3 Secrets of Small Nonprofits That Punch Above Their Weight

Julien Burns is a digital strategy consultant and designer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. A former HIV prevention advocate and trainer, he now specializes in helping nonprofits and social enterprises leverage creative content and new media to achieve impact. For more information, visit julienburns.com.

“I am not saying ignore what’s working for the large organizations,” writes Action Sprout CEO Drew Bernard, “they often provide great inspiration. But don’t mistake what they are doing as a path to success.”

His email came in response to a call for help I sent out to a brain trust of progressive digital advocacy wonks. After watching countless small nonprofits struggle to establish impactful digital presences, I was losing faith that organizations with a handful of communications staff working across all media could compete.

Nonprofits that have been pioneers in this space like GreenpeaceMoveOn, and Avaaz have brought new sophistication to progressive digital organizing, leveraging big data, integrating engagement across platforms, and tailoring communications and content to specific audiences. But how does a nonprofit with a couple thousand Facebook likes benefit from this?

Well, as Bernard contends, they don’t. At the end of the day, if small nonprofits are going to use digital tools successfully, they need their own model, one that is an extension of the strategies that make them successful, and leverages strengths that aren’t available to larger groups.



Sarah Alexander, head of Food & Water Watch’s digital programs, recently found herself in a room full of Iowan senior citizens discussing Twitter tactics. This was part of a program by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) to provide their members with training and tools to reinforce their in-person lobbying with online engagement. Iowa CCI’s website has an iPhone 3-era design aesthetic, and you won’t find them on Vine, Line or elsewhere on the social medial frontier, but their digital program is nothing if not effective. “They sent a follow-up email with the next action the next day,” says Alexander. “I can’t remember the last time I saw that. I’ve been getting texts weekly. There wasn’t anything fancy about what they did, but from a user experience standpoint it made me feel very positive and great and like they cared that I was there.”

In one interaction, Iowa CCI developed brand loyalty, moved Alexander up the engagement ladder, and converted a contact into another supporter advocating on their behalf. They are impactful by playing to their strengths as a small organization. In trying to understand how this can be done, I collected best practices from interviews in correspondence with more than a dozen pioneering digital strategists. Three principles emerged, each of which Iowa CCI exemplifies:

1. Get nimble.


In the aftermath of the boiled essence of Internet culture that was #thedress, the Salvation Army – Southern Africa Territory released an anti-domestic-abuse ad showing a bruised woman wearing the famous gold-and-white dress. “Why is it so hard to see black and blue?” it read. In the Internet of #thedress, organizations that can respond quickly to the zeitgeist and enter early into conversations and news cycles related to their issues win. “I personally think the greatest asset smaller organizations have,” ActionSprout CEO Drew Bernard wrote in response to my request for advice, “is their ability to move quickly, try things, double down when things are working well and move on quickly when they don’t.” Trying to teach senior citizens to tweet might sound like a risky use of resources, but with a short approval chain and digital staff who are empowered to experiment, iterating and failing fast can allow small nonprofits to innovate.


2. Build relationships and follow your supporters’ lead. 


The Rise Foundation, a small, Irish, addiction support nonprofit, recently set out to make a video spot. They were armed with powerful, personal stories, and everything else they needed—except money, person power, and expertise in filmmaking. So they reached out to their Facebook friends with a request for help. In response, they received offers to write, produce, and act in the spot. What had been a fundraising gap suddenly became an opportunity to collaborate with their supporters. “If you're small,” wrote digital strategist Eugene Flynn, who worked with the group, “your supporters are likely to have a close affinity with your cause and may be easier to reach in a truly personal way.” Recognizing this, Iowa CCI does “one-on-one”s with their members and holds in-person trainings. For organizations whose supporters feel connected enough to go beyond reposting an organization’s content and take ownership of its campaigns, social media (and other digital tools) become much more powerful.


3. Build power and raise up what’s working. 


In December 2014, noted hardhead Governor Andrew Cuomo gave into pressure from environmental activists and banned fracking in New York State. The campaign he bowed to wasn’t the work of an environmental advocacy giant like 350.org. Instead, it was more than 250 organizations like Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy working in coalition. Affiliates were able to deploy local protesters when Cuomo was in Albany, when he was in New York City and when he was at his home in Westchester. They were able to mobilize health professionals, businesses, local elected officials, chefs and faith leaders to speak out and provide a collective megaphone for each. Coalitions like New Yorkers Against Fracking and National People’s Action (of which Iowa CCI is a member) allow small organizations to pool resources and constituents and have large-scale reach while maintaining independence. Organizations that are willing to use their networks and partnerships as a crowdsourcing mechanism for effective messages and can fill their digital communications with content that resonates without ever running an A/B test.

Identifying these principles raises additional questions about implementation. A client recently asked me if her organization should be on Snapchat. I thought about the dust-covered icon in my phones “miscellaneous apps I never use” and felt a momentary sympathetic pang of anxiety. But regardless of what new social network emerges next week or what new technology revolutionizes email-marketing, organizations that remain nimble and view supporters and peer organizations as partners will find the platforms and tactics that have impact. For more infromation on these concepts, view the long form version here.


Interested in increasing your organization's impact? Check out See3's Conversion Booster, which can help nonprofits get more donations, more email signups, and more engagement on social media. 

Author: Guest Post
  • Nonprofits
  • Relationships
  • Social Media
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