Nonprofit Marketing: Social Media

Nonprofit Marketing Challenges

Nonprofit marketing can be challenging with limited resources are limited and staff. Organizations must use every hour and dollar wisely — there is no room for waste or inefficiency — and that includes marketing.

This article will help you understand social media as it relates to your mission and how to use it to engage your audience and motivate them to get involved.

Understand Your Audience

The first step in any nonprofit marketing program is to understand your audience. Even though you may be itching to start posting, the time spent understanding your audience will save you time in the end. It may seem counterintuitive, but you need to ask yourself this question:

Who do I want to attract and who do I want to repel?

Repel? you may say. But I don’t want to repel anyone! The fact is that yes, you do. If you try to target everyone, you’ll reach no one. It’s important to get into the shoes of those you’re trying to reach. Unless you’re starting out, you probably have some demographic information on your audience and some idea of who they are. Build on that and create an avatar, a representation of your ideal supporter. Consider their socioeconomic information, where they live, family makeup, political persuasion, religious preferences, lifestyle and social habits.

Once you understand your audience and visualize them as an actual person, you’ll have a much easier time relating to and reaching them. You’ll probably have more than one avatar, especially if you have both fundraising and volunteer responsibilties.

Related: How to Understand Your Audience and Increase Sales


If you haven’t already, generate about 10 – 15 keywords that a regular person might use to find you online. These should not be jargon words. Phrases are even better than words. Short phrases, called long-tail keywords, can help you narrow down your audience to those who are truly interested in what you offer.

Here’s an example. Say you’re a nonprofit focused on child hunger in your local area. You might use hunger as a keyword, however, you’d get 641,000,000 results. That’s a lot to compete with. You’d spend a fortune if you decided to use that keyword in advertising. It’s too general.

Child hunger yields 186,000,000 results. As you get more specific, the number of results drops. That’s still a huge number, though, and still cost prohibitive. Not only would it cost a fortune to advertise for this pair of words, you’d have virtually no chance of organic ranking.

Child hunger in Memphis gives us 4,610,000 results. Even though that’s still a lot of results, you can see how getting more specific in your keywords can help narrow down your results. The traffic you get will be better qualified — that is, they’ll be looking more specifically for what you offer.

Experiment with your own long-tail keywords. Keep in mind, you have to strike a balance between long-tail specific keywords and search volume. Keyword research tools can tell you how many searches are performed on your term; obviously you don’t want to use a term or phrase that no one is searching.

Here are a couple of keyword research resources:

Related: Keywords Aren’t Just for SEO

Get Prepared

Before you begin posting, review your profiles. Whether you’re starting a brand new channel or taking over an established profile, look at everything. Be sure your profiles represent your brand well and that your profiles are consistent. A reader should be able to recognize your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube profiles as the same organization.

Start with the bio. Write a bio, using your keywords, for each social profile. The best way to do this is to write as many words as you need, but write it in a top-down fashion. This is the way reporters write newspaper articles, with the most important information near the top. Top-down writing enables the editor to cut from the bottom to save space without losing the main point.

If you write your bio in this way, you can easily trim it to the length needed for each social profile. You may wish to highlight different parts of the bio on different networks.

Remember to highlight your unique selling proposition (USP), or unique value proposition (UVP). This is what separates you from the rest of the pack. You should know your USP/UVP off the top of your head and be able to quickly use it as you speak to potential supporters.

Social Media Listening

Listen before you leap. Before you begin to post, spend some time just eavesdropping on your audience. Once you learn where they spend time online, you’ll be able to follow them and see how they express their preferences, desires, and priorities. After you get familiar with their style and content, you can join the conversation and be helpful and valuable.

Here are some great listening tools:

  • Social Mention • Add a search term and find out where users talk about it and the general sentiment around that term. Social Mention incorporates blogs, comments, bookmarks, videos, and all other user-generated content. The best part is, it’s free.
  • Google Alerts • Free and handy because it delivers your search results right to your inbox. Set up alerts for your brand name and terms and phrases important to your organization.
  • Hootsuite • Hootsuite is an all-over excellent tool for both social media listening and post scheduling. Although there is a free option, the paid version offers more social networks and more in-depth analytics.
  • Tweetdeck • Owned by Twitter, this app is available for download, but only on Mac. Anyone can use the web app and it’s much the same as the native app. Tweetdeck is completely free and allows you to search any keyword, hashtag, or phrase you like.
  • Sprout Social • This is the most complete solution, and, as you might suspect, also the priciest. It’s probably worth the investment if your cause is controversial, has a history of scandals or issues, or otherwise is at risk for negative feedback or publicity.

