The complete guide to nonprofit social media: Strategy and design tips for success


Most nonprofits are likely aiming to amp up their social media presence this year.

The Global Web Index 2015 report reveals that an average person has five social media accounts and spends 100 minutes browsing them every day. Social media is a very competitive landscape, but also a fine opportunity for nonprofits to tell their story, engage their supporters, and drive donations.

In this post we’ll guide nonprofits through the process of building an effective digital marketing strategy from scratch, with or without the backing of professional design resources. We’ll even invite you to check out Canva’s nonprofit resource page, with a ton of testimonials from leading NGOs.

Without further adieu, let’s get cracking on that social media strategy:

02. Determine Your Key Performance Goals

Art by Matt Stevens

Before you can execute a successful social media strategy, you must clearly identify what you’re aiming to achieve. As a shortcut, Hubspot’s identified the top 7 reasons nonprofits use social media:

  1. Sharing news;
  2. Brand recognition;
  3. Education about the cause and mission;
  4. Fundraising;
  5. Volunteer recruitment;
  6. Donor recognition; and,
  7. Employee recruitment.

Once you’ve identified what you’ll be using social media to achieve, it’s important to implement measures for success.

Your social media success KPIs should reflect your nonprofit’s success in creating long-term sustained interactions with audiences, so using metrics to accurately measure the conversion and retention of customers along this journey will be most beneficial.

For instance, number of views on a Facebook post might reflect an increase in awareness; number of clicks might reflect interest in your cause and donation dollars capture the conversion of new customers.

03. Decide on Your Target Audience

Art by Jillian Stiles

Before you even write a single post, it’s important to know who you’re writing for.

An established nonprofit may already have a good sense of their key audience demographic, but it’s still a great exercise to develop user personas.

So, how do you discover your user personas?

Conduct surveys and interviews. The best personas are often created by getting out there and talking to your audience. It will give a human face to a collection of abstract data and it will allow you to classify groups for different social media campaigns.

Armed with this knowledge, you may end up writing two posts on the same subject with a different angle for each customer group.

See3 provides a great case study example with Make-A-Wish Foundation.

04. Choose the Channel That’s Right for You

Content Channel
Jenny Famularcano

Once your audience is clearly defined, you’ll then need to know where they hang out before you can start communicating with them. It’s not only important to understand where your users are congregating, you also need to know where they’re most active and most vocal.

“You’d never speak at a conference if all the attendees were next door, so why try engage an audience if they’re active on another social platform?” says Anna Guerrero, a member of Canva’s growth marketing team.

Focus on 2-3 active platforms. Too many nonprofits start by creating accounts on multiple platforms, only for them to become inactive in a matter of months. Not responding to your followers damages the brand more than not having a presence on the platform at all.

Use tools like BuzzSumo to better understand where your target market is most active and what content they’re likely to share.

If your campaign includes visual imagery, Canva’s Magic Resize Tool can save you a huge amount of time by easily resizing your design into any format you need at the click of a button.

05. Create Your Content Strategy

Content Strategy
Art by Matt Carlson

You’re already three quarters of the way there: you’ve done your audience research and understood the channels most likely to reach your target audience.

Now it’s time to focus on content.

Without a framework for what to say and a plan for how and when to say it, you risk leaving your audiences confused (best case scenario), or them ignoring you (worst case scenario). Who wants that?

Here are 5 quick tips to help you build a strong content strategy for your nonprofit:

Content Strategy Tip 1: Know your voice

You work at your nonprofit because you’re passionate about its cause, right? So speak that cause. Everything you say in your posts should ‘sound’ like your brand and reflect the image you wish to portray.

Content Strategy Tip 2: Create a pattern of frequency

Pattern of Frequency
Art by Terra Spitzner

Creating a calendar that sets out what you’re going to say and when you’re going to say it allows you to plan for when your audience is most likely to listen.

Make sure your content is relevant to where people are in their lives and the season. Automating your content publishing also ensures your nonprofit maintains presence without tying up resources.

Tools like Hootsuite and Buffer help you to manage your social media schedule and listen to your audience’s feedback.

If you’re after a free solution, managing your schedule in daily/weekly/monthly folders (on your computer or in dropbox) works well too.  

Content Strategy Tip 3: Understand your audience behaviour

Why would your audience ‘follow’ or ‘like’ you? What kind of person is going to click the ‘donate’ button, add a comment or share your content to their friends? It’s so important to make sure you’re talking to your audience not at them. Ask questions, invite feedback, tell a story, but make it a conversation.

