Nonprofit PR 2.0: A Tree Grows In Cyberspace

As consumers increasingly place emphasis on goodwill, corporate brands are seeing the business benefits of aligning with good causes. Thus, nonprofits find themselves poised for incredible growth opportunities, but they face an ever-growing need to reach and impact audiences, often with limited resources. That's where social media comes in. "Social media is critical for nonprofits," says Rob Key, CEO of Converseon. "It allows people who are like-minded to gather rapidly around topics and issues. It's especially important now with rising donor fatigue." True, donor fatigue flies in the face of increased corporate interest, leaving both sides of the equation hungry for a way to reach audiences in engaging ways. Executives like Key have helped their nonprofit clients leverage the community-building power of online platforms to gain traction with jaded audiences, and various consumption trends prove that turning to online communications channels is not only recommended (not to mention financially sound) - it's essential. "Nonprofits are experiencing the fundamental communications shift that is changing the way consumers want and expect to engage with brands," says Audrey Sylvia, a senior account executive with Cone, Inc. "The old silver bullet of one-way communications has become a thing of the past - the key to attracting and retaining a donor base today is engagement, through social networking sites, blogs and podcasts." Of course, the key to any good strategy often lies in a roadmap; with that, consider these best practices for taking good causes to cyberspace: *Identify your assets: "The best thing to do is to look at all of the assets you have on hand regarding a campaign or initiative - advertising, earned media, Web site, social networking tools or influencer networks," says Patricia McLaughlin, senior director of communications of the American Legacy Foundation. She has worked extensively on the truth youth smoking prevention campaign, and social media proved to be an ideal asset for reaching a target audience of teenagers. "No longer do you have to depend solely on media intermediaries or traditional advertising to reach your target audience," McLaughlin says. "Editorial is still vital to delivering the message, but the fact that teens' attention is so fragmented provides opportunities to integrate the truth campaign on mobile phones or through social networking sites." Plus, she says, it's ideal for organizations with limited funding, as the new tools provide maximum exposure for every campaign. *Listen before you talk: Nonprofit or not, going online first requires an understanding of the community to which you want to belong. Key recommends going to Technorati and typing in the words most relevant to your initiative; this will give you an indication of the forums best suited to your mission. *Become a native: "The good news for nonprofits is that they can become natives in social media," Key says. "This isn't about marketing budgets. It's about creating an interesting theme that people can gravitate to, whether it's in Facebook or Second Life." Becoming a native is not a one-and-done process; rather, it takes a great deal of time to immerse yourself, your brand and your cause, and it is essential to first participate sans marketing. Key describes the ideal process from a cultural anthropology perspective: "First go and observe. Then learn the language. Languages and cultures differ within these communities. Also, get to know the elders - the influentials who have been around for a while. Think about collaborating with them. You can use them as a sounding board or a mini-focus group. They will appreciate being brought into the conversation; plus, it's free advice." *Lead with altruism: Ask yourself, "What does this community need or desire that we can provide?" Key uses the example of his work with the nonprofit Plant It 2020, which used the virtual world Second Life to raise money for and awareness of its reforestation efforts. People can go to Second Chance Trees, an island in Second Life that replicates real rainforest wildlife. Visitors can learn about the Earth's endangered rainforests and then use Second Life "Linden dollars" to purchase and plant a tree on the island. Each virtual tree purchased corresponds with a real tree that will be planted in an endangered rainforest. "Second Chance Trees was giving altruism to a community that was largely concerned with global warming and environmental issues," Key says. "People react much more strongly to individual stories, because these people are numb, or they are overwhelmed by huge issues. Social media provides the tools to create these personalized stories where people can connect on an individual level." *Let the community own it: "At a certain point, this community will do most of the work for you," Key says. "As you become a native, others will gravitate to you. That creates a tipping point that will take on a life of its own." PRN (To view pictures from the PR News Nonprofit PR Award luncheon on December 4 in Washington D.C., or to register for the December 13 Webinar on CSR and Green PR, visit CONTACTS: Rob Key,; Audrey Sylvia,; Patricia McLaughlin, Life, Or Something Like It Second Life continues to garner buzz based on its ever-growing number of inhabitants, both in terms of avatars and actual organizations. As evidenced by Plant It 2020's strategic presence in the virtual world, nonprofits are getting a new lease on life, so to speak, and taking advantage of the platform's cost-effective marketing potential. Among the other nonprofits in-world are America's Second Harvest), Fund for Animal Welfare, Save the Children and Reporters Without Borders. Perhaps the intrinsically scrappy, grassroots-style communications of nonprofits lends itself to Second Life-like strategies; at the very least, it's worth considering for any organization looking for another outlet to reach target audiences. Plus, according to the NonProfit Times, there are 32 nonprofits residing on Second Life's new "Nonprofit Commons" space, which was officially launched by TechSoup in August 2007. According to TechSoup, the Nonprofit Commons is "a virtual community of practice for nonprofits to explore the opportunities and benefits of Second Life." There are weekly in- world meetings, as well as a complementary blog and wiki to help nonprofits that are interested in getting involved ( Still want more reason to join Second Life's community of nonprofits? A free white paper released by Social Signal (available at summarizes the incentives, which include: It's social. You can quickly develop an extensive network of contacts, professional and personal, using everything from Second Life's built-in interest group functions to chance encounters. It's a community of open-minded, motivated users. Second Life residents are coming to that world expressly to engage, and its very nature encourages active participation. It's instantly ready for e-commerce. Whether you want to raise funds or sell virtual widgets, you can set up shop quickly and easily without getting entangled in merchant accounts or security certificates. It's a no-to-low-cost way to collaborate and communicate. Your team members can join each other quickly and easily from around the world, whether for an informal chat or a two-hour meeting. It's an ideal space for innovation and experimentation. The informal rules and economic structure of Second Life are still shifting, and the opportunities for social and technological innovation abound.

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