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Nonprofits Should Make Better Use of Social Media, and Here’s a Free Project Concept Illustrating How

August 14th, 2011 · by Isaac Seliger · 7 Comments

We try hard to keep our proposals fresh by making our project concepts reflect what is going on in communities today—not what the world was like when we entered the business in 1993. For example, several years ago we began including references to emerging social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) in many proposals, mostly in describing the outreach component. The reality, unfortunately, is that we write in the Proposal World, while our clients live in the real world. I talk to nonprofit Executive Directors all the time and and as far as I can tell, most don’t use social media in any meaningful way, other than perhaps for fund raising or PR. I’ve yet to come across one that is using these new tools in their programming.*

This is not surprising, as nonprofits are always slow to adopt new technology, due to budget constraints, lack of imagination, and/or overall fuddy-duddyness. Although we used email and had a website in 1993, our nonprofit clients didn’t routinely use email until about 2005. After what seemed like an eternity of using faxes and FedEx, most of our document exchanges now involve scanners. As my 25-year-old son used to say when he was around five and had a little trouble with multi-syllable words, Hallaloollah! I’m guessing it will take the nonprofit world years to fully incorporate social media in service delivery. Even though most of our youth services clients don’t know it, virtually all of their teenage and young adults clients have smart phones, no matter how low-income they may be.** Social media permeates American youth culture.

Last week I let readers know that Seliger + Associates entered the Twitterverse (follow us at @SeligerGrants), and we’ll probably setup a Facebook page soon (I can already hear Jake groaning). All of this has got me thinking about how human service providers could use social media effectively.

In my post last week, I briefly mentioned the troubling emerging problem of big city “flash mobs.” I’m not referring to the original “Thriller” flash mobs that suddenly did zombie dancing, but to the Philadelphia and Milwaukee youth mobs that have recently rampaged. It seems that the mobs formed and de-formed by using Twitter, Facebooking and texting to coordinate their activities, confounding police and potential victims alike (see this video depicting the Milwaukee situation).

There was also a report that a potential flash mob was defused in the Oakland BART subway system last week when the cell phone system was disabled in underground stations. While this raises First Amendment issues that are beyond the scope of this post (for a free proposal phrase, substitute “proposal” for “post”), it shows that public sector administrators and police are getting hip to social media. If a BART bureaucrat can figure this out, as can the State Department, why can’t nonprofit executive directors? For example, we recently completed a federal job training proposal for a large nonprofit in South Central LA. While the executive director told me that virtually all of her very low-income youth clients had smart phones, she wanted to stick with traditional outreach strategies and removed all of my first draft references to utilizing social media.

To illustrate this, here’s a free project concept for an enterprising nonprofit in any city that has experienced the flash mob phenomenon or might. Let’s call this Project YEAH (Youth Electronic Action Helpers), proposed by Youth Engagement Services (YES), a fictional United Way agency. Project YEAH could work this way:

  • The basic concept is that all community youth are not angry and disaffected. Lots of good kids can be mobilized through social media to produce peer pressure to prevent violent, flash mob behavior. The target population includes middle and high school age youth, as well as out-of-school, unemployed youth and young adults—say, age 14 – 22—of whatever ethnic population predominates in the target area.
  • YES forms a Project Advisory Committee (PAC), including representatives of other services providers, law enforcement, the local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), elected officials, the chamber of commerce, employers, faith-based organizations, etc. The PAC meets virtually, using on-line meeting software and members communicate with one another through a secure web portal, texting, and private tweets. No travel, no donuts, and no wasted time should = better organizational participation. Public access is assured by publicizing the on-line meetings and allowing anyone with a web connection to watch.
  • A Social Media Consultant (a tech-savvy local nerd) is hired to set up the project social media sites and develop training protocols for staff and the target population, who are engaged through the outreach effort (see below).
  • Several Peer Helpers are recruited as outreach and engagement staff. PHs are 18 – 25 or so and are former gang members, star athletes, American Idol contestants, junior preachers, or have some other affiliation or background that provides them with natural connections and street cred with the target population. PHs are trained in community organizing techniques and skills, along with use of social media, using on-line training to the maximum feasible extent. Smart phones, iPads, Internet service, and similar gear are provided. The PHs mostly connect with each other through virtual methods, rather than gathering at the YES office. Once again, no donut eating. Time and activity logs are keep through a secure database, developed by the Social Media Consultant.
  • PHs conduct outreach and education, primarily using social media, rather than the traditional mailings, presentations, street-based outreach, etc. The outreach is based on the ever popular “train-the-trainers” model, updated for the social media world. The trained PHs recruit a cadre of Youth Ambassadors (YAs), who are paid a monthly stipend and are trained by the PHs in community organizing techniques and, to the extent necessary, the use of social media. The YAs use the project-developed social media tools to engage the target population, encouraging them to avoid flash mob/violent anti-social behavior while accessing supportive services (e.g., pre-employment skills training, after school enrichment, GED preparation, job searches, emergency food and clothing, etc.) from YES and PAC members. In effect, each YA will develop a YEAH Follower Cadre, using the Twitter model. Should info begin to circulate on social media channels about potential flash mobs, the YEAH Follower Cadres will react by using social media to discourage participation. In some cases, YEAH Follower Cadres, wearing brightly colored Project YEAH t-shirts and hats will physically meet at potential flash mobs sites, forming a human peer pressure blockade before violence develops. This could include well understood nonviolent protest techniques (e.g., going limp and lying down, etc.). PHs will video the blockades, immediately uploading to YouTube to build awareness and peer pressure.
  • All activities, services, follow-up and client satisfaction feedback will be tracked with user-input databases developed by the Social Media Consultant.

I think a project concept like the above would be great interest to large community foundations and national foundations, particularly those associated with technology companies. Go try it. A version of this social media-based youth engagement model will make much more compelling reading to a funder than the traditional approaches out clients typically want us to use.

EDIT: The New York Times reports: “Phone Messages Improve [Health] Care, Study Finds.”


* I know one emergency medicine resident who observed that her patients routinely had nicer phones than she did.

** If I’m wrong and you know of a nonprofit that is using social media in its programming, post a comment, as I (and readers) would love to know about it.

Tags: Advice · Clients · Media · Nonprofits · Programs