Visual imagery often creates emotional triggers that words sometimes cannot. Use  high quality photographs, images, graphics, videos and hashtags. You may be thinking, “But quality is expensive!” It doesn’t have to be. All the stock photos on Canva are only $1 each.

Content Strategy Tip 4: Solve your audience’s problems

Solve Problems
Art by Sylvia Yang

Nonprofits are used to asking for things from their audience. Whether it’s to promote a cause, sign a petition, volunteer or give a donation.

Social media can be used to solve people’s problems, but it can also empower people to help achieve your goals. By making useful information easily accessible for others, you can build a reciprocal relationship that builds trust. All of this leads to greater audience retention.

Content Strategy Tip 5: Be True

This is by far the most important tip. The best way to engage with your audience is to be human, just like in the real world. Loud and obnoxious people who trumpet all their achievements at parties never get respect.

Good content isn’t superficial and viewers will pick up on insincerity in a heartbeat, so if you’re honest, relevant and true to your cause, your audience is far more likely to engage with your content and recommend you to their friends.

06. Engagement, Engagement, Engagement!

Art by Brave People

If there’s one secret to social media, this is it. There’s no ROI without engagement.

Let’s take another real world example. You’re at a dinner party and sitting on either side of you are two people you’ve never met before.

The girl on your right introduces herself and asks you questions about where you grew up, your hobbies and relationships to mutual friends at the dinner. When answering her questions she looks you in the eye, undistracted, and often chimes in with common interests.

The guy on your left introduces himself and immediately tells you why he’s at the party, about his week, and why his friends think he’s so funny. He doesn’t ask you a single question or establish mutual friends or interests.

Who are you going to be more interested in continuing the conversation with and who are you going to escape at your first opportunity?

The same goes with social media. Posting for the sake of posting simply won’t get you the results you’re after. The goal is to capture the attention of your audience and motivate them to listen, relate, respond and, hopefully, share.

Engagement Tip 1: Identify the Trigger Points

Trigger Points
Jay Quercia

The first step to engaging your audience is identifying the types of content they respond to. You’ll need to do a bit of research and testing to achieve this. See how other similar organisations are successfully engaging their audiences.

Using keyword searches and hashtags can help determine the popular topics and content that draws your audience’s attention.

Once you know what they’re looking for, be explorative. Try various content formats, topics and headlines to identify the material that generates attention and creates conversation and clicks.

Engagement Tip 2: Invite Conversation

Just like in the real world example above, people are much more likely to engage when asking questions or inviting feedback. Whether you publish surveys, seek advice, start a dialogue or promote a competition, motivate your audience to get involved.

The very essence of social media is just that, being social. While your tone may be more formal on other channels, social media is a particularly good place to cultivate a personable brand voice that helps your supporters feel connected. Don’t be afraid to use humor here either.

Sharing exposes your content to channels you wouldn’t otherwise be able to penetrate. Make your posts easy to share by using imagery, infographics and shortlinks. Take the time to respond when people share their thoughts with you (you’d be surprised how many people miss out on that.).

Engagement Tip 3: Measure Your Results and Repeat

Repeat Results
Art by Sam Mountain

There’s no point trying out all of these different strategies without tracking your efforts and learning what successfully engaged your audience and what didn’t. Engagement will often be aligned with conversions, but be disciplined in your approach to understanding engaging material.

To encourage their followers to consider the importance of solar power, Greenpeace posted a tweet that simply posed a question. Although one could argue this question is rhetorical, what makes this such a powerful caption is that it’s encouraging others for their opinion and their point of view.

What’s more important than the 136 likes is the level of engagement from users. This post was retweeted 135 times and multiple comments were made. It would have been even better if Greenpeace had replied to some of these comments.

07. Track and Measure Your Results

Track and Measure
Art by Cosmin Capitanu

“There’s nothing difficult about analysis, except the diligence to actually do it” — Andrianes Pinantoan, Growth Marketer at Canva.

So far in this article we’ve discussed that social media can be an extraordinarily effective marketing tool, but it can also be a tremendous time sink for nonprofits that don’t monitor the success/failure of their campaigns.

While keeping an eye on followers, shares and likes gives some insight, there are other metrics that are far more important, but often ignored.

Miss these, and your ability to drive major performance results from your social media campaigns will decline significantly.

So what metrics should you look for?

