Thoughts on Facebook

I started my Facebook account in earnest this week. So, obviously, that’s where I’ve been spending most of my time lately!

I’m certainly no expert (I keep having to email my students to ask them what some applications mean, or how to do certain things), but the time that I’ve spent checking out different groups and causes, and exploring how people use Facebook, has given me some new insights into the social networking tool’s potential and limitations for nonprofit organizations and, specifically, their advocacy work. I’m sure that I’ll have more thoughts on this as I talk with some people and organizations that I’ve found on Facebook, and I’m preparing a survey of sorts to get more insights into how users interface with nonprofit organizations and their advocacy campaigns, but here are my insights one week into my own account ownership.

  • Facebook is ‘noisy’–there’s a lot going on, and it’s easy for things to get cluttered to such an extent that nonprofit organizations have a hard time getting their message through. There are some things that you can do with settings to cut down on this, and certainly having a vivid picture/logo and a clear strategy for how you’ll use your presence help, but it’s still a challenge.
  • Integration is key. The only NPOs I saw with a truly dynamic Facebook presence were those that have integrate Facebook with, at minimum, a newsfeed from their website or a blog–it’s just almost impossible for an organization to spend enough time on Facebook to make it seem alive, without spending more time than you can really justify.
  • Few organizations are raising much money on Facebook. I know that there are notable exceptions out there, but from my research so far, the dollar amounts are small (they still may be significant, though, especially since there is virtually no cost to this fundraising). Facebook seems much better suited to generating support, mobilizing participants for events, and sharing information, than it does for raising money.
  • There is a blending of the personal and the professional on Facebook that, while natural and appealing for community organizer types, will be unfamiliar and even somewhat uncomfortable for more traditional social service or policy advocacy organizations.
  • None of the applications are perfectly suited to NPOs, except perhaps Causes, which are not universally used. Many NPOs have actual profiles, but those are designed for individuals, and there’s a lot that doesn’t fit. Groups certainly work better, but they have the disadvantage of being able to be created by pretty much anyone, which can make it more difficult to substantiate that a particular group is the representative of a NPO.
  • Facebook serves as a sort of leveler among causes, in that the very, very grassroots efforts (that are more relationship-based than information/expertise or reputational in their power) do just as well or better than more established NPOs in attracting supporters. Examples of the former include groups organized around a particular individual afflicted with a disease, or related to a crime victim’s plight. This means that Facebook can be, in some ways, a tougher arena for larger NPOs to compete, but, I believe, if those NPOs can learn to effectively ‘mine’ those other networks and groups for those who might be attracted to their organizational missions, they will be able to integrate their supporters and attract new followers.
  • NPO leaders need to think very carefully about how to present themselves, how to attract the ‘friends’ they want, and how to categorize their work so that it will reach their target audience. I found the categories overlapping and confusing, and the browsing features don’t allow enough specification to be truly helpful, so NPOs need to make it as easy as possible for their people to find them. The best way seems to be by finding key Facebook users who can be your ambassadors–they need to be connected to networks of the same people you want to attract, and then their connection with you will publicize your presence.

    What analysis do other Facebook users from the nonprofit world want to share? What success stories do you have to report? What would make Facebook more useful for you?

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