Tag: engagement

As the landscape for donor and advocate attention becomes more crowded in 2019, it’s critical for nonprofit organizations to connect with their audiences in more authentic ways. Social media can be an important tool for nonprofits looking to engage with supporters quickly, seamlessly, and effectively.

With more than 700,000 followers across their social media sites, Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation initiative uniting girls around the world to advocate for gender equality, has reaped the rewards of a strong social media strategy. Girl Up has used its social channels to draw awareness for its cause, promote its first-ever #girlhero Awards during International Day of the Girl, and share ongoing updates.

While social media allows Girl Up to have consistent communication with its supporters, the organization was looking to take their engagement with advocates to the next level. Girl Up launched a dedicated online community platform. Here’s why.

A changing social media landscape

For Girl Up, social media has helped the organization tell its story to a broader audience and promote its events around the globe. Through Facebook, Twitter, and most recently Instagram, the organization has showcased the stories of individual girls around the world and highlighted notable public figures and celebrities that lend their support to Girl Up’s cause. It has also provided Girl Up the opportunity to seek user-generated content by using Girl Up-specific hashtags like #DayofTheGirl and #girlhero (among others), encouraging image sharing and input from its followers.

Yet, recent changes to the social media landscape have presented challenges for nonprofit organizations. Audience growth on platforms like Facebook have plateaued as new social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat gain popularity among younger generations. Not to mention, changes to algorithms across platforms are making it more difficult to reach those active users from those demographics than ever before. The result? Many nonprofits, who have relied solely on social media as a cost-effective means of driving visibility and engagement, are having to reconsider its role in their strategy to connect with advocates. This is where an online community comes in.

What is an online community platform?

An online community platform provides a branded destination for communication, collaboration, and sharing around a cause. It’s a dedicated place for those with common interests – an organization’s advocates – to have meaningful conversations and create connections around a shared belief in their cause. Online community platforms are increasingly diverse, including everything from forums and blogs, to multimedia like photos and videos, gamification for contests and leaderboards, analytics integrations and more.

How Girl Up uses its online community platform

Since its founding in 2010, Girl Up has seen steady growth in its community of supporters. To date, the organization has 3,000 Girl Up Clubs in more than 100 countries, and has trained 48,000 girls to create tangible change around the world. With that growth and breadth of supporters came the need to maintain meaningful conversations with and answer questions from this growing community, with limited staff and resources. Using a dedicated online community has helped to mitigate that challenge.

Girl Up launched its online community platform, which is powered by Personify, more than five years ago. Within Girl Up’s online community, supporters interact with each other and have an open dialogue in chat forums – sharing content, perspective and more. For example, community members often use the forums to celebrate fundraising successes or to ask for support, specifically in how to tackle challenges around fundraisers. Some of the most highly engaged content on Girl Up’s community includes thought-provoking hypotheticals like, “If women were given the leadership role in every country, what would the world be like?” This ability to have advocates connect and support each other, instead of always requiring a conversation with a Girl Up representative, provides a deeper sense of community and eases the strain on an organization’s limited capacity.

Along with resourcing, online community platforms provide nonprofit organizations with benefits like secure ownership of content, data, and constituent information. In a community, content is created by members, but you are in control of the discussion and content can be searched and used in the future. This means that rich content developed in a community like Girl Up’s can be repurposed by the organization to use in social media, marketing collateral, and more. For example, responses from Girl Up community members on how to tackle fundraising challenges can be packaged and shared as a guide from the organization, or responses from thought-provoking hypotheticals can be used as inspirational Girl Up social media content or thought starters for other community discussions. This has created a more comprehensive 360-experience for Girl Up’s audience – and the organization itself.

For Girl Up, a dedicated online community platform has helped drive critical results for the organization. To date, the organization has 1,500 digital clubs in more than 100 countries that help support real world advocacy efforts. Over 11,000 users have a space to collaborate, share successes, and get help when needed. And the community is only growing stronger. Over the first quarter of 2019 alone, the Girl Up community has added more than 1,800 new members and counting – all supporting the organization’s core goals and messages on an owned platform.

The online community platform also translated to results for the organization offline. Girl Up was able to grow its offline community, increasing the number of local groups in high schools and colleges by an average of 45% each year. The number of offline actions for social change led by those groups increased by 29% over the last year. Based on the success of the Girl Up online community, the United Nations Foundation launched a second online community with Personify for another program to drive similar engagement and results.

Social media vs. online community platforms

When deciding whether to devote efforts to social media or a dedicated online community platform for your organization, the answer is simple – use both. Social media, despite the changing landscape, has value and is useful for certain campaigns and situations – especially capturing the attention of potential donors or volunteers and creating consistent engagement opportunities with a broader audience. Once they’re engaged on social media, this audience can convert into an online community for members of your organization. If you make this transition successfully, social media can act as an acquisition tool and your dedicated online community can be your engagement and retention tool, providing rich opportunities for dialogue and conversation, and helping to further your organization’s mission.

