How to Use Social Media to Help Social Causes

One of the biggest challenges not-for-profits face in gaining support is the simple fact that no one cares what they do until they know why it matters. It's pretty much a take off on the old cliché:.
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One of the biggest challenges not-for-profits face in gaining support is the simple fact that no one cares what they do until they know why it matters. It's pretty much a take off on the old cliché: No one cares what you know until they know how much you care.

Social media airwaves are filled with people and organizations droning on and on about what they do with very little communication about why the issue matters. Inevitably, the plethora of posts follow a trite formula of "this is what we do, so send us money." Of course, the incessant pitch for money is understandable in that most not-for-profit organizations are often on the thin edge of running out of money.

Why are they constantly in danger of running out of money? Perhaps it's because most of these organizations saddle themselves with the label of "non-profit" rather than "not-for-profit." I know, seems like linguistic gobbledygook. However, there's a huge difference in "non" and "not-for." Having run a large not-for-profit and having served on the boards of several others, I can attest first hand to the psychological impact of declaring yourself to be non-profit.

"We're non-profit" becomes a classic self-fulfilling prophecy leading to endless pitches to send money, because, well, we're running thin. Social media and social networking are now filled with those pitches. If your not-for-profit is doing truly meaningful work, how can you use social media to differentiate your organization from all the other "send money now" pleas?

The Social Cause Challenge

The secret involves emphasizing the issues your organization addresses, why they matter, and what concerned readers or followers can do themselves if they care. In other words, turn your attention to the purpose of your organization and away from the implied struggle to raise funds. "We're a not-for-profit doing good works that matter" sounds a lot more compelling than "we're a struggling non-profit hoping to do good works if we can ever get enough money."

Gabe (storymakersf) responded to my last blog, "Is Your Voice Worth Elevating," writing:

In all honesty, I think the more real value one offers, the harder it is to convey through social media. I know the trick is to entice through short-form video, but how do you convey the purpose of a non-prof, or the valuable job it does on a daily basis in a tweet. As a community manager, I guess that's my job. But unlike a company, I cannot change the "product" I am advocating for, because it is not a product. It is a cause, and one that more affluent (arguably SM users are more affluent) may not appreciate. Advice? Tips?

Gabe underscores the constant dilemma of those involved in the not-for-profit world: How to entice or persuade people to participate in your social cause or social change initiative? If you can allow me to get a bit nit picky here, the challenge most likely lies in the difference between enticing or persuading people and attracting or inspiring them to participate.

I learned a simple three-part formula during my tenure as editorial director for The Huffington Post's GPS for the Soul that has helped thousands of people inspire and engage others in matters of consequence. These same three elements can help any struggling non-profit migrate into a successful, growing not-for-profit:

  1. INFORM: What's the issue? Frame the issue in clear terms (people are dying preventable deaths from lack of clean water, etc.)

  • INSPIRE: Why does it matter? Provide additional insights into why the issue matters both to the reader as well as to those suffering directly from the issue. This step involves storytelling, illuminating the issue in greater depth. It also contrasts the value that can be experienced by making a difference with the risk that we bear if we don't do anything.
  • INVOLVE: What can you do if you get it? This is your call to action: If the reader gets the issue and why it matters, what can she do? How can he get involved?
  • Notice the formula doesn't suggest anything about telling people what your organization does. Rather, it is about inspiring them to want to learn more, to provide them reasons to get involved.

    Using Social Media Marketing to Engage Rather than Pitch

    Social media marketing can be a tremendous help in this regard, but only if you use the various platforms to go beyond simple pitches to "send money." Instead of money pitches, focus on educating readers and followers about the issues. Somewhat counter intuitively, don't be afraid to share the similar good works others are doing that align with your organization's purpose.

    If your cause truly is about producing some kind of social good, you want to view other people doing good work as allies, not competitors. Socially-conscious readers will appreciate that you are putting the spotlight on the importance of the issue, not on your need for funds. The more you use your social accounts to educate readers and followers about the issues, about the impacts of the issues, and about ways people are making a difference, the more you will gain inspired, engaged supporters. Building an informed base will come back in multiple ways, not the least of which is having your good works posts shared, liked and RT'd.

    Basically, it comes down to simple basics:

    • Find and tweet stories about the issue and impact it is having -- with links and hashtags
    • Find and tweet interesting stories about the good being served regardless of who is providing the service or value -- with links and hashtags
    • Post stories on your FB page and ask followers to comment or suggest other ways to deliver value (crowd sourcing, anyone?)
    • Create a LinkedIn group or Google+ circle to begin a discussion on the topic -- more crowdsourcing opportunities
    • Circulate stories or testimonials about people who have benefited from your work -- just be sure the story is about the person benefiting more than showcasing what you do

    A caring, involved reader could share your post, click on a link to read more, sign up for a newsletter, volunteer at your office, etc. Keep in mind that a reader or follower can't engage if you don't give them choices beyond send money. However, engaged, involved readers are more likely to become financial supporters, and long term supporters at that.

    Next time, we'll share additional suggestions on how you can leverage social media to build your online presence and social reputation.

    I'd love to hear from you. How have you seen social media make a difference worth making? What questions would you like to see explored her? Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


    If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

    Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. He is currently helping Scredible develop social media strategies for social good. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)