Poke, pin and tag: Using social media to engage volunteers

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If volunteers mobilized through social media can make a difference in who gets elected as president of the United States, surely any nonprofit organization looking to be effective has to look at all the ways social media can be used to engage volunteers.

Some charities and nonprofit organizations in Canada are now at least somewhat active in social media. Most of these have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed, as well as a website. (Check out this infographic to see how the top charities in Canada use social media).

However, as social media specialist John Matthews says, “Social media communication seems to be a lower priority for nonprofits which are typically late adopters of new trends.” Keenan Wellar, co-leader of Ottawa-based LiveWorkPlay adds, “Most organizations take their existing communications strategy and keep doing same thing but tweet a link to it. This isn’t a bad thing but it’s a limited use of the potential of social media and people often tune it out.”

It is unfortunate that few organizations fully use the potential of social media because, as Janice Babineau, community manager with the Canadian Red Cross says, “It’s the new way that people communicate, socialize, network and interact.” Babineau adds that social media can “bridge the gap between someone being interested and someone actually getting involved.”

Interestingly, too, the argument that only the youngest volunteers and potential volunteers are those connected to social media turns out to be false. A 2010 Pew study found that the fastest-growing demographic group using social media is that of people over 55. LiveWorkPlay’s social media users are almost equally spread between the ages of 25 and 55; the organization, which helps the community welcome people with intellectual disabilities, has had “unusual success in tapping into the 25-35 year old demographic, who are native to social media.”

But more than attracting social media-savvy volunteers, Wellar says, “We don’t push them away by showing that we don’t do these things. Younger people who are investigating volunteer opportunities look to see whether an organization has a social media presence – if not, they move on because they perceive that the organization has an ‘old school culture’ and also because they can’t find the information they seek.”

So, how to attract – or avoid pushing away – volunteers through social media? CharityVillage asked digital natives working in the nonprofit world to share their best tips:

1. Think of social media like a first date, says Azure Collier, a United Way social media volunteer. Just as you (ideally) would not monopolize a date by reciting your resume and accomplishments, so social media is a two-way conversation. As on a date, you want to get the other person talking, find out about his or her interests, and aim at dialogue. You can point volunteers and potential volunteers to your news releases and website, but that can’t be all you do. Social media posts of interest to your volunteers don’t always have to be directly related to work and should be interactive.

Wellar adds that nonprofits typically focus social media efforts on big events, but “We’ve tried to introduce people to the little mission-oriented activities we do every day. Instead of big shiny things, we cultivate interest and awareness about what we actually do.”

2. Make social media an integrated part of your organization’s culture. Like any new habit, this takes time but Babineau says, “You have to get over that first hurdle.” At weekly staff meetings, Wellar reminds staff and volunteers to take photos or video of events and to share them on the various social media channels: “It’s part of our culture – when we have an event we automatically post something on Facebook and Twitter in advance; at the event we live-tweet and share photos. Afterwards, we post an album of photos and tweet about it and if appropriate share video to YouTube. But that took a couple of years. Not everyone intuitively takes photos all the time and it took some persuasion. Now it has become as natural as breathing.”

However, Babineau adds that it isn’t just a question of sorting out the technology, but also thinking about goals. “Where you start depends on your goals, who you are trying to reach, what your purpose is.”

Privacy is another issue. Some social media channels are by-invitation only and have the same degree of privacy as email while others are wide open and encourage sharing. Both can be appropriate for different needs. Organizations can also set out clear guidelines about what can and can’t be shared in a certain medium. When volunteers first join LiveWorkPlay, they are asked to sign a simple permission sheet that explains what social media is, how it helps the organization accomplish their mission and gives permission for the volunteer’s image or information to be used. Volunteers know that they can withdraw permission at any time.

3. Encourage conversation. Successful social media is viral – and unlike the flu, the side effects are beneficial. Encourage volunteers to post stories, images and video on their own social media channels. Babineau says, “If you are looking for volunteers, an effective way to recruit is to ask volunteers to spread the word on their networks of social media friends. If someone says this is a good organization to volunteer for, their friends will trust them.”

Social media is also a great means to ask questions, to poll volunteers, to get feedback about experiences and to crowdsource new ideas. LiveWorkPlay’s volunteer coordinator sends out weekly group emails asking volunteers for stories and photos. As appropriate, these become content for their social media channels. Finally, for large organizations like the Red Cross with volunteers across Canada and around the world, “social media allows people to interact with others who are doing similar work, to exchange ideas. They may have met in a training session, but have a lot in common – social media allows people to build community at a distance.”

