 Theory* 4 pieces of content from others about your mission (not specific to your organization; news or stats about who or what you are working to serve.) Here’s an example for a “feeding the world” organization. Let’s say there’s a major news story about how malnourishment has decreased by 10% throughout Africa since 2014. Share this news article with a photo and your own short comments. 4 of these types of posts, 1 share or retweet of what a like-minded person or organization is doing to help feed the world, then you can post 1 internal, self-serving post or an “ASK”.

For every one self-serving tweet, you should re-tweet one relevant tweet and most importantly share four pieces of relevant content written by others.

Golden Ratio **— 60% others’ content (curated), 30% your content (owned), 10% promotional.

In planning your social and content marketing strategy, what’s the right mix of first-party and third-party content? How often should you post purely promotional messages?

While plenty of people will tell you that it “depends,” we’re willing to commit to a specific ratio: 30/ 60/ 10. It’s how we run our social media and content marketing, and we think it’s a good way for you to run yours as well.

20:1 method*** For every 20 pieces of social capital you add you can make 1 withdrawal or “ask” (please attend, join, donate etc.) Social deposits can be small or large and might be things like commenting on another organization’s page, retweeting, curating content, Liking a comment a user posts.

This phenomenon is what I have come to call the 20-to-1 rule. It represents a ratio. It means that you have to make 20 relational deposits for every marketing withdrawal. This isn’t science. I don’t have any hard, empirical evidence to prove it.

There really is no correct rule or theory, these are good guidelines. And of course there are exceptions — if you run an animal shelter you’ll need to post plenty of pix of your furry friends on a regular basis. But picking up the underlying message seen in these theories leads to a good rule of thumb: Lead with outward thinking, social intent, with networking, friend-making, community building, being of service with your content. Then ask.

SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS. Which platform(s) should I choose?

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, Pinterest, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn and myriad others coming at us at the speed of light. You don’t need to have a presence on all of them. In fact, unless you have gobs of money burning holes in your pockets you should decide which 1 or 2 or 3 you and/or your team is comfortable with using and start there. If you’re new to social media you may want to start with Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram or a combination of these.

Facebook is good for:

Posting engaging photos and brief copy (200–250 characters max) and links. The reach is wide, and though demographics are changing and Facebook throttles the number of people who see your posts in their feeds it remains a great way to get in front of people in your community. Note: If you post a question or poll you may find you can double the engagement / interacting with your posts.

A good way to make connections on Facebook. Search out and join GROUPS (public or private) with your own Facebook account on behalf of your non-profit organization. This is a great way to meet and connect with like-minded people who share your vision for improving the world. Become a member of groups of like-minded people and begin to contribute, share, get to know these individuals. (At this time Facebook allows only individuals to contribute to groups, not organizations.)

Check out what’s TRENDING to see if anything is important to your community where you can contribute. You can also use the ADD AN EVENT tool. (They’ve made this simple— Facebook prompts you to change your cover photo to something event-specific, you can enter title, location, description, start and end times and a link to purchase tickets.) You can even promote the event through Facebook ads fairly inexpensively, use the ad targeting tools to reach specific demographics, people in limited geographical locations, etc.

Example NFP using Facebook to engage positively (as of 10/2015):

Twitter is good for:

Finding and building relationships with people in your sector, local influencers, etc.

Searching out trending topics in your area (using hashtag search) and joining the stream of conversation. Follow people who are doing work like your organization is and often they will do you’re the courtesy of following you back.

Example NFP using Twitter to engage positively (as of 10/2015):

Word of warning: Don’t use trending hashtags just for the sake of traffic, it can backfire. In 2014 a certain pizza purveyor used the hashtag #WhyIStayed tweeting: “You had pizza.” Unfortunately that hashtag had nothing to do with staying somewhere socially. It was trending because survivors of domestic violence using it to empower themselves, to share their stories and build a supportive, healing community. Oops.

