Social Media’s Purpose in Nonprofit Donor Engagement

Social Media’s Purpose in Nonprofit Donor Engagement

March 21, 2017

by Heather Weathers


It’s no surprise that marketing methods have increasingly focused attention on digital marketing through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Many nonprofit organizations have followed this pattern and attempted to integrate social media into traditional donor development models. Despite their efforts, many organizations have still seen steep declines in donor retention rates and are struggling to engage younger millennial audiences (Donor Retention, 2009).

Where does social media fit?

Donor identification and development has historically been based on donor pyramids, ladders and funnels which organize donors from least engaged (i.e. smallest donation amounts) to most engaged (major donations). Many organizations have integrated social media onto the bottom rungs of these traditional models (Dixon and Keyes, 2013).  However, in 2010 Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide teamed up with Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication and found that most Americans’ first interaction with a nonprofit was not social-media driven.  In fact, only 18 percent of respondents first became involved by engaging with a nonprofit organization via a social media outlet such as Facebook (Ogilvy, 2011).

These so-called “slacktivists” have been assumed to do nothing more than “like” an organization or update a profile picture for the cause but eschew more traditional methods of involvement such as volunteering time or donating money. So where does social media fit in donor development? Are nonprofit employees wasting their limited time and resources on a medium with no return on investment?

The Ogilvy/Georgetown study (2011) found that contrary to the slacktivist portrayal of an individual who “likes” a cause on Facebook but has no further engagement, their research found that Americans who engaged with a cause on social media were also most likely to participate in cause-related activities such as volunteering or donating money outside of social media. For these individuals, social media is simply being added to the list of activities that they already participate in for the cause, including giving money.

These individuals were most likely donors or volunteers first who then became more involved in the cause by promoting the organization via social media. Most individuals have no interest in engaging in conversations or relationships with large “faceless” corporations on Facebook (Vorvoreanu, 2009).

Social media is a useful tool to help existing donors and volunteers influence others for the cause.  However, this has not typically been the current usage trend among nonprofit organizations (Dixon, 2013).

What’s wrong with current nonprofit social media strategies?

Social media engagement is typically seen as a low-involvement activity. In contrast, encouraging others to donate money is a high-involvement activity. It is easy to share a post or “like” a page.  These low-involvement activities are appealing to nonprofit communicators because they are simple and straightforward.  To simply ask followers to “share” and “like” posts does not require communicators and development departments to work across each other (Dixon, 2013). For most nonprofit communicators, low-involvement activities such as liking an organization on social media is generally seen as the first-step toward moving a donor to higher-influence activities such as asking others to donate to the organization.

However, Dixon and Keyes found that “there is a noticeable lack of activities that fall into the low involvement, high influence quadrant, because for an activity to be influential, it needs to be grounded in authenticity and personal commitment. A person can be involved but not influential, but can never be influential without being involved.”

Current social media usage trends for nonprofit organizations involve numerous low-involvement activities in an attempt to drive awareness of a cause. Most nonprofit organizations used Facebook to drive top-down communication similar to traditional media usage to drive traffic and attention to the brand. In contrast most nonprofits Facebook fans shared specific events and highlighted their own personal involvement (Das, 2010).

Most nonprofit social media campaigns focus on three types of posting: Information, Community and Action (Lovejoy and Saxton, 2012).

  • Information: almost 60 percent of the top 100 organizations’ tweets were providing information about the organizations’ activities or latest news.
  • Community: Only 25 percent of most organizations’ tweets fostered any type of dialogue or invited community building in the digital sphere.  Types of community-building posts or tweets include recognition and thanks to specific people or companies, responding to public messages or acknowledging current events.
  • Action: About 15 percent of organization’s messages focused on getting people to do something for the organization such as donate money, buy a t-shirt or attend a fundraising event.

What do people want?

Email is most donors’ most preferred communication method – even among Millenial donors where 93 percent favored email over Facebook and print communication (Case, 2010). Most individuals use social media for three reasons: to feel connected, for entertainment and for self-affirmation (Leung, 2001).

