How nonprofit professionals can develop a strong personal brand on social media
When we think about social media in 2020, we likely think about cat videos and late-night presidential rants. On one hand, social media is perceived as a frivolous time waster, while on the other, it has a potentially dangerous quality to it.
It’s no wonder that many nonprofit leaders and staff decide to let their communications folks maintain social media for their organizations while they focus on doing the more important charitable work.
But not everyone in the charitable sector opts out of developing a strong personal brand on social media. We decided we would talk with some of the people who are engaged in this way to understand why they think this is an important tool for everyone working in the sector, and to hear their advice on wielding the tool wisely and well.
Opportunities created by personal social media
The name that springs to mind when the Canadian charitable sector starts talking about social media and personal branding is Paul Nazareth. At a recent nonprofit gathering, when a speaker requested everyone turn off their social media, everyone turned to Nazareth, who is also the vice president, education & development at the Canadian Association of Gift Planners.
“There is a still a condescending attitude from nonprofit executives about the use of Twitter,” says Nazareth. “They infer it’s fluffy, not recognizing that it is a business tool. They also often feel it’s all risk and no reward, but there is most definitely a reward that needs articulating.” Nazareth now teaches the benefits of personal branding and networking through his company Connectworking, but he isn’t alone.
Fundraising consultant Helen Choi says, “Twitter is a huge platform for change. There have been many victories through Twitter. #MeToo, for instance, broke ground on Twitter when women of colour organized. It came about not with racialized and intersectional feminists thinking about branding themselves or the business they could get from being profiled from gender-based violence, but as a genuine effort to build solidarity – which is also why we do what we do in nonprofit work.”
This was the motivation behind Liz LeClair’s social media strategy over the last year. LeClair, director of major gifts at the QEII Foundation, says, “I have a specific agenda in my use of social media: to leverage and educate people about sexual harassment and the need for equity in the charitable sector.”
At AFP’s Congress last year, LeClair was inspired by the words of Hadyia Roderique, author of Black on Bay Street, an article that highlighted the issues facing women of colour in that sector. Roderique noted that it was the responsibility of those with privilege to join with women of colour and others to speak out about injustice and oppression. This inspired LeClair to recognize that the sector is dominated by white perspectives (and often white male perspectives) and to speak out and to make an impassioned call for change in an op ed and on Twitter. LeClair says, “I wanted the women and men who had experienced harassment to know they weren’t alone.”
Social media is also a place where people can shine a spotlight on other voices that should be heard. Nazareth says, “I make sure I support people who are being courageous and who are qualified to have an opinion, especially in areas where I am not qualified. I amplify qualified voices that need social sponsorship.”
Social media offers an opportunity for community for those working in the sector. Francesca Dobbyn, executive director of the United Way Bruce-Grey, says, “Social media is a great place to connect with other professionals in the nonprofit sector. It helps us see one another as colleagues, not competitors, that we are all in it to improve our communities. That’s really important for the sector.”
Organizational health consultant Maryann Kerr agrees. “The connections I’ve made as a result of LinkedIn are incredible. It’s been an opportunity to find people who think similarly to me, as well as those who think quite differently. This has been one of the biggest benefits of social media.”
Social media is also a surprisingly effective recruitment tool. Nazareth says, “When someone is applying to a job, they look at the social feeds of the organization and the CEO they would report to. If a CEO is transparent about who they are and how they work, that can recruit better than a traditional process.”
Policies: personal and organizational
Still, this doesn’t mean the right answer is to simply start tweeting away. As marketing communications consultant Marnie Grona says, “It’s important to figure out how you use your tools – just as a hammer can make a huge hole in a wall or help hang a picture, so it’s important to figure out what you want social media to do and why.”
In part this is because an organization’s goals and an individual’s goals are not always perfectly aligned. As branding consultant Simon Mainwairing said years ago, “How do you balance a personal brand and an organizational brand to best serve its strategic goals? They can either work in opposition or complement each other depending on your priorities. In truth, however, your ability to effectively blend the two turns on how you frame your role within your nonprofit organization.”
Mainwaring adds, “When an organization leader – nonprofit or otherwise – has a hierarchal outlook…using social media to build a personal brand can be perceived as self-serving and even competitive with the higher purpose of the nonprofit. If, however, that leader deeply embraces their service role seeing themselves as the chief celebrant, rather than celebrity, of their donor community, their personal brand becomes an extension of the nonprofit’s higher purpose.”
Another concern can be the freewheeling nature of personal social media accounts from staff and volunteers, as opposed to traditional means of communication such as press releases. But this is where policy can be helpful. Nazareth encourages all organizations to have a social media policy integrated into their employee handbooks, onboarding, and culture with suggestions about tone and content. Grona suggests engaging staff in a social media task force to create such policies, noting that people will be more likely to engage with a staff-driven policy. She adds, “It’s helpful to give people rules of engagement and to remind people that they do represent your organization. It’s also good to be prepared for a worst-case scenario so that everyone understands the repercussions of violating such policies.”
