Revised April 5, 2016
   The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook

now available for purchase as a paperback & an ebook from Energize, Inc.

Completely revised and updated!
Published January 2014.

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Microblogging & Nonprofits

Sometimes called microblogging, sometimes called tweeting, sometimes called SMS... it's sending text messages of less than 140 characters to several cell phones via text message, or via a web site or app users read regularly, like Twitter.

But is it something your nonprofit, library, government agency or other mission-based organization should be concerned with? Yes.

This page is meant to get nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government offices, schools and other mission-based organizations up-to-speed quickly about microblogging, and to come from a realistic, practical point of view - with no hype. This is a hype-free zone.


Microblogs (called "Tweets" on Twitter) are a great vehicle to help organize political demonstrations in countries run by corrupt governments (and an effective way to spread misinformation). Snapchat is also a popular microblogging site for teens. How can nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), libraries, government programs, and other mission-based organizations really use microblogs to promote their work, increase attendance at an event, get donations or mobilize or support volunteers?


I'll say something I don't hear many social media "experts" saying:

Twitter isn't for everyone. It's not appropriate for every nonprofit, NGO, government agency, or other mission-based organization.

And I'll say something else:

The primary goal of a nonprofit, NGO, government agency or mother mission-based organization in using Twitter isn't for its messages to go viral (to be retweeted/resent on a massive scale)

Whether or not your organization should invest in using Twitter or another microblogging platform depends on just two things:

Messages via cell phones? Smart phones? Desktop computers?

There are two ways to think about microblogs: those that go to the cell phones as text messages, and those that will be read on a web site, like Twitter, via a smart phone or a personal computer. The way most of those you are trying to reach receive microblogs will also dictate how you might use microblogging.

For instance, if you are thinking of microblogs as cell phone text messages: why would someone want to receive that message, that way?

I'm all for text messages on my cell phone from an organization I care about that tell me,

The President of the USA just arrived at our offices! Come at once!

Vote on state bill to prevent Dalmatian fur coats comes up this afternoon. Call your state rep now! More info on our web site.

Volunteers R gathering @ our offices to greet our executive director on her return from Afghanistan. Arrives in 1 hour. Come & cheer!

A volunteer had to leave our booth at county fair; we need someone to come down ASAP & fill in! Please reply if U can!

The annual meeting starts in one hour; we RLY hope you will be there.

Online survey of volunteers closes in 24 hours. If you have not completed it, please do ASAP!

Location of meeting has been change; please be at our Main Street location tomorrow at 9.

Please reply with your GPS coordinates immediately. More info 2 follow.

I do NOT want text messages on my phone that tell me:
The new annual report is out!

We're having a sale!

Our Executive Director wrote a new blog on her trip to Afghanistan

We've published a new book!

We have a new video on YouTube!

None of those last four messages are urgent. All would be good status updates on an organization's Facebook page, all would be good status updates for a staff members LinkedIn profile, and some of them might be good tweets, for people to read via a smart phone or computer when they want to log in to a microblogging site. None of those are worthy of my phone vibrating or making a sound.

So you first have to define what you are going to use microblogging for. You might want to have different microblogging activities for different purposes:

There are programs and web sites that allow you to send one text message to several phone numbers via your computer. Here's an example of a free tool (not sure how much longer it will be around, however - at least for free), but there are many, many others that will do this for a small monthly subscription fee.

Some organizations use their Facebook page status updates as a kind of microblogging, because they can post longer messages than just 140 characters, and more easily link to photos and other content. Others use Tumblr. Some organizations stick to Twitter. Some use all of these and any that come along!

Which web-based microblogging platform should you use? The one or ones that many of those you want to reach are using. How will you find that out? You will ASK. Survey your staff, volunteers, donors, and other supporters.

Some organizations post the same message across all of their microblogging activities. For instance, a notice about a new blog posting may go out on the organization's accounts on Twitter or Tumblr, on Facebook, and on the status updates of one or more staff members' LinkedIn accounts. Others pick and choose: a notice about a training schedule change may only go out on the organizatioorganization'sn's Facebook account. What message goes where is up to YOU to determine. But note: people don't want to be overwhelmed with microblogging messages. Be strategic. Always have an answer to the question, "Why would our followers want to know this right away?"

Here are more examples of good microblog messages for Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., but probably not to send as text message updates to cell phones:

For URLADDRESS, you have to use a web address that still brings you under 140 characters if you use Twitter. If the URL you want to use is too long, just type the address into bitly.

Microblogging From the Organization

As mentioned earlier, microblogging works best for nonprofits, NGOs, libraries, government programs, and other mission-based organizations when they think about such as short messages going to subscribers via cell phone text messaging. They also work best when they are time-sensitive, with the goal of each message being to get volunteers or others to do something immediately: going to the organization's office, going to a program site, going online, making a call, forwarding the message to others, showing up on time, etc.