Related: Online Reviews: How to Handle Them

Social Networks


Facebook is by far the most popular, with a user base of 2.32 billion, according to Zephoria Digital Marketing and based on Facebook’s own investor relations information. No matter how difficult it may be to get traction on your Facebook page, no nonprofit marketing plan is complete without a Facebook strategy.

Instead, do your best to post content that will engage your readers. Videos are the most popular and images still draw likes and comments better than text-only posts. Post images of your staff, photos from events, ask questions, and use the polls feature to maximize engagement.

Use your Facebook Insights to determine when the majority of your fans are active. You may be surprised — late evening may be better than during the work day, when many organizations still block Facebook. If you post when your readers are already online, you may be more likely to catch their eye.

Don’t rule out the possibility of a bit of advertising. Facebook’s targeting options are quite powerful and allow you to exclude and include groups based on interest, online behavior, and age. You do have to check a box certifying that you’re not using the age information to discriminate. Compared to other outlets, Facebook advertising is still relatively inexpensive and you have tight budget control.


Twitter is often the least-understood social platform and probably perceived as the most difficult to use. It’s true that it’s frequently the last priority for many nonprofits. However, if used well Twitter can be a valuable addition to your nonprofit marketing plan as you seek to build an audience of authentic supporters.

This screenshot shows two Twitter searches I’ve set up in Tweetdeck, one for the phrase nonprofit marketing, and the other for the hashtag #nonprofits. You can add as many columns and searches as you wish, which allows you to monitor the most relevant searches.

nonprofit marketing
Each column represents a specific term or hashtag I want to monitor

Time to Tweet

Once you’ve got your prep work done, it’s time to post. Remember, you’ve got 280 characters (increased from 140) to get your message across and that includes any hashtags you use. Hashtags work very well on Twitter and can help you build your following, but you only want to use about three, maximum. Too many hashtags on a tweet make it look spammy.

One important characteristic of Twitter is that it moves fast. Rather than the huge, powerful television networks, Twitter is often the best source for breaking news. What does this mean for you? Depending on when you post, your tweet may get buried in a popular trending topic. After about five minutes, it’s out of timeline, out of mind. For this reason, you’ll need to post a tweet several times to be sure it’s noticed. Twitter forbids reposting the same tweet, so you’ll need to reword your headline. It’s also a good idea to include an image to get it noticed in the busy timeline. It’s OK to tweet often; up to five times each day if you have enough content.

Take it slow, don’t try to follow too many people at once, and remember to focus on starting a conversation, not blasting a sales pitch. Twitter users have no patience for a salesy account and will unfollow you quickly if you come off as pushy. Sometimes a tweet completely unrelated to business can spark a great business relationship. Be a person. Be human.


Just a few years ago, you might have thought I’d lost my mind if I advised you to include Instagram in your nonprofit marketing plan. But today’s Instagram has come a long way. No longer just a place for cute photos of your pets and babies, it’s a full-fledged business platform and an effective one.

Instagram is, of course, a visual network and for that reason many nonprofits think it’s unworkable. You might think, how do I show in images what my organization does and our impact on the community? The answer is in thinking less literally.

You can show a day in the life of your organizations, volunteers at special events, graphics that show your impact in the community, staff photos — the list is endless. Instagram marketing can be the most rewarding — the platform gets more engagement than any other.

The more your readers know you, the most they trust you. Show them your human side.

Instagram Hashtags

More than even Twitter, success on Instagram depends on the use of hashtags. You have up to 30 hashtags and careful research is the key to using them well. Don’t target all of the most popular hashtags — choose five or so of the large ones and use small and more accessible ones for the bulk of your list.

