October 31, 2010

Social-Media Managers Help Charities Spin a Web of Support

Derek Lieu, for The Chronicle

Danielle Brigida works as digital marketing manager for the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Va.

Wendy Harman worked for the music industry and ran a management company before she joined the American Red Cross four years ago.

Jennifer Roccanti oversaw community relations for a minor-league baseball team before she become a fund raiser at Miriam’s Kitchen, a Washington charity that helps homeless people.

The Nature Conservancy’s Amy Ganderson did online marketing for the Discovery Channel Store, while Marc Sirkin joined Autism Speaks after a career at a high-tech startup.

Those diverse backgrounds were not what got them the jobs they hold today; instead, it’s the ability to write short, often in 140 characters or less, get someone on Facebook to “like” their organization and, most important, amass thousands and thousands of followers.

Charities are looking for those skills as they hire for a job that didn’t exist a few years ago: social-media manager.

Much of the work done by this new type of nonprofit professional focuses on building connections to people who might not otherwise know about a charity, with the goal of attracting a new pool of donors—especially those in their 20s and 30s who have been hard for nonprofits to reach in other ways.

Staff Increases

So far, only a handful of charities have hired full-time curators of their organizations’ presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other online networks. But that’s starting to change as charities seek new ways to appeal to potential supporters.

Half of the nearly 1,200 groups surveyed by the Nonprofit Technology Network said they planned in the year ahead to increase their staffing to help with social-media duties, according to a report issued in April.

Another survey released last month by Ventureneer, an online educational group for nonprofits, and Caliber, a consulting firm, found that nonprofit organizations that do the best in attracting attention on social networks have staff members who spend a total of at least 25 hours per week on promotional efforts.

Those groups also send at least one message on Twitter a day and publish content to blogs or update their social-media profiles once a week.

Learning on the Job

Still, most charities aren’t yet taking those actions.

The Ventureneer survey found that more than half of the 891 respondents spend fewer than four hours per week participating on social networks. Only 7 percent of the nonprofits spent 25 hours or more on social media per week.

“Most people aren’t very effective at it,” says Geri Stengel, Ventureneer’s president.

Because social media is so new, the charity officials who manage these efforts say they are drafting their job descriptions every day.

Many say they have learned most of their skills on the job, although some dabbled in social media on their own before it became part of their professional duties.

Charities take an array of approaches to deciding what unit social-media managers work in—some are in communications or marketing departments, while others work in their organizations’ fund-raising offices.

Many of the people in social-media jobs started off in different roles at their organizations.

When Danielle Brigida joined the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Va., four years ago, she was hired for a data-entry job. Today, the 26-year-old is on her fourth job title at the conservation group, the latest of which is digital marketing manager. She acts as the point person on social-media matters and trains staff members about social media. She also helped raise $112,000 through, a for-profit company that has an application on Facebook that sends donations to charity.

Facebook Causes, a social-network application for charities.

Brooke McMillan was taking calls on the cancer-survivor helpline seven years ago as a counselor at Livestrong, also known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, in Austin, Tex.

“I didn’t know anything about social media,” says Ms. McMillan, 32, who is now Livestrong’s online community manager.

She learned it on the job. Her boss told her: “I can teach you the tools, but I can’t teach you everything about the foundation.”

Virginia Sowers, community manager at ChildFund, a Richmond, Va., charity that aids needy people overseas, was previously vice president of a magazine-publishing firm. She says her boss chose her title “because it emphasized our community” and rejected “social-media manager” because it focused on the technology.

Ms. Sowers, 47, says ChildFund moved to increase its social-media presence because it wanted to attract more young supporters.

“Yes, we are attracting younger people, but we’re still not getting the 20-somethings,” she says. “I think it’s going to take a little bit more work to reach deeper into the Millennials.”

Inventing a Job

Carie Lewis invented her own job, she says. She was hired by the Humane Society of the United States as an Internet marketing manager in 2005. Her first social-media experiment was on MySpace, which she used before Facebook came along.

Then, realizing the social network was a good way to promote her organization, she filled out a company profile without telling her bosses. When her supervisors learned how easily she had built a community of supporters, they encouraged her to do more online.

Now she is the organization’s director of emerging media.

“I came up with that myself,” says Ms. Lewis, 29. “I had to prove this was worth the money and the time. I was one person friending people. Now, there’s a full social-media strategy with five people” engaging with supporters through social networks.