On its own, social media is no longer enough to engage supporters, build trust and ultimately grow as an organization. Like Girl Up, today’s organizations should consider new methods to create transparency, increase authenticity, and build lasting relationships with their advocates.

There are trees, and there is forest. There are anecdotes, and there is data. There are the pinprick pixels of our individual experiences, and there is the vast picture they paint together of the world we share.

The M+R Benchmarks Study is our annual attempt to bridge that divide. This year, we have collected an extensive array of data points from 154 nonprofit participants. Each of them marks a single digital interaction with a supporter: an email opened, a donation made, a petition signed, a website visited, an ad clicked, a Facebook post liked, or tweet retweeted. All told, these add up to 4,699,299,330 email messages, 527,754,635 web visits, and 11,958,385 donations.

NTEN is proud to partner with M+R once again for the latest Benchmarks report. Explore or download it here.


Three years ago, Habitat for Humanity decided to test the power of technology to increase resident engagement in neighborhoods we serve. With a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight, we launched a pilot project with 12 Habitat organizations across the country to determine whether using feedback loops increases participation by community residents in choosing strategies and projects to promote their “community voice” and aspirational goals.

At Habitat, adapting a feedback loop methodology from Feedback Labs—a systematized approach to collecting and analyzing data and sharing back findings with community residents—has produced clear outcomes and made the case for scaling up this initiative.

To start, we interviewed Habitat staff to see if the residents they partner with prefer online, mobile, paper, or some other medium of engagement. Then we created a multi-medium method for data collection and the ability to share real-time feedback to hear directly from the community, so local Habitat organizations could discuss and strategize on their next steps.

The end result has been a widening of communication channels for our nonprofit headquarters to hear directly from feet-on-the-street community activists.

What our feedback loops told us about engaging our community


The less burden on people taking surveys, the better.

One Habitat staff member noticed many people in her neighborhood had challenges with the online survey. When she realized this, she stopped asking them to take the survey online and took it to them face-to-face. While academics might cite how many changes this shifting approach would make to the data, from a community organizer’s stance, the move created a better sense of trust with neighbors.

Meet people where they’re meeting.

Some local organizations didn’t know why their survey response rate was low. But when they decided to go out in the community, response rates went up. Also, once the community members got involved with Habitat, they stepped up their civic engagement in general. In Central Berkshire, Massachusetts, for example, residents who became active with Habitat and housing issues later took leadership roles in local transportation initiatives.

Make it fun.

In Dupage, Illinois, the local Habitat used the community’s BBQ and Resource Fair as an occasion to share results and hear feedback from local residents.

Make it personal.

People conducting surveys can be misinterpreted as dry. With feedback loops, we used our strength in housing and community outreach to connect neighbors, sometimes resulting in life-changing experiences.

Take Demita in Springfield, Missouri. Demita and other community leaders agreed to host a neighborhood event to clean alleys and to inspire homeowners to spruce up their yards. A few days before their “Rally in the Alley” day, Demita decided to introduce herself to residents along her alley and generate face-to-face enthusiasm for the event.

At one door, she met Kathy, a homeowner whose tailored front yard held potted plants and lawn art but whose backyard was overrun with waist-high grass. Kathy explained that she had been feeling hopeless since her lawn mower broke, and caring for her disabled husband left her no time to do anything about it. When Demita told others of Kathy’s plight, the next door neighbor came over and cut the lawn right away. It was Kathy’s first time meeting him, and in expressing thanks, she said, “This is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me.”

For Demita, this new relationship alone made the community building effort a success.

Don’t let the medium control the conversation.

It’s easier to pick a sustainable technology that already supports human behavior rather than forcing human behavior to adapt to technology. Feedback from the pilot sites showed that some people found the online survey technology to be too prescriptive while others preferred it.

Also, there are residents in some neighborhoods who do not use smartphones and have no Wi-Fi at all. Low-tech methods should be considered as legitimate for immediate response feedback.

In each of the pilot communities, Habitat saw improvement in community involvement and resident engagement. Sometimes this manifested as a statistical increase in attendance at meetings and participation in projects. For example, in Greater Lowell, Massachusetts, only 29 resident leaders had partnered in neighborhood efforts before the pilot. Since October 2016, the number has grown to 56 participating in the first community conversation and 62 in the second—an impressive increase of 70%, or 39 residents, participating in both.

Over the past 40 years, Habitat for Humanity has worked with people around the globe to help families achieve the strength, stability and self-reliance they need to build better lives for themselves. The most important element of our mission is the partnership between Habitat and the homeowner, and we continuously seek to keep homeowners and their input at the center of what we do.

