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A Strategic Guide to Social Media for Nonprofits


Social media presents an enormous opportunity for nonprofit organizations to connect with their supporters, but it isn’t always easy. Thankfully, nonprofits have never been a group to back down from a challenge.

Part of social’s original appeal was the potential to reach a larger audience for free. And social media works: 55% of people who engage with causes via social media are inspired to take further action, like donating money (68%), volunteering (53%), donating items (52%) or attending an event (43%).

But the growing popularity and changing algorithms of social platforms have made it difficult to keep your cause at the top of supporters’ newsfeeds. Your organization needs a nonprofit social media strategy that will help you face these challenges and ultimately raise awareness, engage with supporters and get results.

There’s no time like the present to create or refresh your approach, and we’re going to help lead you through the process. We spoke to five nonprofit social experts to get their best advice and actionable insights to shape your strategy. In this guide, you’ll find their wisdom along with examples of organizations thriving on social and actionable tips for how you can get the most from this powerful channel.

Set social media goals that support your organization's goals

“Social media shouldn’t be out there alone; it should be integrated and aligned with your strategic goals and target audiences,” said Beth Kanter, nonprofit consultant and author of Beth’s Blog, one of the longest running blogs about nonprofits and social media. “The role that it can play really well is engagement, especially donor engagement and donor retention, getting people to pay attention.”

The actions you take and the content you create on social should ladder up to the overall goals of your organization, including serving your mission and advancing your annual priorities. This ensures that your approach is aligned to the rest of your marketing and communications strategy, and that you can secure buy-in from other team members for crucial collaboration, investment and resources.

For example, if one of your organization’s goals is to increase donor retention, your number one priority on social might be to foster engagement with your community and donors. Your goals might look something like this:

  • Increase the number of current donors following us on social
  • Increase engagement on social by 20%
  • Increase website traffic driven by social by 15%

But don’t stop there. Just as you need a well-defined mission for your organization, you need clear goals and objectives for social media too. To set your goals, follow the “SMART” goal framework: Each goal should be specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timely. Download our free 2020 toolkit for a SMART goals template and other resources for your social media planning.

2020 social media toolkit

Here are a few examples of annual social media goals:

  • Increase your organization’s social impressions by 15%: Reach new members, donors, participants and volunteers, and educate these groups on what you do and why.
  • Boost social engagement by 20%: Keep your organization top-of-mind, build community and encourage word-of-mouth mentions of your nonprofit.
  • Increase actions taken from social by 10%: Increase newsletter subscriptions, drive event ticket sales, recruit volunteers and increase donations.

Once you’ve set your goals and determined the right social media metrics to measure them, share them with your stakeholders (your team, leadership, board and key volunteers) to make sure everyone is on the same page. Your goals will be easier to achieve when your social media lead or team is working closely with the rest of your organization. From there, you can start to determine specific objectives and tactics.

Identify your core audience and develop personas

“A lot of nonprofits say, ‘well, our audience is the general public,’ but if you think you’re speaking to the general public, you’re probably speaking to nobody,” said Bridgett Colling, Marketing Manager at Highland Solutions and expert on nonprofit and cause marketing.

Colling recommends that nonprofits develop audience personas, which are representations of your ideal supporters based on demographic data and information about individual members of your target audience.

To learn the demographics of your current social media following, you can use native analytics on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, or use a social media management tool like Sprout Social. When you start a free trial of Sprout and connect your profiles, your audience’s demographic data will begin to populate, which you can see in your dashboard or export as a report. Additionally, if you’re using social listening to understand how your audience talks about your organization or relevant topics, you can also explore demographic breakdowns of people engaged in those discussions.

sprout social audience demographics

It’s also important to consider people you aren’t reaching yet, but would like to. You can use tools like social listening topics focused on your cause area or in-person focus groups. You can also use anecdotal data from your conversations at fairs and events to better understand the demographics of your potential audience, what drew them to your cause, why they might get excited about your organization and how they want to engage.

Armed with all of this data, you can create multiple personas that represent supporters in different groups. Consider the makeup of your volunteer base, your board and junior board, your program participants and your influencers/advocates (e.g. local educators or experts in your space). Give each persona a name as well as a comprehensive demographic background, then add specific details about what this person cares about, what their typical day is like, who they trust and more.

Understanding your target audience when planning your strategy—and continuing to learn more as it evolves—is a crucial aspect of creating successful social media content.