Variable 1: Connectedness

Social networking is primarily used to stay in contact with people who are already seen frequently by the user (Lenhart and Madden, 2007).

Variable 2: Entertainment

The main motive for joining Facebook is peer pressure and the main gratifications people receive when using Facebook include entertainment and staying informed in social circles (Quan-Haase and Young, 2010). Among those over age 50, the two primary factors in Facebook usage are mood management including entertainment such as games and social action such as reposting political opinions (Ancu, 2012).

Variable 3: Self-affirmation

The “hipster” effect is the idea that the more connected someone appears to be in causes actually increases a person’s social capital (Ellison, et al., 2007).  This self-affirmation theory was used to determine that spending time on Facebook fulfilled an ego need and that exposure to one’s own Facebook profile increased self-worth and self-integrity (Toma and Hancock, 2013). 

How can nonprofit organizations improve their social media strategies?

Social media is constantly changing and it can be overwhelming to consider all of the options and tools available for organizations to reach their target audiences. Organizations can incorporate these elements into their social media strategy to help produce real results:

  1. Start at the beginning. The first step in building a good social media strategy starts with a good donor strategy. Entry points for engagement into a nonprofit are not confined to a particular level.  In fact, most people enter at various levels, such as both a volunteer and a social media supporter.  Often people have multiple levels of engagement with an organization at one time (Ogilvy, 2011).  An organization’s goal is to offer supporters a variety of involvements that engage their strengths and abilities to have an impact (Dixon and Keyes, 2013).
  2. Involvement first. Most people who donate online, “like” an organization’s Facebook page or follow an organization through any social media were first involved in some other connection to the organization such as being a volunteer, attending meetings or in leadership (board member, committee member, etc.) (Reddick and Ponomariov, 2013). Social media outlets are an additional element similar to a newsletter, a phone call or a face-to-face meeting used to engage in meaningful conversations with people already connected to the organization.
  3. Target the right people. It is important to prioritize where the organization’s audience spends most of their time with social media (Moravick, 2010). If they are using Twitter, then the organization should follow their accounts and tweet pictures of the individual or company in action as volunteers or sponsors of events. If the organizations’ corporate partners are using Facebook, the organization should tag them in “thank you” posts with pictures that show how their money has impacted lives. Organizations may not need to use more than two or three social media outlets to reach the largest portion of their donors and volunteers.
  4. “You cannot manage what you don’t measure” (PR News, 2009). Look at where traffic from specific sites is coming from and where messages are going. To do this, use “tagged links” through Google Analytics or find a favorite method of tracking all social media outlets including the organization’s newsletter.  After acquiring the data, organizations should ask themselves:  is this traffic useful?  If they are getting good data, organizations will probably rethink some of their social media outlets and strategy (PR News, 2009).
  5. Reassess and re-evaluate. Once organizations have built a strategy, involved their constituents in meaningful communication and have the numbers to prove it, the audience’s interests will change again. Organizations should build re-evaluation methods and mobility into their strategy to allow the flexibility to change strategies at any time (Greenberg and Kates, 2014).

If social media has not revolutionized the way people get involved with nonprofit organizations, where should it fit in an organization’s strategy?

Most organizations have two social media audiences: their current supporters and their supporters’ network.   There are several ways to engage these two audiences depending on the cause, the social media outlet, and the supporters themselves (Dixon and Keyes, 2013).

Current Supporters

There are typically five ways in which a social-media supporter first becomes involved with supporting causes: donating money (40 percent), talking to others about the cause (40 percent), learning more about the cause and its impact (37 percent), donating clothing or other items (30 percent), and signing a petition (27 percent) (Ogilvy, 2011).

Social media can be a meaningful conversation with people who are already engaged with an organization as a donor, volunteer or member. This strategy creates an environment of continuous communication that donors demand (Case, 2009).

Current Supporters Network

“Friend-raising” can be a powerful element to social media (Daniels, 2010). When an audience feels engaged and empowered to help a cause that they feel passionate about, they are more likely to involve their friends. Organizations can turn the role of fundraiser from a solely internal function of the organization to a role that’s shared by everyone in his or her community by preparing social media material that is easily redistributed, straightforward and directly shares the impact of the cause such as stories of those who need help or have been helped by the organization (Saxton and Wang, 2014).