For instance, here are what effective microblogs to volunteers can look like:

You could require everyone who will be attending a training or event that your organization does only a few times a year to sign up to a Twitter feed via their cell phone, and then send reminders a week before and a few hours the day of the event. This will ensure those who are supposed to attend do so.

It's appropriate for some mission-based organizations to have more than one microblog account. Maybe your housing manager needs such to communicate with housing volunteers, while your campaign manager needs another to communicate with her activists, and the overall volunteer coordinator needs still another to communicate with all volunteers. That's fine, however, make sure everyone who is microblogging to volunteers is coordinating efforts with each other, and that no volunteer is required to subscribe to more than one account.

Most messages sent via microblogs should still also be sent via email or posted on your online discussion group for volunteers, with much more detail (as they won't be limited to 140 characters via those tools). If the message is THAT important to microblog, then it's worth repeating via other communications channels. Remember that not everyone is reached by just one avenue of communication! Rare is the situation where microblogging will be the only way a volunteer coordinator will interact with volunteers. Don't use it as a replacement for emails, posts to online discussion groups, regular blogging... and face-to-face meetings and phone calls.

Texting Your Location

Another microblogging practice is a person sending a text message to all of his or her friends/ cell phones, or via a status message on the person's Facebook account, or via his or her Twitter account, saying where he or she is:

Jayne just entered the Starbuck's in Forest Grove.
Yes, ofcourse the practice has jargon names: mobile check-in services and location-based networking. Whatever.

Some people send these micro-messages manually to their contacts, and some people have their smart phones configured with a certain application so that their location is sent out automatically if they enter a restaurant or store that is also using the same application.

Nonprofits, NGOs, libraries, government programs, and other mission-based organizations can leverage this practice to help create more awareness about their organization:

Remember that messages need to be 140 characters or less, to meet the standards of all cell phones (yes, some phones accept longer messages, but believe it or not, some people don't have smart phones!).

These messages get a personalized, informal message out to your supporters' own networks -- their friends, neighbors, colleagues. These messages from your supporters shows how active your organization is and further builds awareness about your activities. These messages can generate interest among new volunteers and new audiences, attract larger numbers of attendees to an event, and augment your other outreach efforts.

However, don't abuse this. Most volunteers, audience members, clients, etc., don't want to send lots of messages on behalf of your organization to their network, and their network doesn't want to be overwhelmed with such messages. And sending such a message should always be entirely voluntarily on the part of those you are encouraging to send this message; never make sending such a message mandatory for volunteers, for instance.

If you encourage your volunteers, event attendees, etc. to text-their-location at the start, during or at the end of an event, track the results: do you see an increase in the number of phone calls or emails to your organization regarding volunteering? An increase in phone calls requesting more information? More attendees to an event? Ask your volunteers and other supporters as well what kind of responses they get per a message they have sent out to their network.

How to Get Followers on Twitter

Some people judge microblogging success by how many followers they have. For nonprofits, I don't. Numbers just aren't that impressive.

You don't just want followers: you want a particular kind of follower. What kind? It depends on the purpose of your microblogging activity.

A way to get followers or to reach beyond your followers, is to tag your Tweets. For instance, any time I use the following words in a Tweet, if I have room, I put a hashtag in front of them, so anyone that follows these keywords can see them as well: This means that, say, anyone interested in ICTs being used as a part of development activities in third world countries and that does a search on a particular day for the phrase ICT4d is going to see any Tweets I've done recently that include that term.

Your tags will probably be different, depending on the focus of your organization or department. How do you find what tags to use? By looking to see what similar organizations use, and by searching for tags you think might be in use.

What about a Tweet Going Viral?

One of the most hyped things about microblogging is a message going viral, meaning that many of the people who receive it are so moved by it that they forward it to others, and many of those who receive it do the same, and on and on.

Messages go viral because they are funny, because they are breaking huge news ("Elvis is NOT dead"), or because they point to something incredibly cool (like the space shuttle breaking through the atmosphere, as viewed by someone on an airplane). These messages often make the news, but they are incredibly rare.

When does a Tweet from a nonprofit go viral? When it meets one of the aforementioned requirements:

The reality is that most nonprofits or NGOs are NEVER going to have news this big EVER. If you are donating most of your planning to how to make a Tweet go viral, you are missing the point of microblogging's value to nonprofits and NGOs.

Live Tweet Chats/Live Micro-Blogging

TechSoup used live tweet chat events in 2012 to solicit questions and quick answers from and for nonprofit organizations regarding specific text tools, such as Facebook, online video, and Twitter itself. The purpose of these live events was to help build the capacities of nonprofits to use these tools (an activity which is directly related to the mission of TechSoup), to create awareness about TechSoup, and to attract more traffic and users to TechSoup's web-based services, such as the TechSoup community forum. The point is that, for this organization:

A live tweet chat event for a nonprofit, NGO or other mission-based organization could be:

It needs to be something simple; you cannot do anything that's too involved, like exploring ways to reduce violence against women, or dealing with teen pregnancy, or addressing long-time misunderstandings between two religious groups, etc. Your goals for such an event need to be simple.