Each of the 12 feedback loop pilot projects shows a positive reflection of outreach in Habitat organizations nationwide, where our mission is guided by the aspirations of the communities we serve. Using feedback loops helps us energize communities and chart our progress in sustaining and advancing Habitat’s mission in partnership with donors, volunteers, and homeowners.

Collecting shared metrics has strengthened the evaluation of community engagement and helped us to continuously refine programs, projects, or systems. Our next step is to explore the growth and sustainability of feedback loops, which can change the dynamic between community residents and the people and agencies that partner with them.

It took me three months into my social media dream job to realize why the word “online” was part of my job title. It was 2010, and I had finally found a job that had social media marketing at its heart, at a small AIDS nonprofit that planned to use Facebook, Twitter and dating apps to connect with people living with and at risk for HIV.

Even before my first day, I’d had a run-in with our horrible, outdated and very difficult website, but I knew there was a web developer on retainer and I figured it was his problem. Or maybe it was the Executive Director’s problem. Or perhaps the office administrator. I don’t suppose there was someone on the board who could help? A volunteer? Bueller?

As anyone who works in digital marketing or fundraising knows, your organization’s website is at the crux of how people relate to your organization and its work. When something is wrong, it hurts your ability to attract, engage, and convert the people you need to make your work a success. As it turned out, our website was my problem, and to solve it, we needed to build a working digital strategy.

What is a digital strategy?

For many nonprofits, technology adoption isn’t hard. We’re smart people, and we’re perfectly capable of finding the tools we need to help us perform particular tasks. But what often happens is that an organization will accrue a slew of tools, all of which maybe do what they should perfectly, but still aren’t getting the results that you need them to. Perhaps your content strategy is bringing scores of people to your website but you aren’t capturing them in your email list for fundraising campaigns, or you’re gaining lots of Instagram followers but none of them know about your online forum. A good digital strategy will knit your tools and aspirations together into a cohesive plan to meet your goals.

We’re here to help. NTEN is producing two conferences this fall—in New Mexico and Oregon—and both are designed to help you develop and refresh your digital strategy. The program includes case studies, workshops, panels, presentations, and tactical sessions, to help you formulate the best strategy for your organization, and show you how other nonprofits have done it.

That seems like a big task. Where do I even start?

I am a people person and NTEN relies on members to survive, so I like to start with personas. What are the groups of people that want to engage with your organization, how did they find you, what do they want to know, how do they want to engage, and what do you most want them to do? Plot their journey from an unconnected community member to engaged part of your inner circle, donor or member. What’s their ideal journey? What roadblocks are in the way right now? How can you clear them?

Identify the top handful of actions you really want your constituents to take—for example, donate, advocate, join or inform others—and consider the technologies they need to do that easily. Find data that can tell you how you successfully moved them to that action (or “converted” them, in marketing-speak). How many touch-points do you need? What’s the story to tell them, and where and how is it best told? Which are the channels that net you the most success, and why do you think that is?

Like me, when I finally realized the website monster was mine to tame, you will have a lot of questions. But it’s only through considering the (sometimes difficult) questions that you can build a digital strategy, pulling together your organization’s disparate parts and making them work better, for you and the communities you represent.

Best of luck! We hope to see you in the fall.

Kristin Johnson is a speaker at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference in March.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s been a slight uptick in people exhibiting activist-like behaviors in the last couple months. I can prove this based solely on my Facebook wall, where I have watched my political D.C. friends get out-activisted by old high school classmates and friends of my mother, who went from sharers of baby photos to vehement, pink-hat wearing radicals.

I have lifted my jaw off the ground multiple times, marveling at the Google spreadsheets being passed around each day with phone numbers and scripts for contacting Members of Congress. Suddenly, town halls are the new brunch, and wait—was that—were people chanting the number for the Capitol switchboard at that rally?

These new activists, hungry for knowledge, are not just sharing daily targets and talking points—they are also discussing the most effective ways to change votes and influence their legislators.

And in lots of ways, nonprofits are missing from the equation.

Sure, some orgs are seeing definite boosts in actions and donations, especially from their existing base of supporters, but this new wave of people are learning how to engage with decision makers via their friends and online networks, and not necessarily hopping on our email lists to be fed a steady diet of action alerts and online petitions.

Add to that, these newbies are spreading articles and tweetstorms that Members of Congress don’t necessarily read those nonprofit-inspired emails and petitions—or even trust that they were sent from real constituents.


Death of the Action Alert?

Online mass advocacy campaigns have never been perfect. The better we’ve gotten with edit-and-send email technology and name collection tools, the better the offices we’re targeting have gotten with receiving (or ignoring) them. Many recipients now have the technology to run them through computer algorithms to group similar text and topics and respond with the same form letter.