It’s not just charities with multimillion-dollar budgets that have enlisted staff members to promote their groups online.

Ms. Roccanti, a development associate at Miriam’s Kitchen, started to spend significant amounts of time on Facebook and other networks after First Lady Michelle Obama last year visited the Washington soup kitchen and pantry for the homeless.

Realizing that the organization needed a way to spread the news about Ms. Obama’s visit to supporters and donors, Ms. Roccanti quickly took over the group’s Facebook page, which had been run by a volunteer.

“We wanted them to hear it from us first,” says Ms. Roccanti.

A week after Mrs. Obama’s visit, 1,000 new people had signed up to follow Miriam’s Kitchen’s Twitter account, which Ms. Roccanti started two days before the visit.

Ms. Roccanti’s duties continues to evolve. She posts what’s on the menu for breakfast and dinner each day on Twitter and Facebook. And when Miriam’s Kitchen is low on cereal, she turns to the social networks and donations, both money and boxes, pour in.

“Our community has just responded really well, because I think they feel more engaged day to day,” she says.

Still, she doubts she’ll be able to spend full time promoting the organization on social networks. Her charity has a $1.8-million budget, much smaller than the groups that have installed full-time social-media workers.

“I don’t think one person doing social media full-time would be a good investment right now,” Ms. Roccanti says. “The way it’s arranged now means I have great flexibility. But I’m not sure a full-time social-media manager would make sense for us.”

Indeed, some charities don’t see the need for one.

The Ventureneer survey says three out of five nonprofit organizations doubt how using social media will give them a return on investment; plus, they worry about the time it takes to put social-media efforts in place, and devise clear procedures for staff members to follow.

Almost half were concerned about the cost, and a number mentioned the lack of staff training and privacy concerns.

Sharing Responsibility

That’s why more often than not, some charities have made social-media duties a shared responsibility.

At the Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Va., Ms. Ganderson, associate director of digital marketing, trains and works with 10 other people who hold jobs throughout the organization.

“Nobody does social media full time,” Ms. Ganderson says. But, she says, the staff members all want to have a hand in shaping the organization’s approach to using social networks.

If one staff member posts or updates a social network, he or she has the responsibility to monitor and answer questions, if need be, Ms. Ganderson says.

Each month, all the workers involved in the charity’s social-media work get together and come up with a list of what approaches work best.

Ms. Brigida of the National Wildlife Federation also has three other people at her organization she can count on to help with the organization’s social-media effort.

She tries to read every single post about the organization on the prominent social networks, but that’s difficult to do.

So, Ms. Brigida came up with other ways to measure how successful she’s been at her job. Her three goals include increasing the number of people who follow the organization on social networks, increasing the number of page views on the federation’s Web site, and tracking how supporters are sharing the charity’s online content.

“As much as we want social media to fit us, there’s no real wrong way to do it,” Ms. Brigida says.

Interns’ Role

It’s not just the growing number of charities hiring social-media managers that is a sign of how seriously organizations want to lift their profiles on online networks. It’s also the fact that social media is less and less of a task assigned just to interns.

To be sure, some managers do rely on interns for help. Ms. Lewis has found interns from among the Humane Society’s supporters on Facebook; she could tell from their interactions that they would do a good job of helping convey the charity’s work in a way that would be well-received on social networks. So every day, far from the charity’s headquarters in Washington, many of them virtually respond to posts and approve “friend” requests for the Humane Society.

But Ms. McMillan, of Livestrong, says she thinks interns’ work on social media should be limited. “Would you have your PR done by an intern? Some interns are fantastic, but I wouldn’t want to put an intern on the 5 o’clock news.”

More to the point, she worries that interns might not have the skills needed to guide a potential donor delicately through social media.

As an example of the kind of exchange she thinks a professional should handle, Ms. McMillan recalls a Twitter post she saw from a Livestrong supporter whose father had recently been diagnosed with cancer.

She sent the man a private message to offer him support and help for his father. After his father died, Ms. McMillan offered the son information on bereavement support. He was so grateful for her help that he has now become a strong volunteer fund raiser for the charity.

The most difficult thing about using social networks, she says, is “learning the balance between promoting, engaging, and listening, because you don’t want to end up sounding like a bullhorn versus learning about your community.”