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10 Common Mistakes Made by Nonprofits on Social Media

June 8, 2011

Written for the June 2011 issue of Fundraising Success Magazine, where I am writing a quarterly column throughout 2011.

[tweetmeme] For the past six years I have spent 50 to 60 hours a week utilizing Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Foursquare to promote nonprofits. I’ve watched the early adopters of MySpace in 2005 propel themselves into the national and international spotlight using social media, and I’ve seen latecomers begin to dabble with Facebook and Twitter just this year. The range of nonprofits using social media and their subsequent levels of commitment vary widely — as do their expertise, implementation and, of course, return on investment.

That said, I have literally “liked,” “followed” and “friended” more than 100,000 nonprofits. The brutal but honest — and hopefully well-received — truth is that the majority of nonprofits are making mistakes on social-networking sites that directly undermine their ROI. It’s sad, really, that so many nonprofits are utilizing social media (with the best of intentions, of course) but not getting the proper training they need. If your nonprofit is making five or more of the 10 mistakes below, odds are that training and a re-examination of your social-media strategy are required.

1. Using a horizontal logo for your avatar

Your nonprofit’s avatar is your visual identity on social-networking sites, and with the exception of LinkedIn Groups, all social-networking sites require a square avatar. Unfortunately, many nonprofits upload horizontal logos to serve as their avatars, resulting in the obvious cropping of the images. Would your nonprofit ever put a cropped, completely wrecked logo in print materials or on its website? Absolutely not! Yet tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of nonprofits every day send messages to their communities on social-networking sites with completely wrecked logos. Craziness!

2. Posting more than one status update a day on Facebook

Everyone seemingly has a different and passionate opinion on this, but in my research and experience posting more than one status update a day on average on Facebook has a negative effect. People either start ignoring your updates because you’re always in their news feed, or they “hide” you altogether. I am a big believer that less is more on Facebook.

3. Not following on a 1:1 ratio on Twitter

If your nonprofit’s objective is to gain a lot of followers on Twitter, then you should follow on a 1:1 ratio. People are much more likely to follow you if they think you will follow them in return, and the more people you follow, the more your nonprofit’s avatar gets spread throughout the Twitterverse. Also, people can’t direct message you on Twitter if you don’t follow them. To many supporters and donors who are trying to direct message you, it’s a bit of a snub when they realize they can’t because you’re not following them in return.

If you don’t want to follow a lot of people on Twitter for fear that the volume of messages will become overwhelming, just organize those you do want to read regularly into Twitter Lists. There are so many benefits to following on a 1:1 ratio, and sadly less than 1 percent of nonprofits on Twitter do.

4. Not applying for YouTube’s Nonprofit Program Enough said.

5. Not creating Flickr slideshows to tell your nonprofit’s story

Quite often your nonprofit’s story can be much better told through images. On the Web where people are inundated all day long with lengthy text and messages, a visually compelling slideshow can be a welcome respite from information overload.

6. Not adding social-networking icons to your website

Your supporters and donors now expect your nonprofit at the very least to be on Facebook, and Twitter comes in a close second. If they visit your website and can’t easily find quick links to your social-networking communities, they become frustrated and some even will question your credibility. That said, get those icons on your homepage!

7. Ignoring LinkedIn ‘Company’ pages

LinkedIn recently surpassed 100 million users, and odds are your nonprofit has a Company Page on LinkedIn. Find it, claim it, set it up, and promote it!

8. Not claiming your ‘Places’ pages on Facebook, Foursquare, Gowalla, etc.

If your nonprofit is location-based (zoos, museums, health clinics, food banks, etc.) and you haven’t yet claimed your Facebook Places Page, Foursquare Venue Page and/or Gowalla Spot Page, then your nonprofit is precariously and quickly falling behind. No doubt about it.

9. Posting only (boring) marketing content

Make a donation! Come to our annual gala! Sign our online petition! Make a donation! Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Oh yeah, PLEASE make a donation! Blah, blah, blah. Sorry, but it’s the truth. If all your nonprofit does on social-networking sites is marketing, then I guarantee no one is listening and your ROI is next to nil.