We’ve identified already that the primary goal of your social media campaign should be boosting customer engagement and brand awareness, so you’ll want to monitor metrics that provide valuable insights into these facets.

It’s also important with each campaign to ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve. Is it to attract donations, signups to your newsletter or perhaps conference attendees?

Tracking performance and demonstrating results will show the leaders of your nonprofit the importance of investing the time and resources into social media.

Metric 1: Brand Sentiment

Brand Sentiment
Art by Andrew Embury

When it comes to social media, all publicity isn’t good publicity. Negative consumer sentiment can destroy your brand in a short time. Keep an eye on people’s comments and replies as well as how they’re sharing your posts.

Having a plan for how how you’ll respond to negative responses is just as important as avoiding it altogether.

Tools like Mention, Meltwater and SocialMention can help you measure the sentiments of the conversations surrounding your brand online. Google also has a free tool called Google Alerts.

Metric 2: Lead or Conversion Growth

In social psychology, attribution is the process of explaining the causes of behavior and events. Social media is no different, it’s critical to understand how the things you’re saying are causing people to respond.

While followers and mentions can be a good indicator of overall brand awareness, it provides little information about how certain conversations drive particular actions.

Marketo and Convertro do a great job of measuring how many social interactions it takes before one of your prospects becomes a customer (however you choose to define “customer”).

This kind of information helps define what a good campaign looks like to your audience and how to better allocate your marketing resources towards successful social strategies.

Metric 3: Klout Score

Klout has become an increasingly popular tool for measuring social engagement. Klout effectively measures if your marketing efforts are resulting in better brand recognition or higher perceived authority.

It’s also valuable to track other organisations’ scores as an indication of how effectively they’re engaging with their social media followers.

Make sure you consistently monitor your score over time and track it against your campaigns. While Klout claims that 100 million people use its platform, I suspect that many do not actively monitor their score — do not be that person.

Metric 4: Inbound links and tracking codes

Call to Action
Canva Design School

When using links in your social media campaigns as a call to action, it’s important to track them through to your website, donation page, or blog post.

After a successful campaign you may notice that hits to your site increase. If you can identify these surges and tie them to specific social activities, you’ll gain significant insight into which of your campaigns have made the biggest difference.

Most quality analytics tools will tell you where your clicks come from, but you can also use tools like Google UTM Tracker or Bitlt’s url shortening tool to track unique campaigns across multiple channels and monitor their overall success.

Metric 5: Brand Search Volume

A 2009 study by GroupM_Next found that customers exposed to a brand on social media are 180 percent more likely to search for that brand on Google. This clearly demonstrates that search volume for your nonprofit is an important metric, yet many brands somehow fail to monitor it.

Research also suggests that social media plays an important role in SEO too, with Quicksprout reporting that 74% of companies and 82% of agencies saying that social media is either somewhat or highly integrated into their SEO strategy.

Ultimately, the web is all about building relationships, fostering audiences, expressing identity and sharing ideas – it’s inherently social, so it’s important not to ignore how your audience is searching for your brand outside of your social channels.

Tools like Google Insights and Google Trends compare changes in search volume for your brand over time and even allow you to track this against other nonprofits in the sector (to see how their social strategies are weighing up against yours).

For a more in-depth list of metrics, Buffer has comprised a comprehensive list of “61 Key Social Media Metrics”, which they have split into different categories, allowing you to identify the metrics most important to your social media goals:

  1. Activity metrics: The output of your social team;
  2. Reach metrics: Your audience and potential audience;
  3. Engagement metrics: Interactions and interest in your brand;
  4. Acquisition metrics: Building a relationship;
  5. Conversion metrics: Action, sales and results; and,
  6. Retention metrics: Happy customers and brand evangelists.

To Conclude

Wattle and Daub

No matter the size of your nonprofit there is no doubt that a well executed social media strategy will effectively increase awareness, engagement and retention for your brand.

Social media is both an art and a science. Whatever phase in your social media marketing journey that you’re on, there’s no doubt it will be beneficial to learn the various tips, tricks and tools discussed in this article.

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.

But most importantly, have fun doing it. Set reasonable expectations and understand that building a sustainable social media strategy is a long-term game. Like any great relationship, it’s all about communication over time, and there’s no better time than now to get started.

If you have any questions about social media strategy or recommendations based on what has worked well for your organisation, please let us know in the comments below.

And, again, check out Canva’s nonprofit resource page to read up on the work we’ve done with nonprofits like Amnesty International and Stop Hunger Now.