Instagram, Pinterest, and even Tinder: How small nonprofits are going beyond Facebook and Twitter

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It doesn’t seem very long ago that nonprofit professionals were being told that having a presence on Facebook was vital to their organization’s success.

The advice was heeded, and as sector professionals became Facebook-literate (one recent survey found that an incredible 98% of North American nonprofits surveyed are now on Facebook), they also began to develop an understanding of why a social media presence is necessary: it is a pivotal and cost-efficient part of branding and marketing efforts, a driver of fundraising, and a useful tool for keeping donors informed. With the rise of Facebook, social media activity cemented itself as part of a nonprofit’s everyday life.

Just as nonprofit social media coordinators were beginning to grow comfortable with Facebook, the next social media platform trumpeted as being “too big for nonprofits to ignore” arrived – Twitter.

Again, joining Twitter made sense for nonprofits. The micro-blogging tool became a platform to humanize a nonprofit’s brand; by using 140-character tweets, nonprofits were able to show their communities how their organization was making a difference from a brand-new, individually-focused perspective. Twitter became a tool used to strengthen relationships with supporters and attract new backers, all the while sharing successes, asking questions, and drumming up interest in events and fundraising activities.

Facebook and Twitter are now firmly entrenched within communication strategies of nonprofits of all sizes, with one survey reporting close to 70% of North American organizations using both social media tools.

Fast-forward to today – a climate where a reported 95% of nonprofits recognize the full value of having a sustained presence on social media – and the next crop of social media tools are staking their claim to inherit a must-have title.

Leading the charge are the photo-sharing platforms: Instagram, with its impressive 300 million active monthly users; Pinterest, now used by 28% of adult internet users; and a number of other up-and-comers that are effectively clamoring for attention in a bustling social media market.

The rise of new social media tools might first be met with an understandable sigh from social media coordinators whose time and resources are already stretched to their limits. If one listens closely, they may even be able to hear a group of these individuals exclaiming: “You mean I have to worry about another social media platform? I’m only one person!”

Before swearing off these emerging social media tools in their entirety, keep an open mind. Successes with each of these platforms have been well-documented across the sector, with creativity serving as the key that can unlock the door to improved supporter engagement and relationship-building techniques.

Numbers don’t lie

There’s no denying that the ‘Big Two’ (Facebook, Twitter) has evolved to become the ’Big Three’, with Instagram now regarded as an increasingly mainstream social media behemoth.

A recent Pew Research study revealed that for the first time, half of internet-using young adults aged 18-29 (53%) use Instagram, and half of all Instagram users (49%) use the site daily.

Combine these stats with the fact that Instagram’s user engagement is through the proverbial roof – users are 58 times more likely to like, share or comment on a brand’s update than a Facebook user, and 120 times more likely than a Twitter user – and the buy-in from nonprofit social media coordinators has been steadily growing.

“After looking at the engagement numbers, Instagram really fell into that category of being ‘too big to ignore anymore,’” says Ami Catriona, the director of community relations with the Kelowna Community Food Bank. “We've hopped on the bandwagon.”

The Kelowna Community Food Bank is one of many Canadian nonprofits to dip its toes into Instagram’s waters over the past couple of months, harbouring a goal of expanding their reach within their own community.

Catriona, like many nonprofit professionals who work with smaller-sized organizations, fulfills a number of duties around the office, with social media management included in her daily to-do list. Before establishing her organization’s Instagram account a couple of months ago, Catriona admitted that she had her reservations about adding more social media-focused tasks to her already heavy workload.

“Like many people who work and volunteer for small nonprofits, we all wear many different hats throughout the day,” she says. “With resources already stretched thin and time coming at a premium, it was easy to fall into the mindset that our presence on Facebook and Twitter was more than enough.”

However, after seeing how Instagram had grown over the past year, she decided to give it a crack, and was amazed by how simple it was to use from the get-go.

“The beauty of Instagram is that setting up our organization’s account was incredibly easy,” she says. “From start to finish, it took less than a few minutes to register, sync the new account to our organization’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and post our first picture.”

Catriona is now using Instagram to share how the Kelowna Community Food Bank is having an impact on its community, and just months into her foray with the photo-friendly social media tool, she’s already seeing results.

“Millions of people post pictures of their food on Instagram all the time, so we thought ‘why not us?” says Catriona, who is using her organization’s Instagram account as a method of donor recognition by sharing examples of food donations they receive. “It’s so great that people can see these beautiful, vibrant pictures of the items that are being donated, because it creates a ripple effect, and we’ve already seen that it has inspired members of our community to want to donate.”

User-generated content; increased engagement

“How many ways have you been touched by a charity?”

This is the question that lies at the centre of Imagine Canada’s #ACharityWasHere campaign. The campaign, funded through the support of the Muttart Foundation, aims to educate Canadians about the important work charities do across the country.

While primarily a YouTube-based campaign – Imagine Canada’s six #ACharityWasHere videos have been viewed more than 400,000 times since November – the organization recently expanded the initiative to Instagram, urging Canadians to take pictures that share the impact charities make in day-to-day lives.