Nonprofit: “Yay! We got 10,000 people to submit our action!”
Congressional Staffer: “Yeah… We’re going to count that as one vote in favor…”

For many nonprofits, these tactics are the bread and butter of online advocacy. Sending petitions and form letters are a useful pulse check to an email list, and they still reign as one of the most cost-effective acquisition tools to bring on new names.

But when it comes to connecting a constituent and a decision maker, time and again, it’s the personal stories, in-person meetings, and jammed up phone lines that get noticed.

“I don’t care if those emails don’t get read—500 of those 10,000 actions came from people new to my list,” you may say. I get it—in the fight against constant email list attrition, new names are gold. People who engage with you as activists are more likely to become donors, who in turn, could help you fund other lobbying activities that may be more effective in turning a vote.

But as your advocacy team huddles late into the night trying to figure out how to get my mom’s friends signed up to your email list, you must think through how your organization can be of value to these new activists—and to all your veteran grassroots champions for that matter.

Will Nonprofits Be Able to Prove the Change They Make?

Before your organization presumes to step in between a person and their representative, reassess what you bring to the table.

  • What can your organization do to amplify those voices and make them 100 times more effective?
  • What can you do for someone that a viral Google Doc just can’t?
  • What part do you play best? Organizer? Travel Agent? Educator? Event Coordinator?

Revisit the last five times your nonprofit’s advocacy efforts had a direct impact on legislation or a policy decision: What votes have your supporters actually changed the outcome of?

Was your nonprofit was one of 15 other organizations to flood Senator So-and-So’s office with thousands of emails about an issue last year? That’s nice. Did they change their vote? Is their re-election at risk if they didn’t?

What did your organization do that was different from the 15 other groups? What got through?

Remaining a Part of the Equation

For the nonprofit community to continue being seen as relevant to new generations of activists, we must measure our reputations for effectiveness alongside our list sizes.

The nonprofits that get noticed will be the ones who find ways to aid and abet activists. They will be the ones who outline effective plans of attack that mesh online and offline tactics to surround a target.

They will be the nonprofits who can prove to people that joining their ranks is better than going it alone.

It’s a communications challenge as much as it is an organizing challenge, but it’s one that thoughtful nonprofits have the ability to crack.

The Wikimedia Foundation has cracked the puzzle on optimizing people power. Millions of volunteers contribute to Wikimedia as editors. But the foundation goes a step further and nurtures volunteer leaders to take on specialized projects that strengthen its community.

You might think that a technology-focused org like Wikimedia would see its platform as the channel for volunteer contributions. Not so. Wikimedia also invests in face-to-face, community-led initiatives. Volunteers participate in “idea labs” where they design and build tools the movement needs to connect more deeply with members. Volunteers also tackle community issues, like the gender gap in editors, or online harassment.

The organization empowers its volunteers with trust and responsibility. “As these are community issues, we expect that the best ideas will come from the community,” said Jaime Anstee, Senior Strategist, Manager, Learning & Evaluation, at Wikimedia.

Despite being a tech-focused nonprofit, Wikimedia doesn’t fall into a common NGO pattern of emphasizing online mobilizing over organizing. Author and academic Hahrie Han describes these two distinct ways of looking at building people power. In my interview with Han for Beyond the First Click: How Today’s Volunteers Build Power for Movements and NGOs, she explains the difference between the approaches:

Mobilizers essentially say, “wherever you want to come in on the engagement ladder, we will make it work for you.” They are creating opportunities for involvement that match with interests that people already have. With all the data and technology tools that we have, it’s easier than ever to search for and identify who those people might be.

In contrast, organizers want to engage supporters in a set of experiences that will try to transform their interests, motivations and skills so that they want to do more. This work is more transformational than what the mobilizers are doing.

In other words, mobilizers go broad while organizers go deep. Han’s research for her book How Organizations Develop Activists uncovered that the most effective orgs blend the two approaches. “The changes that mobilizers affect are fragile, because they’re missing the leadership core that helps to protect those wins from future threats.”

However, our research bore out that the typical non-profit in 2017 has a powerful bias toward mobilizing over organizing. Why? Because that’s where they’ve invested most heavily.

Many nonprofits have spent money and time on CRMs, petition platforms, social media, and other tech that can be effective tools in achieving large-scale mobilization. But these platforms are often not configured for organizing volunteers who are doing on-the-ground work and recruiting others to the cause. Inside any organization, financial investment signals importance, so staff often follow the money and the tech and, by doing so, reinforce the overemphasis on mobilizing in their work.

As executive director of Control Shift Labs, Nathan Woodhull often advises organizations on their technology mix. When it comes to tracking volunteer behavior he finds that most groups have misaligned incentives: “I don’t think most organizations have any idea. It’s a hard problem, and the tools that exist today are mostly focused on broadcasting to 500,000-plus people rather than recording one-to-one conversations.”