Make it easy for volunteers to share – create a hashtag for every event and use it for tweets related to the project. Create a badge showing all tweets about the event. Make your Facebook settings public and tag people in photos and updates.

4. Connect with influencers. Even before Malcolm Gladwell articulated the concept of connectors, savvy organizations have taken good advantage of people who are influential and respected. The Canadian Red Cross identified a group of social media users – some of whom were higher profile, while others were ‘regular people’ – who regularly retweeted messages or responded to blog and Facebook posts. The organization formalized this support: these digital volunteers agreed to share messages about the Red Cross. The organization also took this offline – inviting digital volunteers to attend events, to see specialized field training, etc. Babineau says, “It really broadens our reach because these people have their own networks who are interested in them. Social media has opened up a new way of volunteering for us. You don’t have to be physically on the ground to make a difference.”

5. Organize volunteers. Social media can be used to create effective ways of organizing volunteers. Matthews suggests organizations use Google in particular for a wide variety of ways to connect and organize volunteers: create a Google Circle to organize volunteers, use Google Docs to create an online volunteer hub featuring calendars, volunteer manuals, and other required information. A Facebook group is another way of connecting and organizing volunteers.

6. Recognize volunteers. Recognizing your volunteers through social media can accomplish a variety of goals. Your volunteer is publicly acknowledged in a way that shows that their work is meaningful and valued. It also shows potential volunteers what they might be able to do within your organization. It can even introduce your organization to people who might not have heard of it. Matthews suggests profiling volunteers on your website with photos, stories and video – and also linking that profile or story to your social media. Babineau says “This is separate from recognition or reward but it makes the volunteer feel good and connected to the organization.”

HINT: Photos and videos are more shared, watched and liked than words on social media, especially among Canadians.


CharityVillage Live

Interested in learning more about volunteer recognition? Replay the  CharityVillage LIVE conversation with Volunteer Canada where you can learn from other organizations that have implemented innovative (and inexpensive) ways to recognize and celebrate the contributions of volunteers.


7. Use others’ spaces. If social media means thinking outside the box, this means thinking outside your organization’s box. Some organizations have posted thank you notes on their volunteer’s Facebook wall or Twitter feed, while others post on the organization’s wall, tagging the volunteer so they and their family and friends can see the recognition. Babineau suggests adding volunteers to your LinkedIn network and endorsing their skills.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel: as Babineau says, “go to where your volunteers are and see whether you can create momentum around your organization there.” A social network could be as simple as a community online volunteer board (or Charity Village!).

8. Monitor social media. Social media is like a plant that needs regular watering, but there are tools (such as Hootsuite, Tweetdeck and Google alerts) that help you monitor your social media and even remind you to post on your various channels. Monitoring social media allows you to determine its effectiveness. Babineau suggests also finding an interested volunteer to take an active role in monitoring and keeping the social media conversation going.

HINT: Don't forget to measure your social media investments for their effectiveness.

9. Tweet-up events. The Canadian Red Cross has organized events through Twitter – they list an event, such as CPR training, on Twitter and volunteers and others sign up and tweet their way through the event.

10. Manage bad press. The downside of social media is that bad news also travels fast. Occasionally volunteers use social media to air grievances or to apply pressure to an organization. Babineau says, “If something is posted publicly that is negative, address it in the same place, rather than ignoring it or letting it get out of control. Social media works very quickly – people expect a same-day response, but take the time to respond appropriately, with facts in hand.” She adds, “Organizations hesitate to go on social media because they fear criticism, but if you have built up your online community over time, often people will defend you and respond on your behalf.”

Keeping it fun

Wellar says, “When we ask volunteers why they got involved, many say ‘it looked like it would be fun and I could make a difference.’” Social media is a great way to show potential and current volunteers that your organization is fun, meaningful, interesting and a place where volunteers are valued. Matthews adds that social media is largely free and is here to stay, and encourages organizations to embrace it fully, including as part of their volunteer management strategy.

Looking for more ideas on how to use social media? Keenan Wellar recommends bethkanter.org. You can also join the discussion right here on CharityVillage in our online community's Social Media group.


Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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

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