Social media offers nonprofits of all sizes the same rewards it offers the millions of us who use it personally: an immediacy of attentiveness, engagement and interaction, and ever-growing networks of new colleagues and friends. Those rewards are impossible to achieve through direct mail and even email.
Many of us in prospect research didn’t have the advantages of social media when we first began our careers. When I started working as a prospect researcher in a local social service agency in 2000, I envied the researchers from higher education institutions whom I met at APRA conferences. After all, how hard could it be when you had a built-in constituency already loyal to your mission?
At my organization, I searched for hidden millionaires among our direct mail donors and the people who filled the corporate tables at our annual awards dinner. I examined corporate and nonprofit board lists for people our trustees might know and would be willing to solicit. One summer I even combed through 40 years of scrapbooks to see if any of the members pictured in old newspaper clippings had gone on to greatness or were even in our database. And on those rare occasions when I did find a wealthy prospect, all too often I was only guessing at whether they would have any interest in supporting programs, much less any passion for it.
So, yes, I was jealous of those colleges and universities who created hundreds if not thousands of loyal alumni prospects year after year after year.
In 2009, I left the social service agency and joined the research team at a major university, where I found out the grass wasn’t necessarily any greener. True, we had large internal lists we could comb through for prospects. But I discovered that a degree did not necessarily a donor make, attendance did not equal affinity, and wealth and passion weren’t always aligned.
As it turns out, 2009 was also the year my former employer (the social service agency) first created its Facebook page. Today, the page has over 3,000 likers—roughly the number of annual donors the organization had in my days there. As for the university, it waited until 2010 to join Facebook, but it now has over 38,000 likers. That’s many times the current enrollment. I know who I’d be taking a closer look at if I were still a researcher at either of those organizations…
Facebook likers—and similarly organizations’ followers on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and other social platforms—have joined a community. They’ve created multi-lateral relationships and space for conversation, not just transactions. Unlike recipients on direct mail acquisition lists, these likers and followers haven’t simply opted-in; they’ve each sought out the organizations they have chosen to follow. They’ve all expressed true interest and offered real interaction. More importantly for me as a prospect researcher, the likers and followers have created a community, a network, a constituency with built-in affinity and engagement.
While adhering to the APRA Social Media Ethics Statement, my next step as a researcher is to look for the wealth within that community. Those ethics require me to locate and analyze asset and affinity data found and verified in publicly available resources not within any constituent’s social media posts on his/her private page.
Social media gives all nonprofits, whether or not they already have natural constituencies, stronger measures of interest and passion to help organically build a constituency of prospects, donors, and friends from the bottom up.
For more information on how social media has proven itself to be a significant source of new major gift donors and an excellent stewardship tool for your biggest current donors, read this blog by BWF_social’s Justin Ware.
Sarah Bernstein is an independent consultant in Milwaukee, WI, supporting nonprofit organizations with prospect research and database analysis. She earlier worked in both the social service and higher education sectors. Sarah is an active member of APRA International and past president of the APRA Wisconsin Chapter. She blogs at The Fundraising Back-Office and can also be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.