Woodhull suggests that activists can take lessons on high-level volunteer engagement from political parties. Becky Bond, senior advisor to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, confirmed this perspective in an interview about how Bernie organizers used technology: “The under-25 crowd understood the notion that Facebook doesn’t win elections, that posting to social media doesn’t move votes. What we needed to do was use social media to organize people to actually do the one-on-one voter contact that’s proven to have the biggest impact on moving voters to the polls. That work is going door-to-door, getting on the phone, and talking to voters live.”

Is your organization overemphasizing mobilization? One indicator of this is when you’ve got a gap between your supporters’ online actions and their offline ones. It’s a challenge to transition people from the web, but if you’re prioritizing mobilizing over organizing, your digital supporters may be falling into a black hole when they’re ready for more.

Julie is the co-author of Beyond the First Click: How Today’s Volunteers Build Power for Movements and NGOs. This article is adapted from the report.

A new year presents new opportunities to assess and grow your individual fundraising program. Do you know how your nonprofit compares to similar organizations? Where do you excel or where do you hope to grow?

Focusing on nonprofits with revenues under $2 million, the Individual Donor Benchmark Report is back again with fundraising data for small and mighty nonprofits.

Among the report’s findings are:

  • Organizations raise 34% of their revenue from individuals.
  • About half of individual donor revenue comes from donors giving less than $1,000.
  • One out of every five individual donor dollars is raised online.
  • Four out of ten board members are active in fundraising in a significant way,
  • Organizations are raising about 14% of their income from recurring donations.

The report also found that the average organization’s donor retention rate is 60%, meaning that 6 out of 10 donors give again—and 4 out of 10 donors don’t.

If your organization has a donor retention rate around 60%, you may be asking yourself two questions:

  1. How can we increase retention?
  2. How can we find more new donors to replace the donors we are losing each year?

Here are a few tips to help you think about how to answer those questions:

Increase Donor Retention

If you want to increase your retention rate, the best strategy is to view your individual donor fundraising program as a relationship development program. Your goal should be to build a relationship with your donors, where part, and only part, of that relationship is about their financial support for the organization. Here are a few ways to shift your focus to your relationship:

Consider your organization from a donor’s perspective.

Even when we are doing many things to communicate with and engage donors, sometimes there are holes in our plan. One way to find these holes is to walk through the experience that different types of donors have with your organization. What happens when a new donor makes a $25 gift? $2,500 gift? What happens when someone gives online? What is the experience for a $50 a year donor? You may find that with a little intentionality you could be doing a much more effective job of engaging your donors with your work.

Remember what you learned about your donor.

As a development director, I learned to listen carefully in major donor meetings and record what I’d learned after the meeting for future cultivation and solicitation. While this kind of attention is standard procedure for major donors, there’s an opportunity to use some of the same ideas with everyday donors. As your donors click on links in your emails, respond to direct mail solicitations, or attend events, they are giving you information about what they are interested in. If you are diligent, you can capture that information and begin to develop a picture of your donors. Organizations can also survey donors to gather information about their interests and use that information to tailor solicitations.

Thank donors seven times before you ask them again.

This advice has been around for a long time, but I still get surprised looks and big sighs when I share it. “Seven times?! How could we possibly do that?” First of all, it’s a guideline—but the real point is that you should not treat donors like ATMs, only coming to them when you need money. You should be in touch year round to share the results of their donations (and your work) and to thank them for their support. These thank yous don’t need to generate a lot of extra work. Think about content that you are already producing that could be re-purposed as a donor thank you: annual reports, updates for the board, or grant reports.

Find New Donors

You may be able to increase your retention rate, but you will likely also need to focus on finding new contacts and developing strategies to convert them to donors. One powerful framework for thinking about cultivating new donors is the cycle of engagement. The cycle includes the following components and questions:

  1. Opening the door to potential new donors. How do you find new potential donors? How do you collect contact information from potential donors? What have been the best ways for you to find new donors in the past?
  2. Thanking and tracking new contacts. How are you communicating with donors after they first meet your organization? Do you have a welcome series to introduce your organization? What information about them are you tracking in your database or other places?
  3. Engaging supporters. How can you help people experience your work? It may be by participating in programs, volunteering, or viewing a video about your efforts. How can you increase the opportunities for supporters to engage with your work?
  4. Thanking and tracking engaged supporters. How are you communicating with supporters after their engagement with your work? What engagement data points are you tracking?
  5. Asking for a donation. How can you tie your ask into the way you first met them and/or the way they have been engaged with your organization.
  6. Thanking and tracking donors. How do you thank a donor? What information about their gift do you need to record in your database? After this step, go back to #3 and repeat indefinitely!

The best way to ensure your organization is continuing to find new donors is to involve everyone (board, staff, and volunteers) in identifying, cultivating, and asking for support.  Even for those who have an aversion to fundraising, getting involved in opening the door, engaging, and thanking donors can be a fun way to help the organization grow its donor pool.

