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Using Social Networks for Social Change: Facebook, MySpace and More

In 2008, I spoke at the Democracy in Action Community Conference< about the Genocide Intervention Network’s use of social networking and social media to achieve our goals in advocacy, fundraising and membership development.

I had planned to present a slideshow along with my talk, but in fact, technical difficulties prevented me from doing so. The presentation posted on Slideshare< is thus a recreation of that talk, with the audio keyed to the slides. For those of you who prefer things in textual form, I’ll write out most of it below, but I encourage you to at least page through the slides for the pictures.

Many of the points I make in the presentation draw on things I’ve written on this site; I’ve linked to some of these articles in the body of the presentation below.

Jump directly to the success stories:

 

 

A Mission to Empower

The Genocide Intervention Network< is an organization that I helped form in college, and where I worked as director of communications and Internet strategy coordinator from 2004–2008. The mission of the organization is to empower members with tools to prevent and stop genocide.

The idea of “empowerment” is key to the organization’s mission, and undergirds our approach to social networks and social media. GI-Net wants members who can think for themselves<, and consequently social networking is a key method by which the organization helps train supporters to speak for themselves, for us, and for an anti-genocide movement.

Many groups use social networks for mobilizing — getting members out to an evnt, getting people to sign a petition, getting people to donate for a cause. GI-Net focuses on organizing — creating an educated constituency of people who can motivate others.

When we first arrived on Facebook< in 2005, for example, there were already dozens of groups about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. So it was much more about giving supporters tools to take effective action than it was about convincing people to join our cause. Social networks are an integral part of an organizing strategy, because communication and engagement are what they’re all about.

<Weaving Your Social Web

The dynamics and demographics of each social network are different — what may make sense on MySpace could be seen as annoying on Facebook. If you have a specific niche, you might try focused networks like BlackPlanet<, Eons<, GLEE<, WiserEarth< or The Hub<.

For a sociological study of these different kinds of networks, check out the writings of danah boyd<. Interestingly, many nonprofit professionals see Facebook as the “more interesting” or “more useful” social network as compared to MySpace, and that’s largely because, indeed, Facebook is designed to appeal to the predominant class and educational backgrounds of these folks. Depending on an organization’s constituency, however, MySpace might actually be a better way to reach your supporters. Don’t decide where to organize online based on which site you or your executive director personally think is most appealing.

When you’re determining which network(s) to organize on, the key thing to remember is that you don’t have to be everywhere. In fact, it’s often better if you start with just one — get your bearings, try out some different approaches, and become thoughtfully engaged with your community of supporters there. You need to make a commitment to each network you join; there’s nothing worse (or more unprofessional looking) than a clearly-abandoned organizational profile, where messages go unanswered and spam comments go unmoderated.

Social Media and Social Networks

Social media (e.g. YouTube and FlickrFlickr is a social media site for photographs and digital images. Like a social network, it allows users to “friend” one another, join groups, and see a recent-updates feed of their own and their friends’ images. Flickr is owned by Yahoo!.) often integrate particularly well with social networks (e.g. Facebook and MySpace), as a way to help engage members and heighten interest. Why not simply upload your own images and host your own videos? The “social” in social media ensures that, if you post your media with useful titles, descriptions and keywords, other people may well discover you who wouldn’t otherwise have encountered you — and you’ll draw them further into your social web.

Using Videos on MySpace

When we first put our profile up on MySpace<, we were getting one or two friend requests a day, and that’s not too bad for just starting off. As soon as we put up a short video about the organization — posted via YouTube<, in the hopes of drawing in people from that site as well — our friend requests went up to 10–15 per day. Supporters could embed the videos in their own profiles themselves. That’s the advantage of social media in social networks: People are drawn to photos and video, and the nature of social networking allows them to easily share them with friends.

<Keys to Success on Social Networks

  • It’s about member engagement.

You might notice there’s only one key: Facilitating conversations between and among your supporters. Ultimately, getting an excited base of supporters begins with having them talk to each other about what they’re doing around an issue.

It’s really not a billboard. You need to cultivate relationships with your supporters.

The Money Thing

Social networks are not going to replace your development director. Even when you do raise money, it’s usually more about member engagement than it is about a significant revenue stream. GI-Net’s experience with Causes, a platform on Facebook and MySpace, was that “fundraisers” were actually a great way to give supporters something concrete to work toward — but that it hasn’t been a very significant source of donations. Nonetheless, the social aspect to it ensures that members who do participate become even more engaged and are often willing to help spearhead the next advocacy campaign.

The top Cause on Facebook had, as of June 2008, more than 3 million members but only raised about $50,000; the vast majority of nonprofits using Causes hadn’t raised more than a few hundred dollars. Innovative fundraising campaigns using social networks may bear fruit financially, but member engagement is almost always going to be the primary goal in the end.

Let Your People Speak…

Causes is also a good illustration of another point: You need to let your supporters speak for you on social networks. GI-Net set up an “official” Cause on Facebook, but a member-created Cause benefiting us has more than twice the number of supporters. We could have tried to shut down the unofficial group in an effort to control our message, but instead we reached out to the creator — who was more than willing to send out alerts anyway — and found ways to engage our supporters while still recognizing their own creativity.

The whole point of the social experience is the coveted “recommendation from a friend.” Forcing your members to send out only board-approved talking points won’t inspire much loyalty, and probably won’t be very persuasive to their friends. Nonprofits have to be willing to lose some of their message< control in exchange for member loyalty. Trust me — it’s worth the trade-off.