What do I mean by large and small hashtags? When you do a hashtag search on Instagram, you’ll see the number of posts using that hashtag just under the hashtag itself. That’s how you know how difficult it will be to get seen with that particular term. As you can see, the term nonprofit is quite popular, yet nonprofits and nonprofitlife have far fewer posts.

instagram hashtag search

Your goal is to get the largest number of users to see your posts, and getting on the Explore page for a particular hashtag will expose you to new users and help you gain new followers.

instagram hashtag search
Explore page for the hashtag #nonprofitwork

This Explore page is a collection of the top posts that use this hashtag. So you could potentially end up on 30 Explore pages. Think about how many potential new supporters will see your post.

Instagram populates Explore pages based on early engagement, which means the faster you get the first like or comment the more likely you are to become a top post. This is a good reason for placing your hashtags in the actual caption rather than in the first comment as some suggest.


According to Search Engine Journal, YouTube is the second most popular search engine, behind only Google, which owns YouTube.

YouTube receives more than 1.5 billion logged in users per month and feeds over 1 billion hours of video each day to users (that’s right… billion). — Search Engine Journal

That’s a lot of potential traffic. How do you get seen in the midst of it?

Start with your keywords. Yes, you can do keyword research on YouTube, just as on Google. Use YouTube’s built-in autocomplete feature.

nonprofit marketing

Note when I enter the search term nonprofit, the related keywords drop down and it shows you search volume, cost per click to advertise and the amount of competition for that keyword. Unless you have an enormous advertising budget, choose at least some low-competition keywords as you’ll find it almost impossible to rank organically (non-paid).

Retention is also a ranking factor, so be sure your video has value all the way through and no longer than it needs to be. Add a call to action to subscribe after watching — say it in the video. Also be sure to say your keyword in the video as Google transcribes videos relatively accurately.

When you’re setting up your YouTube channel, go back to that bio you wrote. It should contain your keywords — you want to use them in your channel description on YouTube as well.

Is it Working?

I hate math and numbers freak me out, so this used to be my least favorite part of marketing. The measurement. Analytics. This changed when I realized that it’s a lot like the GPS in your car — it’s there to tell you if you’re moving in the wrong direction so you don’t travel miles down the wrong road. If you’re ever taken a wrong turn you know what I mean. What a waste of time and gas.

You GPS will tell you to recalculate when you’re headed in the wrong direction. Don’t think of measurement as negative, think of it as guidance to reach your goal faster.

Social Media Measurement Tools

There are numerous paid nonprofit marketing tools such as Sprout Social, that provide comprehensive analytics and reporting, but most nonprofits are looking for inexpensive and free solutions. Though it’s more trouble, you can put together a complete report if you get creative with what’s available.

Social posting and automation tools Buffer and Hootsuite offer analytics that tell you how many likes, retweets, and comments each tweet receives. YouTube’s analytics will tell you how many views for each video and how long the users watch.

Google Analytics is your best friend. All you need to get started is a valid Gmail address. It’s completely free and can track visits to your website, help you determine where your traffic is coming from, and identify which content draws the most views and engagement.

Facebook’s Insights can tell you everything you need to know about which types of posts bring the most engagement, what times of day are best, and much more. Instagram, like Facebook, offers analytics on a business account.

Hubspot, a long-time online marketing thought leader, recommends these metrics to give you an overall picture of how you’re doing:

  • Reach
  • Engagement
  • Traffic generated
  • Leads generated

You may have other metrics that are important to you. Tie your return on investment calculations to your organizational goals. They may be:

  • Signups for events and email list
  • Donations
  • Web traffic
  • Visit-to-lead conversion rate: Of the social media traffic you’re generating, what percentage of those visitors become leads?

As you can see, metrics will differ based on your goals. Think through which metrics mean show success for your organization.

Put it All Together

The best nonprofit marketing plans encompass all communications, from social media to annual reports, email marketing, the website, print media, advertising, and any other communications to the public. Consider the role each part plays in your overall presence.

As much as possible, tie each aspect of your plan to the others so that each piece of your online presence works with the others like any good team.

Prioritize what you can realistically do with the time, resources and dollars you have to work with. You don’t have to be present on every social network — only consider the ones that you know your audience frequents and that you have the resources to do well.

Be mindful of what staff you give your social passwords to. Although it’s common to use interns for social media, do you really want to use your least experienced staff members to represent you online? Develop guidelines for staff members and decide what is and is not acceptable.

Learn More About Social Media for Nonprofits

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