Also, remember that anyone who wants to can see this event happen. It's an entirely public event.

In October 2012, I led the tweetchat on Twitter. The tweetchat is focused on building and sustaining online communities for nonprofits, charities, schools, government programs and other mission-based initiatives, though some corporate folks frequently show up and share. The focus of "my" chat was on dealing with conflict among members of an online community. You can read the archive of this tweetchat to see what suggested practices participants came up with - and to see what a tweet chat is really like.  More about the #commbuild tweetchat events.

A live tweet chat event is NOT for everyone. It's an intense experience that requires a lot of preparation before the start and a lot of concentration during the event by the organizer, and requires a lot of excited people who know how to participate (and want to!).

The fundamentals of a successful live tweet chat event:

What About Snapchat

If you work with a lot of teens and 20 somethings, as clients and/or as volunteers, you should look into possibly using Snapchat. The link goes to my blog where I list examples of nonprofits using Snapchat, and resources by other people and organizations. Even if SnapChat loses its shine in a year or two, your use of it, if you do use it, won’t be time wasted; we live in an era where we must be much more nimble in crafting our messages for different online platforms. What you learn using SnapChat is going to help you use whatever takes its place as the shiny new popular kid in a year or two.

Evaluate Your Efforts!

Once you launch your microblogs, evaluate your efforts. If you encourage your volunteers, event attendees, etc. to text-their-location at the start, during or at the end of an event, track the results: do you see an increase in the number of phone calls or emails to your organization regarding volunteering? An increase in phone calls requesting more information? More attendees to an event? Ask your volunteers and other supporters as well what kind of responses they get per a message they have sent out to their network.

Look at your email, RSS, Twitter, SnapChat and other subscriptions numbers frequently. Survey users to ask what they like and what they don't about how you are communicating. Ask ex-subscribers why they left. Always have data to help you refine your micro-blogging based on subscriber (and ex-subscriber) feedback.

What's most important: measure your success with online tools by real outcomes, not number of subscribers, number of messages sent, etc.

Final Key Suggestions

Microblogging is NOT for everyone. It's not appropriate for every mission-based organization (and maybe most organizations). It's also not something every volunteer and other supporter of a nonprofit wants to use.

A lot of nonprofits I have talked with abandoned micro-blogging after just a few weeks or months, because subscribers realized they really didn't want nor need frequent updates from a nonprofit organization they support and, eventually, there weren't enough subscribers to continue the microblogging effort.

A tip sheet on using Twitter for nonprofits that I came across recently said, "Limit your Tweets to 5 per day, and no more than 6!" I almost fell out of my chair. Unless you have a VERY passionate, ultra Internet savvy volunteer base, the vast majority of people do NOT want to receive messages from your organization that often. Most people are overwhelmed with online and cell phone messages and are looking for ways to cut down, not increase, online noise.

There is the danger of “crying wolf,” using the service so often that it loses its impact. Volunteers and other supporters should know when they subscribe to your microblogging service that you will use it for critical, time-sensitive messages only, messages that require immediate attention or action. They want messages like, "Barack Obama just walked in the front door of our office and it's live on CNN", not "Our Executive Director is flying to Seattle today for a board meeting."

If you are going to micro-blog, find what works best for your organization and your volunteers, and know that your experience may be hugely different than another organization. The only way to be sure what potential subscribers to your microblog would want is to ASK THEM. Ask volunteers and others if they would be interested in receiving updates via their cell phone from your organization, and tell them what such an update might look like. Ask them what they think would be an appropriate message vs. one that should have been sent via email or posted to an online discussion group instead. Ask them what microblogs they already receive via their cell phones and why.

Content is still king. The online tools you use that have staying power -- and are, therefore, worth investing in -- are those that have quality, highly-desirable content. The fluffier and faddy your messages, the shorter the time whatever tool you are using will be valuable to those you are trying to reach. Be thoughtful and be strategic about whatever communication tool you use, even the flavor of the month.

Who to Follow To Learn More

For an organization that wants to see the value of Twitter for mission-based organizations, I recommend you follow these organizations for, say, a month:

Note how each of these Tweeters use their feeds differently, how different their audiences are, etc. What do you think the goal of each of these organizations is with microblogging? How will that be the same or different for your organization?

There are many more suggestions about using micro blogging, including Twitter, to recruit and engage with volunteers, and to recognize their contribututions, in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

Also See...

Return to my list of resources relating to online culture & communities of volunteers

Return to my volunteer-related resources


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