For more donor fundraising details and data, check out the full Individual Donor Benchmark Report

To the incredible and dynamic NTEN community and nonprofit sector,

We hear you.

We hear so many people from the community expressing fear, anticipation, anxiety, and even hope. Little of the emotions of today has to do with the man who is our next president. Instead, those feelings being posted on social media, email, and in private text messages are rooted in a reality that we cannot ignore now: We live in a deeply, troublingly divided country.

As we listen to so many of you today, we ask that each of us take time to intentionally listen to those around us – our friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors – regardless of the candidate they voted for. We do not address our divisions by hunkering down, talking only to those we know already share our beliefs, and planning for a future time of action. We address our divisions and create stronger ties by listening first, finding shared ground, and recommitting ourselves every day to the belief that we all do want a better America and to create it we all must take action every, single day.

We see you.

We see so many people in the nonprofit sector, in our local communities, in our service networks responding to the election result with the impulse to withdraw, to hide – some out of fear of what others will say to them because they support the elected candidate, some for fear of what could happen when campaign rhetoric turns into policies. We cannot offer solace but we can say that we see you, we appreciate you, we believe that we all want a better America and we commit to working with you to make it.

As we witness your reactions, we do not expect you all to stand bravely because for many in our communities there is still too much risk. Instead, we ask that for those of us who do not fear the impacts of the election on our own personal lives, for those of us with access to power and privilege, that we take a stand for the rest of our fellow Americans. Using your power to hold our elected officials, our communities, and ourselves accountable to the policies and principles that support a better America for every member of our community.

In times of celebration, in times of challenge, and in times of decision-making we turn to our values. As always, they offer both reminders and guideposts to direct our actions today and into the future:

We are practical dreamers. We are the community of nonprofit technology professionals. We are a stage and platform for you. We are accountable to you. We strive to be authentic and honest. We embrace change. We walk the talk. We believe that laughter, irreverence, fun, and a deep joy about what is possible are essential to our work.

We were a community yesterday. We are a community today. We will be a community tomorrow.

In your service and strength,

Amy Sample Ward and the team at NTEN


Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you’re a hard-working and underappreciated communications manager. Hard to imagine, I know, but bear with me. Your content strategy is fantastic and every week, hundreds of people visit your website, engage with your content and. . . fail to sign up to your mailing list. You’re starting to wonder: Why don’t they want our emails? Is our content really that great? Is our subscription form broken? You brought them to your site and they engaged with your great blog but now you’ve lost them forever and it seems like such a waste.

What if I told you that you can track them, and with a few inexpensive tactics, you have a much better chance of converting them to subscribers? Welcome to the powerful, if a little creepy, world of social media retargeting.

Map the Matrix

Aerial photo of a city, with the city reflected in green on the right side =
Photo credit

First things first, you have to make it easy for your website visitors to do what you want them to. With help from your web analytics, plot the path people take once they get to your website: Maybe they come in through search or social media shares, find a piece of content, click on some related articles and then, hopefully, subscribe. These are your key pages, and it’s vital that you clear the path so that people can easily do what you want them to do. If your so-called conversion path is full of obstacles and friction points, no amount of great social media is going to convince them to stay on the sidewalk.

Take the Red Pill

Black and white photo of a hand holding 2 pills, one blue and one red
Photo credit

Now that you have a clear path, it’s time to develop a plan to capture the people who find themselves on it. This is where things get awesome. Do you remember that time last week that you found a really great pair of shoes while shopping online but decided not to buy them just yet? Then, this morning on Facebook, there was an ad for those exact same shoes! What may seem like an uncanny coincidence is thanks to a magical thing called a tracking pixel.

Named after a literal pixel (a 1x1px transparent image), pixels trigger a string of code called a cookie that helps servers identify you and your behavior. The page where you found those shoes had a pixel, and you’ve been identified as a potential buyer. Next time you visit a site that uses the same ad network, it recognizes your pixel and you become part of the audience for a set of ads tailored to your behavior.

Now, before you start feeling like you’re in George Orwell’s 1984, don’t freak out: It is not like you’re actually being tracked. It’s your browser that is holding on to that cookie information, not the site, and it’s your browser that tells the ad network where you have been. You can control what cookies to accept and how long they last by managing your browser’s security and privacy settings.

The process you employ by using these cookies is called retargeting, and it basically means you have a second chance at conversion for people who you know are interested in your offer. Once you cookie your website visitors, you create a highly qualified audience that you can target with ads across a wide range of other sites.

Note: Before placing third-party pixels on your site, make sure your privacy policy covers how you’ll use them. Your visitors’ use of ad blockers and browser security settings impact how well they work, and cookies do expire. But it’s a hugely powerful technology and therefore no surprise that for-profit organizations have been quick to pick it up. Was a third look at those shoes exactly what I needed to make me buy?