LeClair did not tackle harassment of fundraisers without thought or without awareness of potential consequences. She says, “People forget that freedom of speech doesn’t mean you are exempt from consequences. You are entitled to your own opinion and can say what you like, but if it affects your organization or is seen to be derogatory, defamatory, racist or sexist, it will be addressed.”
Many of those we talked with have tips for not simply posting in emotion. LeClair says, “My mom says, write it on a piece of paper and rip it up. If you still feel like writing it again, do so.” She adds, “My own rule of thumb is to think, ‘if you wouldn’t want this printed on the front page of The Globe and Mail, don’t email it or post it on social media.”
Nazareth credits Bruce MacDonald, president and CEO of Imagine Canada, for teaching him the art of journaling, and reminding him that he could write down things he may publish in the future, rather than instantly sharing what he writes.
Dobbyn says, “When I’m genuinely livid, I will walk away and make a cup of tea. I’ve made the mistake of posting my gut reaction online and saying things without doing an edit or thinking. Now I will put my phone down and take a walk. That’s a good practice for an online presence and it’s also good for my own mental health as well, to know when I need to get some perspective before I do or say something.”
At the same time, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to personal social media philosophy. Nazareth describes Twitter as being the networking event after a conference and says, “You wouldn’t spout your political or religious opinion there.”
Dobbyn, who once accidentally posted candid thoughts on her organization’s feed rather than her own, recognizes the challenge of speaking truth to power, especially when she might step on the toes of funders. “I don’t think any nonprofit leader can separate themselves from their organization. When you want to let your hair down or disagree with something, you really have to watch what you’re doing and saying, like any person with a public persona in a community.” At the same time, she adds, “I believe we have to stand for something and to telegraph that we are real human beings.”
Kerr’s work philosophy—of creating a workplace where you can bring your whole self to work—informs her social media philosophy. “I believe in authenticity, so I bring my whole self to social media just as I do to the workplace. It isn’t less strategic—it is less contrived.” Choi shares this concern about personal branding, likening it to the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where no one was really fooled by slick marketing. “I wear my heart on my Twitter,” she says.
10 Steps for getting started
1. Know that it’s never too late to join the party, says Nazareth, and that if you’re not at the party, it’s hard to introduce you to others. “If I had one message, it would be: be present. People say they want to be better connected but they need to be willing to do something. I tell people that even if they are simply on social media with a static profile and they’re listening, that’s much better.” He also notes that social media is ever-evolving with new platforms emerging, so it’s important to be in the right places to talk with the right people.
2. Start with your why. Kerr says, “For me, the test is: what was my intention in posting? What I want to do on social media is to elevate others, to learn and help others learn.” Grona says, “Think about how many posts will be about you? How will you share other posts that reflect viewpoints and interests? What kind of direct conversations will you have? How will you balance personal brand and corporate?” She adds, “If your heart isn’t in it, your strategy will fail. If you dread it, don’t bother.”
3. Remember Internet Safety 101, says Dobbyn, reminding users to be cautious about oversharing, sharing photos of children or confidential information. Keep in mind, too, as Kerr says, “All of the same issues you see in a workplace or anywhere that people commune, exist in social media. We have trolls and naysayers as well as friends.” LeClair, who worked with a counsellor as she engaged on social media about sexual harassment, also suggests that it can be good for personal wellbeing not to read all comments.
4. Err on the side of positivity, says Kerr. “There are times when you have to get into the good fight, advocating for a cause, but it helps when you can be positive as much as possible.”
5. Follow the leaders. Find folks who are doing social media well, and learn from them, whether by observation or even asking them for help. Social media consultants and books and websites can also be useful in honing your craft. (Dobbyn warns not to stereotype younger staff by insisting they run your social media by virtue of their age, unless you want to hear the #OKBoomer hashtag.)
6. Start slow, says Dobbyn. “Until you’re comfortable with the technology as well with that engagement, follow people you’re interested in and just post occasional information, to get a feel of the ebb and flow of conversation.”
7. Learn from your mistakes. Kerr says, “If I look at a comment or post and realize I’m not coming from a kind and intentional place, I take it down. We learn from our mistakes.”
8. Learn to schedule your time. Because the Internet never closes, we can easily fall down the rabbit hole of social media unless we learn to use software that schedules posts, and choose times to engage.
9. Don’t play the numbers game. Social media can fuel imposter syndrome, says Grona, especially when we fall into the trap of believing that someone with thousands of followers is more effective than someone with several hundred. “Look for quality over quantity.”
10. Be authentic, be authentic, be authentic. Choi says, “I would advocate for increased social media activism and less personal branding. The content of the message of why we do we what we do in our everyday nonprofit work advances the good fight for positive systemic changes and people-power from the bottom up.”
“I’ve realized the power of social media in creating dialogue and conversation,” says LeClair. “In the nonprofit world, we are in a relationship business. It’s important to be sure of who you are, to create an authentic two-way street of relationship building, and to let people know who you are.” She adds, “Even when we’re exposing blind spots or a dark underbelly, it can be a major catalyst for change within an amazing shared community.”
Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.
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Originally published on CharityVillage.