10. Not blogging

Blogging is the glue that holds your social-media strategy together. The social Web is driven by fresh content, and if your nonprofit doesn’t regularly publish new content to the Web, you’ll struggle with getting “shared” and “retweeted.” Nonprofits that don’t get shared or retweeted will not do well on the Social Web.

That said, publishing news articles to your website doesn’t have the same credibility or positive effect as blogging does because donors and supporters usually cannot comment or participate on those news stories — the content is static. Blogging is the original social media, and not blogging is one of the biggest mistakes a nonprofit can make today on the Social Web.

Finally, if strategically designed, your blog will grow your e-newsletter list and communities on social-networking sites faster than any other tool available today. Seriously. Blogging is the missing piece in most social-media campaigns.

Related Links:
Social Media and Mobile Technology Webinars for Nonprofits

41 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2011 5:34 am

    I know these seem terribly obvious to some, but my experience with nonprofits is that these ten items are not obvious! Thanks for sharing simply and providing links where appropriate. Will integrate this information into a brown bag lunch I am doing in July – it’s about putting the “social” in social media.

  2. June 8, 2011 6:32 am

    Great article. Thank you for the tips! We have a strong social media program at The Scrap Exchange in Durham, NC, but you have identified ways we can make it even stronger. For any nonprofit orgs still wondering about the value of social media, we can testify! Facebook, Twitter and our blog have been game-savers for us over the last 3 weeks as we have been going through a crisis at our nonprofit organization. The roof on the building we leased space in collapsed on May 14 and all tenants were forced to leave within hours when the building was condemned. Social media allowed us to stay in daily (even hourly) contact with our customers and supporters, enabling us to remain operational and gather together the volunteers needed to move our retail store not once but twice in less than two weeks. It was pretty amazing to witness the immediate public response as we posted emergency updates on Facebook, Twitter, the blog and Youtube.

    Regarding the Facebook debate on how often to post, our experience is to experiment and do what works best. We definitely break the one post per day guideline, but the cadence that we have set (3-5 posts per day at times) really seems to work for our organization, even before the recent disaster struck. I do recommend mixing up the posts regarding content (marketing, informational, community info, public thank yous, etc) AND adding pictures whenever appropriate. For us, pictures sell a message faster than words ever do.

    Looking forward to making a few changes to our social media platform based on your suggestions! Great info here.

  3. June 8, 2011 9:40 am

    I run a non-profit and am not great with the computer. These things are obvious when pointed out (and make me shrink into my seat a little) but I really didn’t that these things were noticed or that big of a deal. Thank you.

  4. June 8, 2011 10:24 am

    I run a non-profit and am not great with the computer. These things are obvious when pointed out (and make me shrink into my seat a little) but I really didn’t know that these things were noticed or that big of a deal. Thank you.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    June 8, 2011 5:58 pm

    I think another problem non-profits make with using Facebook is relying on it too much as their main communication tool or don’t know how to correctly use it as a communication tool.
    I’ve run into many instances where an event announcement, sign-up deadline, or other notable item will be posted on Facebook, but then there is no corroboration on their main webpage, there is no email or mention in an email newsletter. A single Facebook post gets lost so quickly amongst other things. Which leads to the nonprofit wondering why more people didn’t sign up or attend, or I wonder why I never seem to hear anything meaningful from the non profit. I see this a lot, but don’t really see this addressed in any of the blogs or websites about using Social Media in the nonprofit setting. I would love to see someone examine this.

  6. June 10, 2011 12:07 am

    Great article. Thank you for the tips!

    I will joint Tony on that I am also shrinking into my work seat a little as I type this.

    Will apply the good, leave the bad, and delete the ugly habits of Social Media.

    Thank you again!