Nearly three-quarters of Millenials said they would tell Facebook friends about great nonprofit events, and 65 percent said they would promote a nonprofit’s great story or accomplishment. In addition, 61 percent said they would use Facebook to alert friends to volunteering opportunities and needs (Case, 2012).


Eighty-six percent of nonprofit professionals report that their organizations use social media in some form.  However, most nonprofits dedicate less than the equivalent of one half of one full-time employee to overseeing social media efforts.  In addition, more than 60 percent allot no extra budget dollars to such efforts (Soder, 2009).

The key is for nonprofit organizations to find their audience, begin a conversation with them and empower them to bring others into the dialogue.


Scholarly (Peer-reviewed)
  1. Ancu, M. (2012). Older Adults on Facebook: A Survey Examination of Motives and Use of Social Networking by People 50 and Older. Florida Communication Journal, 40(2), 1-12
  2. Das, A. (2010). Facebook and Nonprofit Organizations: A Content Analysis. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1.
  3. Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12, 1143-1168.
  4. Leung, L.(2001).College student motives for chatting on ICQ. New Media & Society, 3, 483-500
  5. Lovejoy, K., & Saxton, G. D. (2012). Information, community, and action: How nonprofit organizations use social media. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication, 17(3), 337-353.
  6. Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication. (2011). Dynamics of Cause Engagement. Retrieved from
  7. Quan-Haase, A., Young, A. (2010). Uses and Gratifications of Social Media: A Comparison of Facebook and Instant Messaging. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 30: 350-361
  8. Reddick, C. G., & Ponomariov, B. (2013;2012;). The effect of individuals’ organization affiliation on their internet donations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 42(6), 1197-1223.
  9. Saxton, G. D., & Wang, L. (2014). The social network effect: The determinants of giving through social media.Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43(5), 850-868.
  10. Toma, Catalina L. & Hancock, Jeffrey T. (2013). Self Affirmation Underlies Facebook Use. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, March 2013; vol. 39, 3: pp. 321-331.,
  11. The Case Foundation. (2015). Millenial Impact Report. Retrieved from
  12. Vorvoreanu, M. (2009). Perceptions of Corporations on Facebook: An Analysis of Facebook Social Norms. Journal Of New Communications Research, 4(1), 67-86.
Trade Publications
  1. Case study: Metrics make the world go ’round: How one nonprofit measures the impact of its social media marketing. (2009).PR News, 65(17)
  2. Daniels, C. (2010, 07). Nonprofits discover power of social media fundraising.PRweek, 13, 18.
  3. Dixon, J., & Keyes, D. (2013, Winter). The permanent disruption of social media.Stanford Social Innovation Review,11, 24-29.
  4. Donor retention an issue, even as online donations rise. (2009). Nonprofit Business Advisor, (236), 5-9.
  5. Greenberg, E., & Kates, A. (2014).Strategic digital marketing: Top digital experts share the formula for tangible returns on your marketing investment. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  6. Lenhart, A., &Madden, M.( 2007a, July 1). Social networking websites and teens: An overview (Report). Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from
  7. Moravick, A. (2010). Nonprofits look to up their social media game. Promo (Online)
  8. Soder, C. (2009). Social media become key tool for nonprofits.Crain’s Cleveland Business, 30(45), 5.


Heather Weathers HeadshotHeather Weathers is the Director of Communications at HopeKids, Inc. Heather joined HopeKids in May 2013 to build the newly-formed HopeKids North Texas chapter. In 2015, Heather was asked to step in to a new role to create the national communications  department based on HopeKids’ organizational philosophy that fundraising, communications, and programs cannot operate in silos to reach maximum impact. Heather has a degree in Journalism-Public Relations and is pursuing a Master’s in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism. Heather brings more than 15 years of experience from several nonprofit organizations including The Salvation Army and the American Diabetes Association. She has held positions in fundraising, communications, and program management which uniquely equips her to build strategies that foster cooperation among every department.