Because I spend a lot of time on social media and am also connected with quite a few non-profits, I frequently see posts from non-profit founders/volunteers who seem baffled by (or angry about) not receiving the size/quantity of donations they hope for. Typically, these posts come from newer or smaller organizations that just need some guidance or tough love. I’m far from an expert, given that I’ve never started or worked for a non-profit, but as a frequent donor (I select animal rescue and advocacy groups to donate 10% of The Tree Kisser‘s sales to each month), I wanted to offer my perspective with the presumption that other donors may (consciously or subconsciously) look for (and avoid) the same things I do when deciding where to send their hard-earned money. You have a LOT of competition out there; doing good things for the world just isn’t enough. If you run a non-profit and are struggling to bring in donations, I hope you find it helpful to see things from one donor’s perspective.
1) Appearance of Success
When I see posts from non-profit founders/presidents complaining about their lack of donations, I always cringe. The language typically says or implies things like, “I don’t understand why ______ rescue gets donations every day and we haven’t seen anything come in for weeks,” “Bigger organizations get all the credit/attention, and no one cares about us,” or “Well sure, if we had a celebrity doing PSAs for our cause like _____ does, we could get more donations, but I guess we just aren’t important enough.” I understand that these people are just venting, likely due to frustration from trying to make a difference in the world without receiving enough public support. However, whether it’s logical or not, this immediately makes me lose faith in the organization. It makes me feel like something must not be working, and that even if I were to donate, they still won’t have enough money to accomplish what they want to. Even when these posts come from organizations I trust and have supported in the past, I shake my head. You have to think of a non-profit like a business; if your company projects an image of desperation or failure, it’s a lot harder to bring in customers or investors. Sometimes you gotta fake it to make it, you know? Of course, you do have to ask for donations (we understand you need money to stay functional and grow), but there’s a big difference between, “Donate here to help us save even more lives in 2016!” and “If you don’t want us to be evicted tomorrow, we need you to send $10.” Catastrophes and unexpected life events happen, but if every week feels like you’re on the brink of disaster, I start to wonder if you’ll ever be able to make it work.
Example of a post done right by Animal Rescue Corps. Notice the donation ask comes after they tell you about their most recent accomplishment.
2) Professionalism & Diplomacy
Social media has been a hugely helpful tool for a lot of non-profits, but the downside is we’re all still just humans dealing with other humans, and now it’s all public. Conflict is bound to arise, and your supporters (and potential supporters) definitely take note of how it’s handled. If I don’t know you personally, you’ve probably lost me the second you post ambiguously (or worse, specifically) about drama with another person or organization in your field. Even if the trouble is completely the other person’s fault, the average visitor on your Facebook page has no reason to believe you over the other person. All they see is that there’s a problem, and they’re going to move along to the next organization whose staff/volunteers are NOT spreading gossip or inciting tension. In many cases, these passive-aggressive posts are shared from the founder/president’s personal page rather than the organization’s official page, but if you run your own non-profit, you have to remember you’re representing it at all times. If someone criticizes your work, try to handle it like a grown up. Sure, there’s a time and a place for making a public statement in your defense, but as a donor, I prefer to see this as a last resort and only in response to harmful slander that is actively making it difficult for your team to do their good work. We all have fragile egos that can be bruised, but it’s so important to take the high road as often as possible, especially when the high road leads to financial support!
3) Social Media Presence
Realistically, I understand that most non-profits have insufficient funds and insufficient time to spare. When there are events to coordinate and lives to save, I’m sure obsessing over social media feels pretty low on the priority totem pole. I try to be as gentle as possible when mentioning this to people, because I know what they’re really thinking is, “I’M BOTTLE FEEDING FOUR KITTENS WHILE CALLING VOLUNTEERS TO STAFF OUR FUNDRAISER ON SATURDAY AND MY TAXES ARE DUE TOMORROW BUT MY COMPUTER CRASHED AFTER IT FELL INTO THE PIG’S WATER BOWL BUT YES, PLEASE TELL ME HOW YOU THINK I NEED A BETTER FACEBOOK COVER PHOTO!” I get it. You chose a really challenging life mission, and for that you have so much of my respect and appreciation. That said, if I can think of a way to bring you more resources to ease the stress, I feel obligated to mention it.
Facebook has obviously become a homebase for most non-profits, but I highly encourage you to expand to at least Instagram, Twitter, and maybe even SnapChat! I’ve noticed more and more people either leaving Facebook or checking it far less often, which is mostly Facebook’s fault. Facebook has also made it increasingly difficult to reach your own followers; I’m sure you’ve noticed that the percent of your followers who engage in your posts has dropped significantly compared to engagement from a year or two ago, unless you’re paying to promote each individual post (don’t get me started on my Facebook rant). If your potential supporters are migrating from Facebook, you have to follow them.
I’ll give a quick example that I hope will demonstrate how important this is. A friend of mine (let’s call her “Megan”; I’m hiding her real name so this organization doesn’t feel targeted if they read this) recently reached out to me asking for advice. She wanted to help her favorite local non-profit, because they were dealing with some emergency medical bills and they really needed an influx of financial support. I responded with a bunch of ideas, the most important of which was that they at least needed to open an Instagram (IG) page where they could host a clickable link to their website for easy donations. Between Megan and I, we have over 100,000 Instagram followers who we would have loved to send over to the non-profit’s IG page if they had one. People these days (myself included), have no attention span and are lazy. The number of people who are willing to find a computer and manually type in a url to send a donation is much lower than the number of people who would’ve just impulsively clicked through and donated if it were easy for them. Megan passed along my suggestion and even volunteered to set up the IG page for this organization, but they pretty much ignored her because they were too busy. Thus, they lost out on potentially hundreds or thousands of dollars we could’ve raised for them.
Priceless Pet Rescue does a great job on Instagram. Linking to their website no doubt brings in a lot of donations from those 30,000+ followers they have!
I definitely have sympathy for people, especially those of an older generation, who aren’t especially well-versed in the nuances of each social media platform, yet have to try because they know it’s necessary. There’s a lot of unspoken etiquette regarding frequency of posts, length of captions, etc. I recently joined Pinterest and had to seek friends’ advice on these matters because I was completely out of my element, so I get it! I strongly encourage even those of you who think you’re handling social media pretty well to ask for feedback or professional consulting. You could be doing things you think are great but are actually repelling potential supporters; I can unfortunately think of way too many examples that I see on a daily basis. If you ask your followers for a genuine critique (and if you’re able to truly not be defensive), I feel confident that you would receive some really helpful, specific suggestions. I also recommend taking a look at the social media presence of some of the bigger organizations in your field. The ones whose budgets you wish you could have. Take note of how and what they post. They must be doing something right, can you learn from them?
It’s tough to provide specific social media tips that will apply to all kinds of organizations, but the things I see that bother me most are low quality photos, overposting (especially sharing too many irrelevant or barely relevant memes, graphics, etc. from other pages), bad grammar (I may be more sensitive to this than other people, but spelling and grammar make a HUGE difference in how I perceive an organization), and cheesy/outdated/amateur logos and graphics. Logically I understand that an organization’s ability to use a camera well or to find the right graphic artist to create their logo is unrelated to the actual quality of their work, but this isn’t really about logic. It’s about instilling confidence and enthusiasm in your supporters, and a professional, eye-catching internet presence can make or break that. You have very little time to stand out and be memorable. A blurry camera phone photo isn’t going to do that, not in this day and age. It might be worth investing a bit of money into the problem, as painful as that sounds. If you have $200 to work with and you can use it to either cover the expenses of rescuing another dog from death row or hiring someone to revamp your web presence, I’m sorry to say it, but I have to recommend the latter. The increased funds and donor support that could come from those changes to your public appearance can enable you to save far more lives in the future. If you have a decent group of volunteers working with you, you may be able to get some help from them if they have a knack for technology and PR! I haven’t personally used this site, but I’ve heard great things about Volunteer Match. You may able to find some smart, internet-savvy helpers with a few clicks of the mouse!
An example of a social media post on Volunteer Match
4) Prove To Me That My Donation Matters: Stats & Stories
Most non-profits understand this on some level, but all can probably do better. In an ideal world, I love to see a balance of numbers and anecdotes. An example of an organization that blows me away with this is FARM, specifically regarding their 10 Billion Lives Tour. I’ve attended a lot of fundraisers over the past few years, but I’ve never forgotten how impressed I was by FARM’s presentation during which they broke down the impact numbers for their donations. There was a whole explanation for how they came to these results based on surveys given to people who watched their video on factory farming, but the end result was for every $5 donated, 4 people commit to change their diet (towards fully vegan or at least more plant-based foods). Sure, this is just an estimate, but it makes it feel very tangible. If you’re a dog rescue, publish the average cost of rescuing and rehabbing one dog. If you’re an advocacy group, tell me how much it costs you to print 500 leaflets or to rent a billboard. The benefits of this are threefold: 1) It’s more fun for me (and thus encourages me to donate again) to tell myself “I just covered half the cost of a dog’s spay procedure, which means i’ve prevented half a litter of puppies from being born into an overpopulated community” or “I just enabled this farmed animal sanctuary to buy 200 feet of fencing so they have room to take in three more chickens” than it is to say “Well, there goes $20…I hope they do something good with it.” 2) It makes me feel more confident in your ability to manage and plan finances. 3) It makes me feel like my donation matters and is needed. I think #3 can be especially challenging for large organizations, which people (including myself) often look at and think, “Will my $20 really matter if their rescue missions each cost $20,000?” Well, if you know your $20 could pay for the vaccines and flea medication for an overbred momma dog just rescued from a filthy puppy mill, then yes! To her, that $20 makes all the difference in the world.
In addition to facts and figures, I like to see anecdotes. Knowing how you specifically impacted the life of one animal or person can be as powerful as telling me you saved 1000 lives. If these stories are organized (and updated often) on your website, I’m VERY impressed. Most of you understand the concept behind this, so I don’t need to elaborate. An example of an organization that does this exceptionally well is Animal Aid Unlimited.
Screenshot from Animal Aid Unlimited’s “Hurt to Healed” page on their website
I haven’t seen this very often, but I always remember coming across a non-profit’s website that had a testimonial page. Posted on it were messages of thanks and gratitude from donors who gave in the past. If you have people close to you who have either donated to you, volunteered with you, or been a part of your organization in another meaningful way, ask them to write a blurb for you (that you can attach their name to). Or post publicly on your Facebook page asking people why they support your organization (of course, ask permission in advance to use their quotes on your website). If I’m checking out an organization I know nothing about, I feel way more comfortable giving them money if others have eloquently and passionately given them public support.
I hope you come away from this with some new strategies or ideas! If you’ve chosen to run or work for a non-profit, I am so grateful for you and for the fact that you’ve chosen something bigger than yourself to dedicate your life to. I’m sure this post comes off a bit harsh or critical, but please know that I only put time and thought into it because I want to empower you to be the best you can be. Thank you for taking the time to read it!