Since putting out this ‘call to photographic action’, the organization has seen its photo-sharing campaign yield some impressive results.

“Every social media channel has a different way of engaging with people, and through Instagram, it’s a fantastic opportunity for us to share our stories in a unique manner where our supporters will actively engage with us, and reflect their own stories back,” says Marnie Grona, director of marketing and communications with Imagine Canada.

By expanding their campaign presence to Instagram, Imagine Canada has enjoyed a big boost in three incredibly desirable areas for the nonprofit sector: user-generated content, meaningful engagement, and bilateral storytelling.

“Our supporters have been generating content through the stories they’re sharing with us, and in a way, mirroring back the dialogue and conversation that we’re having with them,” adds Grona. “We can then use this content and share it on our other platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and our website, as a means of broadening the engagement.”


With Canadian nonprofits consistently looking for ways to connect with the next generation of donors, it’s no wonder many are flocking to Instagram.

As mentioned earlier, 53% of young adults aged 18-29 now use the service, compared with 37% who did so in 2013.

To reflect this increase, a major component of Catriona’s communications strategy with the Kelowna Community Food Bank is to forge stronger connections with the 18-25 demographic in her community, and to use Instagram as a vehicle to inspire this connection.

“As older adults increasingly see Facebook as their social media tool of choice [56% of internet users ages 65 and older now use Facebook], we know that connecting with younger audiences has to exist in other areas, too,” explains Catriola. “We know that younger users are moving away from other social platforms and shifting to Instagram, and we want to be there when they show up.”

Grona echoes these sentiments, highlighting the importance of having a presence within photo-heavy social media platforms as a means of building relationships with younger prospective donors, volunteers, and ambassadors who are increasingly becoming armed with smartphones and a penchant for sharing pictures.

“Whether it’s through Pinterest, Instagram or even Snapchat, it’s all about knowing how to engage those audiences, and developing key messaging for people who are congregating in those different areas,” adds Grona. “The numbers show that younger audiences are more active in these areas, and we’re looking for that kind of richer engagement with that demographic.”

Imagine Canada, like a growing number of Canadian nonprofits, has also joined Pinterest, the online corkboard that prides itself on being simple to use and full of creative and imaginative suggestions for nonprofits.

“It’s one of those networks of ours that’s continually gaining traction, and it’s a way to curate ideas,” adds Grona. “People want to find bits of information relevant to them, and Pinterest is great because they can categorize their interests.”

Grona suggests that Pinterest has the potential to become a major driver of traffic to nonprofit websites, and that it can be a useful avenue for “raising campaign awareness and cultivating richer engagement.”

While it may not necessarily be a major driver of traffic for most small nonprofits just yet, one organization that is beginning to see some traction with Pinterest is the Coaches Association of Ontario.

Eric Belahov, the CAO’s marketing and events coordinator, launched his organization’s Pinterest account in late 2014 as a means of reaching a younger, more female-focused demographic, and despite experiencing gradual followership in its first few post-launch months, Belahov has recently seen user engagement begin to snowball.

“When we initially launched our Pinterest account, we came at it with a focused strategy to hone in on a target demographic,” he says. “The only time-consuming part of using Pinterest was the actual launch of the account, and since then, adding Pinterest to our social media strategy has been pretty seamless.”

It’s easy to see why nonprofits like the CAO are intrigued by Pinterest: 28% of online adults use Pinterest, including 34% of young adults ages 18-29 and 42% of online women, and it’s statistics like these that persuaded Belahov to begin using the platform in the first place.

“The average age for a coach in Ontario is in the high-30s to low-40s range, and they’re mostly males,” Belahov notes. “We needed to look at cost-effective ways to reach younger, female audiences as a means of expanding our reach, and we believe Pinterest can help open that door.”

Belahov says that the relative ease of using the social media tool adds to its effectiveness; he’s found that most pins – visual bookmarks that can be posted to Pinterest’s online boards – typically take him under a minute to execute.

“Most major browsers offer a clickable button that allows users to externally pin articles and images to their Pinterest accounts,” adds Belahov. “All you have to do is click the Pinterest button, pin the article to your organization’s board, and just like that, you’re done. The whole process takes only a few minutes, tops.”

While Belahov admits that his organization’s Pinterest account hasn't necessarily driven large amounts of traffic back to the CAO’s website, the social media platform’s simplicity, speed, and access to new audiences keeps him coming back.

“It’s taken some time to pick up some steam, but since we’ve established a solid foundation of content – we’ve currently posted more than 50 pins across four boards – we’re seeing increased engagement every single month,” he says. “We’re glad we stuck with it, and compared to the relatively short amount of time that we spend using Pinterest each day, it makes perfect sense to keep using this tool for the long-run.”

Finding the ‘purr’-fect fit

While many Canadian nonprofits are finding success with newer social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, some are using outside-the-box thinking to become a smash hit in some pretty unexpected circles; none more so than the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association, an organization that recently branched out to Tinder (yes, that Tinder) to find homes for their kittens.

With the help of ad agency ReThink Canada, VOKRA used the popular dating app to create a catfishing campaign to find foster homes for abandoned kittens in the Vancouver area.