Instagram is good for:

Visual branding. Using images & photos to reach markets passionate about ideas and causes, younger targets markets and minorities are highly presented here.

You’ll need to think about the composition of your photos and posts with Instagram — most users are at minimum hobby photographers who understand composition and layout. Bring yourself up to speed on how Instagrammers use the # symbol and how to interact with followers and people who LIKE your photos. Here contend can be photos or images, words or a combination of these.

Example NFP using Instagram to engage positively (as of 10/2015):

Particularly Good Use of Social Media

I want to move outside of the non-profit sector for a minute to remind you of an example of an exceptional use of social media in 2013. It happened during the Superbowl when the lights in the stadium went out unexpectedly. There was some confusion and concern as to the source of the outage from people inside the stadium and watching it live. Oreo took the opportunity to post an immediate and disarming tweet - Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark. This helped to diffuse the tension, it was playful and timely. The tweet was quickly shared, and garnered Oreo lots of free press.

And Finally, Starting Out With Social Media Q&A, FAQs

Q: How do I get more followers, likes etc.

A: Focus first on building quality content. You wouldn’t start inviting people to your theater production without first developing a concept, a story, some characters and dialogue would you? Lay a groundwork of content designed to be helpful and start interacting with like-minded people around your cause. Start to follow and like others, user engagement will happen organically.

Once you have some good content in place there are a few things you can do to boost engagement. If your organization is hosting an event, create a unique #hashtag (again please make sure to research the hashtag to see whether it already exists and if so if it’s being used for an appropriate conversation. You can use an existing hashtag or one that’s unique to your organization.) When you open the event ask attendees to take photos and post them to their (or your) Facebook page and to use your hashtag in tweets to promote your cause.

Post photos and updates yourselves, find out what hashtags are being used in your area (for example, in the case of Child Abuse Prevention there are currently several active hashtags #childabuseprevention #KidsMatterOK #StopChildAbuse). Tagging your posts with these hashtags will add your content to the stream of posts of like-minded people and organizations and you’ll start to come up on their radar. You can begin to identify active social media influencers and interact with them to build out your network.

Q: How Often Should I Post?

Do what you can manage with your resources, paid or volunteer. Try at minimum though to post 2–4x per week per platform consistently. Spend 2 minutes per day checking for comments, no one likes to be left hanging. In an ideal world you’d have an editorial calendar that looks forward several months, but if resources are too stretched just make sure you and your team have a sense of who will create or curate content, what the posts will be about, and when the planned posts will hit your pages.

Here’s an example of how you might manage this simply without an editorial calendar and without access to analytics that could provide guidance on best days/times to post (that layer can come later). Let’s say you have three volunteers for the editorial team. Person one has free time on Monday afternoons, they agree to post original and shared content on Facebook on Mondays. This person would also reply to any user posts. Person 2 is good with her iPhone camera so she agrees to create Instagram posts every Tuesday and Thursday, and she will engage with that specific community on behalf of your organization. Person 3 might be the one to activate when there’s a significant story breaking or signs on to handle an immediate threat or crisis impacting the community. That team member can create instructional Facebook posts or tweets, educate the community about where and when to look for more information, and provide any emergency contact details.

You can always ramp up and use a more sophisticated system later. But for now as long as there is some activity on a regular basis you can continue to grow your presence without many hours of effort.

The Bottom Line

Though non-profits are often resource-thin there are things you can do to build goodwill and become part of the community simply by committing to two or three 15-minute social media sessions per week. Create a compelling post; share someone else’s compelling post; congratulate someone who’s done something positive for your cause; take a few minutes during each session to become more familiar with the tools that come with each platform; locate communities around your mission (hashtags for twitter, Facebook communities, Instagram hashtags); reach out and connect with one or two new people each time you sign on to post; reply to as many user posts as you can and soon you’ll be on your way to developing the kind of content that followers like to engage with.





Doreen Fleming
Responsible Business

Digital Marketing Strategist, founder of One Web Source, LLC.