Determine which social platforms to focus on

Once you’ve identified your target audience, find out which social platforms they use most often and focus your efforts there.

If you have limited time to spend on social, don’t spread yourself too thin by worrying about creating a presence on every platform. It’s better to excel on two or three with a greater potential for reaching your audience than to phone it in on four or five.

To get an idea of which social platforms your target audience prefers, check out our post on social media demographics where we break down the dominant demographics of each one. Here’s an example showing Facebook usage among key demographics:

facebook demographics

Another factor to consider is which platforms lend themselves most naturally to the type of content you want to share. If you work for an arts or music organization, think about where your audience watches videos of performances. If you work for an animal rescue, consider how your target audience views and shares pictures of adorable animals on social (hint: Instagram might be a good fit). Prioritize the platforms where you can devote time and energy to create interesting, distinctive content for an audience that will welcome it—and we’ll talk about saving time when creating that content next.

Create a social content strategy

As you’re creating a content strategy for your nonprofit, it’s important to understand why people follow brands to begin with. Our annual Sprout Social Index survey found that the top reasons people follow brands are for information on products and services (for you, that might be programs, events and campaigns), for entertainment and to stay up to date on news about the brand. We also looked at what kind of content consumers engage with most and found a strong preference for content that’s entertaining, inspirational and educational.

2019 Sprout Social Index - Social content for engagement

Starting with that industry perspective, you can use your organization’s social data to understand past performance and what has and hasn’t been successful.

What to share

Start by measuring the performance of past posts to identify which content is helping you toward your goals, and to understand what types of content resonates most with your audience. Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask supporters what type of stories they would like to see from your organization. You can gather this information in person, via an email survey or by asking on social.

Kivi Leroux Miller, nonprofit consultant and President of Nonprofit Marketing Guide, suggests two questions to guide your content creation: “What problems do people have in their own lives when trying to live out the values they share with your organization?” and “What tips or tools can you give them that make their lives easier as they try to be a better environmentalist, animal lover, parent, etc.?”

Start by developing content categories for social media that you can cycle through on a regular basis, such as volunteer spotlights, client stories and how-tos.

The Toy Association is a non-profit trade association with over 900 businesses that create toys and games for kids. Part of the nonprofit’s social media strategy involves Genius of Play, which encourages parents to make playtime a part of their kids’ daily lives. Genius of Play uses social media to share helpful content for parents, and to spark dialogue about issues their audience cares about.

Types of content

From pictures and graphics to short videos and text, your organization should share a variety of posts across platforms. Visual content can often reach emotional triggers in ways that words alone can’t.

There are plenty of free tools for image creation that can help you create beautiful graphics, but don’t worry about making every image highly polished. Capturing snapshots and short videos on your phone enables you to share powerful moments from events, and those types of posts can give your followers a meaningful peek behind the scenes of your organization.

While every single post shouldn’t link elsewhere, social media can be a helpful tool for directing people to your website, blog or mailing list. Executive coach and fundraising expert Marc Pitman says that one common mistake is creating content that keeps your audience on social and never captures additional information so they can stay connected to your brand.

“You should have a healthy mix of content that points back to your site and helps build your email list where you give away helpful content—an ethical bribe,” he says. “Then you can track how many people are coming from social and signing up or taking action.”

Posting frequency

Creating a social media content calendar will help you plan and schedule your social media posts in advance. If you are working with a team, or reaching out to others in your organization for photos or information, a content calendar will help you stay on top of planning campaigns and scheduling content in advance.


Determine a posting frequency and cadence that will keep your organization in front of your audience while leaving you time to manage your community, share newsworthy content and measure your impact.

If you’re unsure of when you should Tweet or post on Instagram, check out our research into the best times to post on social media, specifically for nonprofits. For example, here are the best times to post on Facebook for optimal audience engagement:

Best times to post on facebook for nonprofit engagement

Put engagement first

Social media is far more than a publishing platform—it’s a place to capture people’s attention, connect with supporters and build communities. In a recent survey on social media and connection, we found that 64% of people expect brands to connect with their audiences, and they rank social media as the number one place to do that.

“The most powerful thing about social media is something many companies and organizations often forget: It’s social,” says Chara Smith, former creative team member at charity: water. “Instead, many brands use social media as a broadcasting platform.”

With limited time to spend on social, engagement should be a priority. Respond to questions, comments and posts tagging your organization, and look for relevant hashtags to find new conversations to join. While your tone may be more formal on other outlets, social media is a particularly good place to cultivate a personable brand voice that helps supporters feel connected. Don’t be afraid to use humor to connect either.