“We are always looking for innovative ways to get the message out about what VOKRA does, so when the opportunity to work with ReThink Media came along, we jumped – or should I say, we pounced! – on it,” says Morgan Brayton, VOKRA’s communications manager.

For their Tinder campaign, VOKRA posed cats who have human names with people, and created Tinder profiles for the cats. Met by smooth small-talk and well-executed cat puns, the unsuspecting matches chatted with who they thought was the person posing in the picture, but little did they know, they were getting catfished.

“We always joke that our adoption matching process is kind of like online dating, as profiles of our cats are online and people can view their photos and bios on our website,” adds Brayton, explaining VOKRA’s no-stone-left-unturned mentality was well suited to the social media stunt. “We have an amazing success rate with our matches because we go to great effort to bring together the right people with the right cats, so the idea of using an actual online dating app to connect with humans looking for companionship seemed a hilarious, but not a completely outrageous idea!”

The results? Applications to adopt VOKRA kittens tripled during the time period the Tinder profiles were up, and the campaign went viral, helping to increase the Vancouver organization’s overall exposure.

“The [corresponding] Catfishing video was a great way to spread the word about the stunt and the response has been huge,” says Brayton. “There have been thousands of views and shares from our YouTube channel, our Facebook page and our Twitter account, and it definitely seems to have connected with a wide demographic.”

VOKRA’s stunt serves to remind nonprofits that success can be found in the unlikeliest of places, so long as an open mind is kept.

Spreading positivity

As the old adage goes, a picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, but perhaps more importantly, nonprofit social media coordinators have discovered that images resonate louder than statistics ever could.

“Through our experience with social media, people typically don't remember data, but they remember the story told through images, and that has a longer-term impact on engagement,” says Grona. “These pictures will be taken with them in their minds as they go along.”

This is no fluke; a recent HubSpot report found that posts containing photos receive 53% more engagement than regular, text-based posts.

Social media platforms have picked up on this trend: it’s part of the reason users now see Twitter images embedded in their feeds, and that Facebook has given more prominence to posts that contain images.

“You can just tell how visual we are as humans, and when we think about Instagram or Pinterest, their posts act as a visual hook for our messaging,” adds Grona. “Pictures are more eye-grabbing than words on a screen. We understand the meaning behind images faster than we can read sentences, so visuals can act as a shortcut to communication.”

Generally speaking, nonprofits tend to use these social media tools as a means of sharing the good news surrounding their organization.

“I’ve found Instagram to be a really uplifting platform, and we want to spread positivity, not negativity,” says Catriona. “We’re trying use social media to lift people up and make our community a better place, so why not take that as your mantra? Let’s share the good stuff!”

Brayton agrees, noting how charities, despite a lot of heartbreak involved in what they do, can help spread hope and happiness through their presence on social media.

“I mean, come on, we deal with cats all day, and those guys are pretty fun!” she explains. “Creating something shareable that is hopeful, fun and funny, but also tugs at the heartstrings a little without making people sad, proved to be a winning combination for us.”

The price is right

Having a rock-solid digital strategy can be a very effective way for smaller-sized nonprofits to transcend the limitations of their budget while gaining a wider appeal.

“I think a lot of social media has helped level the playing field for smaller nonprofits,” says Stephen Faul, vice-president of strategic communications and business development with Imagine Canada. “There isn’t a huge capital investment to get involved, so even a small organization can do it without having to spend a great deal of money.”

As Faul notes, because there are minimal costs involved in developing a social media presence – typically, it’s solely an investment in a staff member or volunteer’s time – there’s little risk to trying something new with an emerging social media platform, determining if there’s a spark of engagement, and nurturing that spark once it appears.

“The impact of the nonprofit sector across social media is so rich, and so diverse, that it’s wonderful to see organizations sharing their own stories,” he says. “We’re seeing that with our #ACharityWasHere campaign as we build relationships with nonprofits that fall into both the ‘large’ and ‘small’ camps.”

Through his experience with the #ACharityWasHere campaign, Faul has seen numerous small nonprofits with ambitious and creative ideas create memorable stories through social media, and how size of the organization doesn’t dictate how loudly its stories can resonate.

“To be able to share a striking image is akin to telling a supporter ‘look what you could be involved in,’” says Faul. “Social media provides the perfect opportunity to share your organization’s powerful stories, and as nonprofits continue to seize these opportunities, these tools will only become more and more important.”

“As long as I’ve been in the sector, people want stories,” he adds. “At the end of the day, they always want to hear a story, and what tells a story better than a picture?”

Additional resources

After sifting through the superfluous (e.g. the umpteen thousands of cat videos and pictures of people’s meals), there are hundreds of useful how-to sites across the web that offer incredibly valuable (and free!) social media tips and tips to nonprofits interested in learning more about these increasingly crucial marketing tools.

The CharityVillage editorial team has plucked a few of our favourites. Enjoy!

Going beyond sites that focus solely on tips for individual social media platforms, here are a few supplementary resources that touch on a host of nonprofit digital marketing tools:

Brock Smith is a communications specialist based out of Markham, ON, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

Photos (from top) via iStockphoto. All photos used with permission.

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