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Digital Engagement Advice for Nonprofits
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Digital Engagement Advice for Nonprofits

Purpose, planning and practice will help you build a community online.

You probably remember Roo, the memorable character in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and his oft-repeated lines, “Look at me jumping! Look at me jumping!” Just like a human child, Roo is proud of his newly acquired skills and ready to show off for any willing audience (often his mom, Kanga).

Unfortunately for nonprofits seeking meaningful digital engagement, jumping up and down and asking us to cheer them on is not enough to build online community, and it’s a turn-off for constituents looking for authentic and reciprocal interactions. Digital engagement is a two-way street. Organizations that learn to use social platforms for interaction, conversation and information exchange can build communities of interest; those that use these platforms in a broadcast-only mode will be less successful.

Many nonprofits aren’t yet prepared to use social media to interact with people and serve their broader missions. My consulting firm just finished leading workshops across Minnesota for more than 100 artists, nonprofits and creative small businesses. After these interesting and fun encounters with people doing important work on the ground, I can offer the following summary advice. (These workshops were free to participants because of a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.)

Know your purpose. It’s important to agree on the point of using social media in the first place. It’s not enough to say, “Because we think we should,” or, “Because we think our constituents are there.” The specific aims should be identified and articulated: “We need broader awareness of our work in order to compete for funding;” or, “We want to connect with current and potential collaborators;” or, “We want more people to understand what goes into our work” are all examples of reasons an organization might use social media.

The purpose of your social engagement can then inform not only the type of stories and content you’ll share, but also who you want to connect with online. Your purpose will help guide the specific channels you choose and the voice you’ll use to communicate. Without a well-considered purpose, social media is scattershot. It won’t result in the kinds of interaction you will find meaningful and important.

Plan your social engagement work. Effective communication requires careful consideration, creative thinking and long-term planning. It’s important to define the key themes of your engagement efforts and how they’ll contribute to achieving your purpose. Too many people think of their digital engagement merely as one-off posts. They don’t plan the way these posts will come together to build a narrative that tells their most important stories. They don’t think about ways of communicating that constituents will find interesting and motivating. Many of our workshop participants had never planned their social engagement over even a week’s time, let alone a month or year, or stepped back from their individual posts to see what sorts of stories they’d shared over time.

Simple planning templates for the editorial scope of social media engagement are easily available for free. User-friendly scheduling software that helps manage the sequence and content of digital engagement also is free. Photographs, video, program information and other media content can be developed, stockpiled and released over time. Posts can be reframed and reused. This doesn’t have to be a giant project—organizations (and solopreneurs) can integrate media planning into their other planning activities—for example, including media planning as a standing item in weekly or monthly meetings.

Frame your social engagement work as a practice. Everyone on Planet Earth is learning to use social media platforms at the same time. We don’t have decades or centuries of experience to build on and we can mainly learn by trying things, observing each other’s practices and results, considering our successes and failures, and determining next steps. There is no way to be perfect at digital engagement, there is only the adoption of a “try and learn” approach that is a lot like learning a language.

One of our workshop speakers compared using social media channels to entering a new school lunchroom as a child. You’re unsure of the protocols, seating hierarchies and associated social structures. But if you want to eat, you have to sit down somewhere and begin. Eventually you’ll learn to navigate, find friends, build community and enjoy the meal. There’s no getting around those uncomfortable early days.

Overall our team found Minnesota’s cultural community eager to learn more about ways they can bring depth and creativity to their digital engagement practices. Many recognized in themselves the sort of beginner’s “jumping” that Roo is rightly proud of.

To take the leaps that will bring your organization into fuller realization of your mission, consider your purpose, plan for thoughtful engagement and practice, practice, practice.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.

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