  7. June 10, 2011 8:05 am

    I think the biggest failing with nonprofits and cultural organisations, is not owning their own audience. Facebook, Twitter and social media networks are fantastic to grow your reach and connect with your audience. But if you don’t own your audience and your audience is based on other services outside your own database; then organizations are not harnessing the potential for social media enough. Gather email addresses everywhere, get to know your audience. Think of each relationship as a long ball game and converse rather than broadcast. Social media is a real boon to the nonprofit sector in terms of time and budget. Owning your audience and building a strategy around the customer journey is the key to success here. The cart before the horse so to speak. Thanks for your post.

  8. June 10, 2011 10:08 am

    Brilliant Article. Thank you. I am just learning the importance of this myself.

  9. Joanne D permalink
    June 14, 2011 2:42 pm

    I would add that if a nonprofit (or any organization) does start a social media venue, it has to commit to it. At least once a day update. Don’t leave it sit without activity. This can be hard for nonprofits when resources are thin. Otherwise, take it down.

  10. June 15, 2011 5:30 am

    I think we’re doing a good job of most of this. The only point I could argue with you on is the “1 posting a day” on facebook. Perhaps our situation is unique (we’re an animal rescue, which dominates nonprofit social media usage – and a bit of a grass roots organization to boot), if we aren’t posting specific updates on a regular basis, we have fans who are coming and posting on our page asking us about specific dogs and what’s going on with them! Which is great. Our usage/feedback statistics are off the charts. I think another big difference for us is that more people probably use our facebook group than actually going to our website, and I think that’s because they receive instant feedback from us when they post. Facebook has been a major player in our growth over the past year, it’s where we get the majority of our donations, fosters, and volunteers. We went from 300 followers last July to just shy of 2,500 today and that’s in less than a year! I’m not turning my attention to focus more on building our Twitter following.

  11. June 16, 2011 7:25 am


    For a long time I followed your “less is more” philosophy on Facebook. Then I met Robert Michael Murray who handles social media for National Geographic. He thinks the exact opposite of you on this subject and has grown their Facebook fan totals by 4000%. We recently experimented with more is more and saw a terrific increase in edgerank stats. Would love to explore this more with you.


    • nonprofitorgs permalink
      June 16, 2011 7:35 am

      Well, it varies of course by organization, but National Geographic probably has the best content in the world to share online (articles, photos, videos) and an exceptionally well know brand name. 99.9% of nonprofits don’t. That said, who doesn’t like National Geographic? 🙂

      I don’t know about Edgerank…. I ignore rating tools mostly, and just focus on whether people “Like” or “Comment” on Status Updates. That’s the best indicator. Silence speaks volumes on Facebook. Thanks JK.

      • June 16, 2011 5:29 pm

        … you’re much too kind JK.

        * * * * *

        Yes, we have had some tremendous success in Facebook over the past year and look forward to working hard to sustain and extend these results. We believe this is due to our award-winning content (social objects), understanding how the communities and technologies work and, most importantly, working hard to know and listen to our global audience.

        When I advise other organizations I stress that it’s critical to understand their organization and their audience, and not to get trapped into one-size-fits-all approaches. While case studies and the like can help to identify best practices and trends they don’t necessarily mean that the tactics will work at their organization.

        For instance, for us, we knew that we had a global audience and simply posting content during domestic hours, we believed, would not suffice. So we tested posting at key hours for those timezones while constantly reviewing the data (e.g., unlikes, hidings, likes, comments, click-thrus, visits, page views, etc.) to determine performance.

        We also ran similar tests to determine the elasticity of our post frequency while ensuring that we maintained engagement levels and were not alienating our audience. Listening is key. Whether it is direct feedback or trends within the data we collect. We’ve learned that we can post every three hours and maintain the desired results.

        The other side of the coin is understanding how the platform actually works. As new data shows, on average Facebook users are connected to 229 friends and 80 pages. All of which are creating objects and filling a person’s News Feed. However, not all of that content is seen. In fact, unless the user has changed their settings they are only seeing a portion of objects from their connections.

        This is where Facebook comes in. Knowing that more than 30 billion objects are shared monthly across its system, filtering content is essential. Thus Facebook’s creation of EdgeRank ( to help manage the flow of objects through a user’s News Feed. The EdgeRank algorithm has three components:

        — First, there’s an affinity score between the viewing user and the item’s creator; the more interactions the higher the affinity score.

