By 2018, social media will be one of the most important channels for nonprofits, according to a study conducted by Forrester.

But this really shouldn’t be news to any of us. We’ve all seen the groundswell of support that can be triggered from a single social media post—the craze that was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge being one of the most poignant examples in recent history—and we understand that supporters’ needs and expectations are changing.

Yes, digital natives have entered, and will continue to enter, the ripe age of charitable giving, and they’re ready to make their mark on philanthropy. The difference, however, between their giving habits and those of the generations before them is distinctly rooted in how and where they choose to connect with causes.

Millennials’ giving is different from their parents…My 23-year-old son wouldn’t know what to do with an envelope. – Dennis McCarthy, director of sales at Blackbaud.

Traditional marketing and fundraising efforts just aren’t enough to attract and retain support anymore. We have engage in the places our supporters are interacting and in ways that are meaningful to them. But you know all this. You’ve heard all the buzz words—social, mobile, digital, Millennial—and you’re aware that there are more tools than ever before, right at your fingertips.

So the question becomes, where do you start—how do you implement digital strategies that are going to move the needle?

The answer is rooted in an understanding that meaningful, long-term supporter relationships are not built on transactions. They’re nurtured through engagement. And the digital tools at our disposal are not just avenues for us to talk at supporters but to gain a better understanding of who our supporters are, what matters to them, and how we can work collectively to activate real change.

I recently spoke with Ryan Merclean, Manager of Communications at The ALS Association, to get a glimpse into the ways they’re using social and digital channels to attract and retain supporters.

Social Media

The Ice Bucket challenge was a grassroots campaign, but that experience shined a light on the potential of social media and how nonprofits can leverage the channel for good.” – Ryan Merclean, Manager of Communications, The ALS Association

It’s been almost two years since the Ice Bucket Challenge’s massive success, but The ALS Association is still making changes and testing strategies to get a better grasp on how social media can be utilized to drive support for their mission. Most recently, they’ve begun to take the leap from organic to paid content.

We’re putting money behind our social models, exploring paid advertising, testing organic strategies versus. paid strategies, and bringing analytics into everything we do” – Ryan Merclean, The ALS Association

Integration with Email

This May was ALS Awareness month, so The ALS Association used the month to test how building a tighter integration between email and social advertising could help them increase awareness. By building a target audience based on their email list, they were able to engage specifically with the Facebook followers who were already hand raisers. In just the first few days of the campaign, they had already hit the social traffic goals of the previous year, reinforcing their already held belief that social is becoming a much bigger piece of the advertising pie.

While it’s true that many social channels like Facebook are becoming pay to play, the benefit, especially for nonprofits, is that they allow for scalability.

The technology is built so that you can start as small or as large as you want. If you’re generating the ROI that you need, you can easily scale it up. Nonprofits shouldn’t be intimidated by testing campaigns on social, because we always have the option to pull the plug. And there is always going to be the data there to back that decision. – Ryan Merclean

Digital Content

Getting in front of the right audience is only as effective as the content and experience you provide.

Yes, it’s true: Content is still king. The ALS Association has been monitoring the types of content that inspire engagement. During a year-end email campaign, they tested taking the voice away from the association and giving it instead to one of the doctors at an ALS clinic, who shared with donors what their support is making possible. ALSA saw a great return on the email, with a large portion of their audience either reading the entire email and/or making a donation. And they’re seeing similar reactions on social—stories told from the voice of those they serve tend to perform better than stories told by The Association.


70% of their social traffic comes from mobile devices, so they ensure that every piece of content created is optimized for mobile.

It has to be something that stops someone from scrolling. If it’s a video, we know that the first 3 seconds are the most important. We also use things like infographics that we know will grab someone’s attention visually.” – Ryan Merclean

And with 5.1 Billion people estimated to be mobile phone users by 2017, The Association recognizes the increasing importance this channel will become for supporter engagement. Looking forward, they’re evaluating the possibilities of mobile-specific strategies to drive further awareness and amplification for their cause.


The Association is also exploring how to establish formalized working relationships with their influencers—the members of their community that are speaking out and driving conversations related to their cause. Through improved monitoring and listening, they hope to keep a better pulse on the conversations and issues that matter most to their supporters and then use this information to drive future strategies. One of the first steps they’ve taken in this initiative the launch of their new blog.

It’s a community blog, so members of the ALS community can use it as a space to share their own stories, which will in turn help us to identify those individuals that are ready to engage with us. –  Ryan Merclean

The point is not to create more noise or to stop executing on the strategies that currently work for your organization; the point is to recognize the trends and begin laying the foundation for long-term success.

We know that the most successful organizations will be those that take advantage of all of the tools at their disposal to motivate support, and offer transparency into how they’re delivering on their mission. While there will always be new tools and technology entering the scene, the constant should always be how you work with your supporters to drive results for your cause.

Go digital or go home. Get the new study, Digital Engagement Offers a Broad Reach and Personal Touch for Nonprofits.


Madeline Turner is the Online and Social Marketing Manager at Blackbaud. Prior to running Blackbaud’s social media and thought leadership blog npENGAGE, Madeline worked as a Managing Editor for Blackbaud’s Content Marketing program. It is her goal to create content and share ideas that challenge the status quo of the nonprofit industry. When Madeline isn’t tweeting or writing blog posts, you can find her drinking coffee out of her ‘Crazy Cat Lady’ mug, wearing giant headphones and singing off-key.

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