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Beyond Engagement: Making Advocacy Pay in Nonprofit Organizations

Most nonprofit organizations depend on the power of advocacy for their day-to-day survival.
They don’t always call it “advocacy,” although fund-raising in the voluntary sector requires advocates on every corner. Pleading a cause directly remains a highly effective method of securing donations.
Digital advocacy via social media, whether employee- or volunteer-led, is one of the top three communication tools for nonprofits, according to the 2014 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report from  Yet, almost in the same breath, Steven Shattuck of nonprofit-software specialist Bloomerang, writing on HubSpot, says that 53 percent of nonprofits don’t measure the outcomes of their social-media activities.
Professionally managed advocacy programs have the potential to make a huge difference for organizations that depend on charitable donations. Here’s how …
“Traditional” Employee Advocacy
Nonprofits typically encounter less resistance than commercial organizations when inviting employees to advocate for them on personal social-media networks. By nature, the sector attracts people who are committed to a cause, and they need little encouragement to spread the word among their connections.
Such enthusiasm still benefits from the support of a structured advocacy program. A coherent, coordinated message has greater impact, and, in an organization that as often as not has only one employee dedicated to social media, ensures that the workload remains consistent with the available resources.
Small wonder then, as Shattuck explains, that “48% of nonprofits believe social media is very valuable.”
Donor Acquisition and Retention
The top two priorities for nonprofits’ communications strategies cited by respondents to the survey are “acquiring new donors” and “engaging our community.” With nearly one-third of organizations no longer using direct mail newsletters to communicate with either existing or potential donors, the door is open for social media to assume a leading role.
Carolyn Appleton, experienced fundraising executive and Director of Development at EcoRise Youth Innovations, writing in 2013, suggested that “nonprofit organizations … include the role of ‘online ambassador’ in the job descriptions for board and advisory board members.” She also urged that as social media becomes “increasingly influential and essential,” fundraisers should take the initiative and “put social media to work for their organizations.”
The scenario is ideally suited to advocacy. With 98 percent of nonprofits already active on Facebook and more than 70 percent on Twitter, it’s clear that Appleton’s message has not suffered during transmission – yet two-thirds of the same organizations still have no social media strategy, policies or goals documented, according to Shattuck.
There are notable exceptions.
The United Way, the world's largest privately-funded nonprofit organization, maintains a dedicated web page inviting people to advocate on its behalf; sample tweets and Facebook messages make it easy for individuals to participate. “Join us and advocate for … an issue that you are passionate about,” it asks.
WaterAid international, a global charitable trust, is active on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube. Its advocacy invitation is equally to-the-point:
"Tell your friends.
“From time to time we run campaigns which will need your help to 'take off'. It helps us so much to know that we have a small army of social media stars who will help make our messages really fly!”
With outstanding examples like these in the spotlight, it’s unclear why the executive board of any nonprofit organization wouldn’t have social-media advocacy at the very top of its priority list.
Advocacy and Response Campaigns
If time is of the essence, the immediacy of social media provides fundraisers with an immensely effective means of engaging a large audience. When a crisis arises, or a specific event requires rapid, large-scale response, social-media campaigns deliver results that traditional fundraising mechanisms fail to match.
Writing on this site, Eric Roach, Co-Founder and CEO of advocacy specialist EveryoneSocial, highlighted a recent campaign by The United Way to support an individual piece of U.S. legislation. The success of the initiative depended on being able to mobilize the voices of its supporters, in unison and at specific times. Roach quotes Jerilyn Stowe, VP of Marketing and Communications for The United Way, who said:
“I remember that we had more than 50,000 shares on one particular post. The reach we achieved was unbelievable.
“Employee [and community] advocacy helps us meet people where they are … for an organization that needs people to take action and donate, advocate, and volunteer, social media sharing is a fabulous resource to not just inform people, but to mobilize their efforts.”
That’s why The One Fund Boston, established in the immediate aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, was able to collect nearly $61 million in the first 75 days after the event. The campaign organizers enlisted the support of leading influencers in the nonprofit sector, and using Pinterest and Twitter, were able to utilize the extensive reach of those influencers’ existing social-media connections to spread the message widely and rapidly.
In these instances, social media outscored traditional means of communication many times over. Fundraisers take note – advocacy can do the same for your organization, and you ignore its potential at your peril.
Has Advocacy Persuaded You to Support a Cause?
Whatever name you give it, advocacy in the nonprofit sector is everywhere. We’d like to hear about your experience, whether as an advocate or as a supporter; maybe you’re one of the many people who donated to The One Fund Boston? How many charity-related “Please Retweet” requests have you seen lately? Be sure to tell us about your experience.
Beyond Engagement is an exclusive Social Media Today column published every other Thursday.
Register here
to take part in the first annual Employee Advocacy Summit in Atlanta this September. You'll hear straight talk from real practitioners at leading brands who've developed and scaled successful Employee Advocacy programs. Bring your team and find out what's really involved. From strategy and planning, legal and compliance, education and training to performance measurement and how quantify ROI. 
As an added plus, we've lined up a panel of Employee Advocates who have participated in such programs. They'll give you the answers to the most commonly asked question: "What's in it for me?" by sharing their views on the many benefits they've reaped by participating in an Employee Advocacy program on behalf of their company.
No matter the size of your business, you will take away proven approaches from the pros and leave this knowledge packed event with a full road map on how to mobilize and empower employees to advocate for your brand. Confirm your spot for this first time event right now!
Image credits:
Column logo by Marie Otsuka
Top Priorities for Nonprofit Communication Strategies in 2014 by

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