        — Second, there’s a weight given to each type of Edge (object). A comment probably has more importance than a Like, for example.

        — And finally there’s the most obvious factor — time. The older an Edge is, the less important it becomes.

        As TechCrunch notes, “[m]ultiply these factors for each Edge then add the Edge scores up and you have an Object’s EdgeRank. And the higher that is, the more likely your Object is to appear in the user’s feed.” This algorithm also applies to pages, so it is critical for a Page owner to understand how the system works in order to develop the right content mix and approach.

        And then you test, engage, listen, measure, and repeat.

  12. June 23, 2011 5:25 pm

    Great resource for nonprofits! In my experience, most nonprofits just don’t have the man power or if they do, they are not tech savvy.

  13. July 6, 2011 5:38 pm

    Great post however I have some issues with a couple of the things that you have noted.

    First the avatar – not all social networking sites use square avatar spaces. Non-profits should take the time to build the avatar for the space rather than letting the image be re-sized. YouTube has several places for avatars that aren’t square. At the end of the day, NFPs should get avatars made up in the common banner sizes/shapes.

    Secondly, I’d say that not every social networking site is a great place for non-profits. Consider LinkedIn. There’s not much point having a LinkedIn account if you’re audience isn’t there. It’s important that NFPs engage their supporters and find out where their supporters are to make the very most out of social networking sites. Like others I also find the one-post-per-day on Facebook limiting and in my experience has resulted in negative RoI. Not posting enough means people aren’t seeing your posts and can’t share it or contribute to the conversation.

    I see a lot of NFPs failing to be social on social networking sites. There are great posts but little interaction even after supporters have started adding their comments. In my experience people are turned away if the NFP fails to follow up with supporters leaving comments.

    You make an absolutely spot-on point about blogging. Too many NFPs forget about blogging or start out strongly but fall away because they haven’t spent the time working up their plans on how to sustain their blog (who is creating content, who is responsible for the content, what narrative(s) are being explored through the blogs etc).

    One last point I’d like to make, is that NFPs seem to fail to test, engage, listen and measure.

    However I strongly suspect that a lot of these mistakes being made by NFPs are because they are hugely under-resourced and under-staffed.

    Once again thanks for this great resource.

    • nonprofitorgs permalink
      July 7, 2011 5:31 am

      Funny. My highest ROI comes from my LinkedIn Group. 🙂

  14. Kelly permalink
    July 7, 2011 7:39 am

    Great suggestions! I think the hard and fast rule about one facebook update a day is something I would disagree with, as well as the 1:1 follow ratio on Twitter. I guess a lot depends on who your audience is and what do they want from you.

    • July 13, 2011 7:58 pm

      I think I would have to disagree with the 1:1 ratio as well, I think following bots or offensive people may damage your reputation more than enhance it. I’d also argue that if you’re targeting a specific region with your organisation, it may not be worth your while to follow thousands of international accounts (this as you said could be overcome with lists). I also noticed that @NonprofitOrgs has no where near a 1:1 follow ratio, if you don’t do it yourself, why recommend it?

      • nonprofitorgs permalink
        July 14, 2011 3:35 am

        @NonprofitOrgs only follows nonprofits and nonprofit staff, but my other accounts follow on a 1:1 ratio. And I didn’t say you have to follow the people that are following in return (bots and offensive people)… you follow those relevant and useful to your organization. And, why only have your avatar out there on Twitter 100 times (if you only follow 100 people for example) when you can have it out there thousands, or tens of thousands of times? That’s all I can say at this point… there’s actually quite a few reasons to follow on a 1:1 to ratio, but it’s in the book.

      • July 14, 2011 4:17 pm

        My bad, I think I took you too literally. Can you show us your other accounts as examples?

      • nonprofitorgs permalink
        July 15, 2011 1:38 pm


        Very boring tweets however… don’t use them much. Thinking of auctioning off the Small Business account for charity. 🙂


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