Down the Rabbit Hole

This technology has enormous potential for nonprofits. For example, you can pixel your fundraising landing page and retarget those who were interested enough to visit but who didn’t donate at that moment. Or you can find potential members who stalled out at your join page. Perhaps that Facebook ad was the gentle reminder they needed to come back and reconsider joining. If you mash these ads with smart landing pages, you can tailor your conversion messages to an array of behaviors (and thus, interests) for much more relevant calls to action and therefore greater success. And what’s more, in what is possibly the only upside to media consolidation, a handful of big ad companies own huge networks outside of social media that you can now access with just a few clicks, in order to find your targets. The ad you make for Facebook can also appear on the Huffington Post app.

There Is No Spoon

What excites me the most about this technology is the ways we aren’t even using it yet. Imagine using a pixel to track a reader’s content views, and then using that information to tailor a content site just for them. The site would become so much more valuable to them, and they would be much more likely to return, subscribe, and support the organization’s work. Or pairing this kind of tracking with a world-class CRM that could connect the dots based on someone’s behavior and trigger suggested ways to have that person become more involved. The power and applications seem as endless as the Matrix, and I, for one, am excited to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

I was given the awesome privilege to present a session at the 2016 Sektor 3.0 Conference in Warsaw, Poland. I wrote this article to help me prepare for my presentation.

Cats? Herds? What? I often see the phrase “cat herding” or “herding cats” used with regards to community management. For those who haven’t heard it before, let me explain: Herding cats is an idiom which refers to the futile attempt to control or organize uncontrollable entities. In this context: Community managers have their work cut out for them. (NTEN’s new Digital Inclusion Manager, Drew Pizzolato, helped me craft this title. I was grateful for the support as well as the excuse to talk about cats. After all, “Bethany lubi koty.”) So, here we go: Cat Herding 101!

This article will focus on the basics for creating an engaged and effective online community by welcoming our community members, helping them connect and find value in the community, and appreciating them. (And by offering lots of kibble!) Many of the examples come from NTEN’s various online affinity groups (a.k.a. Communities of Practice) and cohort-based educational programs (Nonprofit Tech Readiness Program and the new Nonprofit Technology Professional Certificate) which make use of our branded online community platform: community.nten.org. The practices illustrated, however, are applicable to any closed online community groups, such as Facebook or LinkedIn groups, Meetup, Slack, and so on.


Entering a new online space can sometimes feel like you’re the new kid at a party. Community members who aren’t given a proper welcome and introduction to their new surroundings may become alienated and leave before they’re able to see all the great things your community can offer. But, you remember what it’s like to be new (and awkward with your giant glasses and unruly hair and pathetic understanding of current pop culture references) or how intimidating it sometimes felt to reach out in a new space, don’t you? (Okay, maybe some of that only applies to me…) Regardless, you know that you don’t want your new community members to feel like outsiders.

As the party host, it’s your job to give your new members a hearty “hello!” and show them around the community space. It’s up to you to reiterate what the community is for, explain any features, and illustrate what is and is not acceptable within the community. Get out there and welcome!

Automated email drip campaigns where members get a message every week or so about community features or updating notification settings are dreamy, but not necessarily a reality for a lot of communities. Perhaps your community doesn’t live in a forum-based platform and you don’t have the ability to do something so advanced. Don’t let your tech stand in the way of an introduction message. No matter what platform you’re using–Meetup, Facebook or LinkedIn groups, Slack, etc.–try to set aside some time each week to copy and paste a welcome message to your new members. Welcome them to the party and open up that line of communication. (Check out NTEN Nonprofit Tech Club organizer Eli van der Giessen’s text expansion tricks to make repetitive tasks like this a snap.)

Any sort of online group should have a set of community guidelines. The CMX Hub Facebook group has a short and simple list of shoulds, should-nots, and the consequences for violations. CMX’s rules focus is on maintaining the value of the community by keeping it discuss-based. NTEN Connect contributor Melissa Chavez recommends that community managers go farther and develop a code of conduct. She states, “The default mindset should be to think about the people involved in your community who are the most vulnerable and to be sure that they, too, will feel welcome, comfortable sharing, and valued for their voice and contributions.” Ultimately, you want to develop clear, enforceable rules that protect both your community members and the value your community provides. Make these guidelines easily accessible. Don’t forget to include direct contact information in case a member needs to report a violation. Remind members about the guidelines at least once a year.

Now that your members know the rules, help them engage with each other. Introduction threads are a great way to get new members to interact with community tools and meet others. They also give community managers the opportunity to connect respondents to resources based on their messages. Pin the thread to the top of your forum, include the thread link in your welcome messages, and embed it in the group description. Make it easy for a new member to make that first contribution.