…And Then Listen to What They Say

On our MySpace profile, we have a prominent newsletter-signup form at the top of the screen. But we don’t simply cut-and-paste our blast emails directly to the MySpace crowd. For one of our MySpace blogs, we said the following:

Are you active in your community on anti-genocide issues? Raising money for civilian protection in Darfur — educating your neighbors about the mass atrocities in Burma — working to pass divestment from Sudan in your state? Leave us a comment and describe what you’re doing!

We want you in our top friends!

In the coming weeks, we’ll be rotating in all of our MySpace friends who are active on anti-genocide issues into our top friends. You’ve been supporting us, now we want to support you!

On MySpace, putting someone in your “top friends” is a way of showing thanks and respect, and it was an easy thing to do. We heard from a dozen different local activists who were all featured, some of whom ended up being key leaders on future advocacy campaigns. Show your supporters that you’re listening to them, and they’ll reward you!

This approach — what’s sometimes called “user-generated content” — is a fantastic way to converse with supporters on social networks. Ask people for their stories, photos, videos or other creative work, and then feature some or all of that content. You’ll end up with more dedicated members who are willing to take the next step; after having been engaged on a small issue (“take a picture of your fundraiser for Darfur”) they’ll be willing to lead on a larger one (“help organize a local visit to your member of Congress”).

Success Story 1: Using Online Student Pressure to Pass Legislation<

In 2005, there was an anti-genocide bill that was being held up by a Senate committee chair. Using Facebook, GI-Net identified and reached out to students in that senator’s home state.

Instead of having the students contact the senator directly, we guided the students in a process of using the website OpenSecrets.org< to determine the senator’s top campaign donors. The students called those donors and asked them to contact the senator and say that standing up against genocide is a moral imperative, and that the senator should move the bill.

The result: Two weeks later, the bill was passed by the committee, was approved by the full Senate, and eventually was signed into law.

Success Story 2: A Photo Petition Puts Students at the Heart of a Congressional Briefing<

GI-Net’s student division, STAND<, initiated a campaign called “Picture a World Without Genocide,” in which they encouraged high school students to submit photos via Facebook and MySpace of their activism on Darfur. Hundreds of pictures were collected and compiled into a large poster spelling out the word “Darfur.”

We presented this poster at a Capitol Hill briefing, in conjunction with a report we were releasing about congressional action on Darfur. We had prepared the report, and originally we were going to do a traditional press conference in which we called out Congress for their inaction.

We decided to couple the release of this report with this visible manifestation of student activism, as a way to keep our members engaged. In the weeks following the event, the numbers of co-sponsors for key legislation increased substantially — and because students had been “part of the action,” they were able to claim part of the victory.

In fact, even if no new co-sponsors had signed on, the action still would have been a great way to activate supporters, so it was really a no-lose campaign for us.

A Worldwide Photo Gallery in 24 Hours

When coordinated rallies focusing on Darfur were set up by the Save Darfur Coalition< (of which GI-Net is a part), we encouraged our members to take part — and take pictures. Then we had them upload their images to the photosharing site Flickr<, along with a special tag, or keyword, for that event. Using Flickr’s own system, we could then pull images with that tag onto GI-Net’s website in a constantly-updated, rotating gallery of Darfur activism the day after the event.

Total time on our part? About 15 minutes to write the email to our members, and 10 minutes to put the gallery on our website.

Success Story 3: How Social Networks Can Coordinate a Fundraising Drive<

STAND’s annual “DarfurFast” encourages students on one day to refrain from one luxury item, and donate the proceeds to GI-Net’s Darfur protection program. We engage people around the campaign on several different channels, including Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal< and Twitter<.

Social networks were a key way to keep supporters engaged — as well as inviting friends on campus to take part in the real-world upcoming events. The key is that the person-to-person networks already existed in the form of chapters and campus networks; online social networks simply facilitated an easier invitation to friends.

So, we raised more than $500,000 over the course of three years with this event; 2007 saw participation from 450 high schools and 300 colleges. But it’s very unlikely we would have ever raised that kind of money via Facebook et al. alone — the online social networks simply supplemented the on-the-ground organizing we (and campus leaders) had already been doing. In fact, online social networks are probably most strategically useful when the event is offline, allowing supporters to quickly spread the word well ahead of time.

It’s worth mentioning that many of these methods worked particularly well because they centered on students, who are most active on these networks, generally have easy access to computers and are more likely to have free time. While GI-Net has a constituency far beyond students alone (and sometimes reaches those constituencies directly through networks like Eons), you shouldn’t necessarily expect these kinds of returns from everyone. As noted above, working-class communities, communities of color, folks with less formal education and various kinds of “marginalized” groups interact with online social networks very differently, often because of stronger real-world social networks. The best organizing strategy activates people through all their social connections, whether online or offline.

Final Thoughts

  • Engaging supporters on social networks is long-term. Don’t expect immediate results.
  • It takes effort. You need to be willing to communicate, in both directions, with your supporters.
  • If you want your members to spread your message, you have to trust them.

Feedback in the comments below is welcome! And once again, let me encourage you to take a look at the Slideshare version< for illustrations of what’s been discussed. Thanks for reading!

Additional Resources

Check out these writers for great ideas on how nonprofits can use social networks to their greatest potential: