Follow up to the RVA Nonprofits & Social Media Study

Okay, well it has been a very long and exciting summer and things are settling down a little bit with my new job so I figured I better come back to finish the write up on my dissertation. Previously I provided the results of the study examining the current status of social media use among nonprofit human service organizations, which you can find here. Now at the request of a fellow @VCUsocialwork PhD alum (@Jon_Singletary) and his current community organizations class, I have decided to include the implications of my study along with a bit of a discussion. I am going to try and stick to what I wrote in my dissertation since I have since become a little burnt out on the topic, which I hear is understandable. In all actuality, I am still pretty excited about this topic 😀

The following is from the last chapter of my dissertation and since I own the copyright I figure I can post it here without any repercussions.

The current status of social media use among nonprofit human service organizations is that HSO’s initially adopted social media to engage with the community. Although many HSO’s continue to do this, promoting the HSO’s programs and services has also become a top priority. This is primarily done using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to share organizational newsletters, photos from projects, links to the HSO, and other information with their online community at least twice a day. Human service organizations have been using social media for more than five years and most plan to continue using social media in the future. Although HSO’s reported using social media less than ten hours a week, they were generally satisfied with the outcomes but admitted more assistance is needed.

Although the current status of social media use among HSO’s appears promising, many aspects of using this new medium require more attention. The evidence in this study may not confirm whether the digital divide of social media among HSO’s is decreasing or increasing; however, the study does suggest that HSO’s could benefit from additional assistance. McNutt & Menon (2008) argue the digital divide is particularly problematic where “situations of e-government activity has increased technological hurdles for participating in rule making and lobbying the legislature” as organizations may be left behind (p. 37). Expanding knowledge and technological capacity may be the first steps to closing the gap.

The digital divide is an important implication to consider when thinking about the participatory culture of social media. Henry Jenkins (2006) explains that focusing on expanding access to new technologies only takes one so far if there is not also a contemporaneous fostering of the skills and cultural knowledge necessary to deploy these tools towards certain ends. Access is important, but the development of a new skill set and knowledge is equally significant. This development stems from interaction via individuals using social media to work with a networked mindset, acting on the principles of openness, transparency, decentralized decision-making, and distributed action (Scearce, Kasper, & Grant, 2009). This is the social media ecology concept discussed in chapter one, which involves the platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, but also involves the user-generated activity of participatory culture to share information, connect with others for peer-to-peer learning opportunities, and a more empowered conception of citizenship. Closing the digital divide will be a multifaceted effort, but the use of social media and the participatory culture that it engenders will undoubtedly help to shrink the gap.

A second implication of this study is the need to think strategically about how to use social media. Many social media experts (Kanter & Fine, 2009; and Mansfield, 2011) assert the variety of benefits of using social media in the nonprofit sector. However, little empirical evidence exists that examines human service organizations directly. This study represents one of the first attempts to fill this gap in the literature and provide a foundation for future inquiry. Increased understanding of the current status of social media use among HSO’s will aid in assisting organizations with defining goals and thinking strategically about fundraising, promoting the organization, increasing transparency and accountability, as well as how to engage the community and support the organization in a way that is mutually beneficial.

The evidence from this study indicates a strategic social media plan should begin with a discussion around how to use social media and who should be involved. This means identifying who or how many individuals are responsible for the social media activities of the HSO and determining the best way to balance promoting the organization with community engagement so as to foster trust and maintain a genuine connection with the community. Respondents within this study seem to understand that social media users do not simply want advertisements, but rather real interaction with the organization. This can be done through transparency and accountability in addition to thinking creatively about community engagement. Finally, a discussion about how or whether to engage in fundraising via social media should also accompany a strategic social media plan so that precious resources are not wasted on efforts that result in diminutive dividends. Online fundraising is becoming increasingly fruitful and important (Ingenhoff & Koelling, 2009; and Rosenburg, Rooney, Steuerle, & Toran, 2011) ), but respondents in this study seem to understand that cultivating a genuine relationship with their online community will have greater dividends for the HSO in the long term.

The current status of social media use among HSO’s validates how technology is changing the way people interact. This has a profound impact on HSO’s as well as social work practice. McNutt & Menon (2008) argued, “social work advocates cannot ignore the promise that cyberspace and technology offers” (p. 38). This study demonstrates that social media cannot be ignored and that it encompasses more than just advocacy. One of the main tenets in social work is about creating connections and empowering vulnerable and oppressed populations. Social media offers these opportunities for those who care about social justice issues to empower others, share meaningful stories, raise awareness about particular issues, and to connect with others in more powerful ways. This connection is not meant to supplant the traditional face-to- face interaction, rather it is meant to support and enhance it. This is happening right now with the flow of content across multiple media platforms, which encourages people to seek out connections, new information, and to move towards a participatory culture. This is the cultural shift of convergence described by Henry Jenkins (2006). This study illustrates the profound motivation for adopting social media as respondents recognize the incredible potential for connecting with individuals and increasing community engagement for the greater good.

The power of social media and participatory culture resides within the people who are passionate enough to mobilize and respond to an issue. The ideological underpinnings of social media combined with the social purpose of HSO’s explain why this combination is a natural fit. The social media ecology and participatory culture described in chapter one encourage sharing, learning, openness, and impact individuals in deep and meaningful ways through the creation of trust and empowerment. Human service organizations also work to create trust and empower those whom they serve. Obviously this can only be done when the tools are used in an appropriate manner. However, this is one of the greatest and most exciting aspects of this new medium.

This study provides a foundation to explore best practices and offer suggestions for future research. The fact that a number of human service organizations are using social media and believe it to be valuable is an indication that this area of inquiry is important to social work practice, administration, and advocacy. The path of social media in social work holds incredible potential and should not be diminished or simply relegated to other professions. Others use this new medium and social work cannot afford to be left behind. The ecology of social media represents a new paradigm of building community, empowering others, developing a new skill set, and connecting for the greater good.

Wow, I actually  haven’t read that since I defended my dissertation last spring and it is actually pretty good. In the months sense I have started to delve into more of Henry Jenkins work around participatory culture and I am currently reading Howard Rheingold‘s new book Net Smart. I’m interested in understanding more about how social media can help nonprofit organizations, but I am equally interested in helping social workers understand how social media, the tools and the practices, can help with macro-level social work. Inherent in this should be a basic understand not only of the technology, but what it means to participate in the digital environment. You can check out Jenkins and Rheingold for more information around that, but that is essentially where I would like to go next.

I am also interested in knowing if or how many schools of social work currently incorporate social media into their macro practice courses. I know I am and that Jon is at Baylor U., but what else is being done? (Jon if you are interested in partnering on this topic just let me know lol). I see major implications, mostly positive but also some negative, for integrating social media into this realm of social work practice. I have some ideas on where to start, which I will be sharing at CSWE in November so if you will be there please stop by. Okay, I generally try to keep things short and I have gone on with this post. As always, please contact me if you have any questions or leave a comment on this post. You can always contact me via twitter @JimmySW. Thanks.


About jimmysw
Associate Professor of Social Work with a focus on the Future of Social Media, Social Work Education and all things technology.

2 Responses to Follow up to the RVA Nonprofits & Social Media Study

  1. Pingback: Participatory Culture and Web 2.0: Bringing New Media Literacies to Social Work Education « Jimmysw's Blog

  2. Pingback: Social Media & Nonprofit Human Service Organizations | JimmySW

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