NTEN’s various cohort-based education programs have done well with introduction threads that ask participants to respond with where they’re located, details about their organization and their role, goals for the course, a recent win, and their favorite animated gif. The addition of the animated gif prompt has been a real treat. Participants have often gone above and beyond and included pictures of their families or pets or hobbies. This level of sharing seems to quickly help lessen the distance between us.

The volunteer organizers of NTEN’s online Nonprofits & Data Community of Practice, Janice Chan and Judy Freed, crafted their forum’s introduction thread to include prompts for a community member’s walk-up song and their Facebook relationship status with data (“married, in a relationship, it’s complicated, we are NOT friends…”). This addition does such a great job of setting the tone for the group and reaching a friendly hand out in welcome.

In a recent Connect article, Emily Garcia made the case for personally welcoming your newbies. Emily’s organization, World Pulse, recruits seasoned online community members to serve as Community Welcomer volunteers and to greet newcomers. This practice not only gives newbies the chance to engage with other members right away, it opens up opportunities to level-up the involvement of existing members. Wow! I joined the World Pulse community to check it out for myself. Sure enough the welcome messages starting pouring in. In addition to the delightful personal welcome, the messages included information about community’s various features and norms. Bonus!


Back to the metaphorical party: You’ve welcomed your guests. They know where the snacks are (very important), where to find the coat room, and how to behave. Now what? Since you’re not going to spend the whole party talking about yourself (right?!), you need to find ways to help your guests connect and receive value from their attendance. Ideally once the party hosts have helped make the connections, guests will start conversations on their own.

Question prompts are a great way to generate engagement and help community members connect. Craft open-ended, specific questions. Stay away from “what do you think about X”-type questions which tend to be too broad, as well as a bit too vulnerable-making. Create a posting schedule that is predictable and sustainable. Be ready to do targeted outreach to staff and community members should you need help getting the conversation going.

NTEN’s online WordPress Community of Practice has had great success with a Question of the Month-style discussion prompt. Lead organizer Cindy Leonard posts a new question at the beginning of the month and the responses and discussion flood in. The Nonprofit Digital Communications Community of Practice won big with a Win of the Week prompt. It only took less than a month before community members started the posts on the community organizers’ behalf. Amazing! (Note, however, that this series of win-sharing prompts was short-lived. The weekly posting schedule wasn’t sustainable, even with the community helping to drive it. Start small.) The Tech Decision Makers Community of Practice has had a hilarious, persistent thread which simply asks community members to respond with five words about tech.

Live community events, such as Twitter chats or conference calls, are another great way to help community members connect. Several of NTEN’s Communities of Practice hold monthly hour-long conference calls. These calls are purposefully casual–much more group discussion than polished webinar. During Tech Decision Makers community calls, volunteer organizer Alex Speaks directs the group to first spend time sharing recent successes and then later share problems. These prompts typically lead to rich, organic discussions. Drupal Community of Practice calls focus on more a collaborative Q&A format but includes time for event reports from the various camps and conferences Drupalists often go to. The Women in Nonprofit Tech Community of Practice have held numerous interviews with experts and just recently experimented with a book club-type conference call.

I get the pleasure of sitting in on most of these community calls and have learned so much from our organizers. Big tips: Don’t be afraid of silence. Be curious, and be prepared to ask a lot of questions to help get the conversation started. Don’t forget to bounce questions back to your attendees–you don’t have to be the expert.


Huzzah! Your party was a success. The snacks were both salty and sweet, the discussions were engaging, and most importantly–your guests were smart and generous and genuinely delightful. Make sure you appreciate them! Your community’s health and growth can hinge on your member appreciation and stewardship.

Connect author Susan J. Ellis reminds us that we should give thanks both publicly and privately. Quick thank you emails are simple and, when personalized, can go along way. Short is fine and, as far as I’m concerned, animated gifs are a most excellent way to help convey enthusiasm and thanks. Perhaps break through the virtual wall every now and then to send snail mail. Postcards are great for handwritten notes and don’t carry the pressure of needing to fill up a lot of space. Small notecards have the bonus of being able to hold a branded sticker or two. (I know, I know–using email and postal mail for appreciation is hardly news, but it works.)

As for public acknowledgment, help your community members see that their contributions matter by shining a brighter light on their work. Think about inviting particularly engaged community members to serve in a community organizer or welcomer role similar to those in NTEN’s Community of Practice program or World Pulse’s online community. Perhaps try out a member spotlight or member of the week/month series. Put together regular round-ups of the most popular posts (why not also round-up posts that need attention while you’re at it). Link to them in your onboarding materials. Turn great posts into official resources or ask contributors to expand their posts into articles for larger distribution.

I hope these tips are useful to you. I learn so much from the fabulous NTEN Community!

Photo credits: Heart emojis and cat herders