“Part of what we’re trying to do with engagement is show donors that we see them as more than an ATM,” Pitman said. “The social media accounts that show humanity seem to get noted more, particularly when you give quick or humorous responses.”

Men’s health non-profit Movember regularly uses humor on social media to add a little light-heartedness to support a serious cause—and, when their followers comment on their content, they respond and engage in some on-brand banter.

Empower your advocates & cross-promote your content

Even the most enthusiastic proponents of your organization may not realize that social sharing is a powerful way they can raise awareness for your cause. If you are creating or ramping up your presence on a specific platform, make it known to all of your constituents that they can connect with you there.

Show them the value of following—the stories, tips and images they can expect to see—and educate them about the best ways to show support. Don’t be afraid to cross-promote your social media content on other channels.

Our experts provided a few suggestions to get your advocates talking:

Start a private group

“Invite them to join a private group or another mechanism of communication so you can ‘rock ‘n’ roll,’” Kanter said. “Everyone likes to be on a winning team and to cheer on the team, so you need that kind of connection. Make it super easy: Provide sample posts for Facebook, sample Tweets, etc.”

For example, the Chicago-based Anti-Cruelty Society has private Facebook groups for people who foster their animals as well as for their volunteers. These groups create places for their audience to connect with each other, share their stories and swap practical information. They give the organization a go-to place to solicit help with their efforts.

Anti-Cruelty Society Facebook Groups

Promote via other communication channels

“Support your social with email, phone and other means of communication,” Pitman said. “Send a link to board members, and ask them to like it, share it, comment and tell you what they think. However you want them to interact with you, let them know. People can’t read our minds. It’s not obvious to them; their universe doesn’t revolve around our nonprofit or our social media outreach.”

Here’s a snippet from an email from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). When thanking supporters for signing up for their email newsletter, they include a CTA to change your social media profile pictures in order to further spread awareness.

Provide sample posts

“Make it easy to share by sending an email with pre-written Tweets and graphics people can share when you’re launching a big campaign, telling them one of the ways they can support you is to share on Facebook, Twitter or whatever network you think they’re most active on,” Colling said. “Make it easy for people. Give them options. And tell them that sharing is meaningful.”

The nonprofit mentioned above, PanCAN, is raising awareness about pancreatic cancer symptoms in order to promote early detection. They have created created free social graphics and GIFs that their supporters can use to spread the message and educate their networks as part of their campaign.

If you have high-profile advocates or an internal team that’s active on social, you can use an advocacy platform to curate content and messaging for your advocates to share. This way, your team can log in and start sharing content with just a few clicks. What if you added five minutes to the end of your next board meeting or volunteer training to provide guidance and encourage social sharing?

Track & measure your results

From day one, track your social media efforts to ensure that you are progressing toward your goals. Demonstrating results will show your leadership the importance of investing time and resources into social, and it will help you adjust your content strategy to focus on the type of content that performs best.

“If it doesn’t get results, don’t do it,” says Kanter. “You don’t get impact by wishful thinking.”

Kanter suggests that you look not only at what content is getting a good rate of return, but also at what takes less time to get that return. For goals such as driving website traffic, Colling recommends using Google Analytics to see how many social referrals are getting people to your website.

“Even better, if you put goal tracking in your Google Analytics, you can see how many referrals actually led to someone completing a donation,” she said.

You can use information from social platforms’ native analytics (Twitter Analytics, Facebook Insights, YouTube Analytics) to create your own reports. For a clear breakdown of how to use native analytics, check out our post on the social media metrics that matter.

If you don’t have time to run reports, this is just one of many areas where a social media analytics tool will help. You can use Sprout to run weekly or monthly presentation-ready reports on everything from sent message performance to audience changes to engagement.




Above all, remember to listen and create a habit of strategy and measurement. Over time, you will learn what content gets your community talking and how to fine-tune your nonprofit’s social media strategy to get the best possible results.

We’ll leave you with this one final piece of advice:

“It’s important to set reasonable expectations and know that social media and content marketing is a long game. You’re not going to put one post out there and instantly get hundreds of dollars in donations. Like any good relationship, it’s all about communication over time.”
—Bridgett Colling, Highland Solutions

Start building that relationship with your supporters today. And if you’d like a faster, simpler way to execute your social strategy, try Sprout Social for free with our 30-day trial.