9 Things a Nonprofit Organization Should Never Do with Twitter

“Overall, participants [in peer-to-peer fundraising efforts] that adopted integrated Social Media tools increased their fundraising [results] by as much as 40 percent compared to their peers who weren’t using the available online tools,” according to a study by Blackbaud. Clearly, Social Media sites such as Twitter can have a significant impact on donor cultivation and fundraising results.

There are already a number of good articles about how nonprofit organizations can get started with Social Media. Four particularly useful articles about getting started with Twitter are:

Because there is increasingly more information about Twitter and other Social Media online and at professional seminars, I will not use my blog to suggest how to get started with Twitter or what you can do with it. Instead, I’m going to look at what you should not do with Twitter. While Twitter can certainly help nonprofit organizations with their development efforts, there are some things you should never do.

Do NOT Expect to Raise Money. I’m not saying you can’t use Twitter to raise money. I’m just say not to expect you’ll raise a lot. Nevertheless, a few charities have enjoyed great fundraising success via Twitter. For example, the American Red Cross has raised money through Twitter in response to various disaster relief efforts. While your organization may be able to raise some money as a result of your efforts on Twitter, that should not be your primary expectation. Instead, use Twitter to cultivate and engage people, promote your cause, and build a following. Overtime, you’ll be able to talk with folks about giving.

Do NOT Use Your Professional Twitter Account for Personal Tweets. Speaking of the American Red Cross, they had an awkward Twitter moment sometime ago, as reported in The High Low. Red Cross staff member Gloria Huang wrote about finding more Dogfish Head beer, accompanied by the hashtag #gettngslizzerd. The only trouble was that Huang accidentally posted the Tweet using the Red Cross account rather than her own. Rather than posting apology after apology, the Red Cross averted potential disaster by simply taking down the Tweet and responding with a reasonable joke: “We’ve deleted the rogue Tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” The response was so well-received it inspired a blood drive for the Red Cross, partly promoted by Dogfish Head’s Twitter followers. In a charming twist to a Tweet gone wrong and set right, the hashtag for the drive was Huang’s #gettngslizzerd. While all worked out well for the Red Cross, you should be sure to keep personal and professional Tweets in the right place.

Do NOT be Corporate. Ok, I know I just said to keep personal and business Tweets separate. But, that doesn’t mean your Tweets have to be formal or dull. Remember, Twitter is about personal communication. Keep it friendly. Don’t be afraid to comment on things related to but not specifically about your mission. Don’t be stuffy; you want people to like you.

Do NOT Pat Yourself on the Back. My mother told me when I was a child and was boasting about something, “Don’t pat yourself on the back so hard. You might knock yourself over.” This is good advice for Twitter users as well. People do not want to hear you talk about how great you are. They do want to hear what you’re accomplishing that is making life better. They especially want to hear things that are meaningful to them. Share with people the issues your nonprofit is dealing with. Engage them. Cultivate them. Give them information they will find useful.

Photo by Steve Garfield via Flickr

Do NOT be Exploitative. There’s a line between reacting to a crisis and exploiting one. When disasters strike, the Red Cross is there lending a helping hand and raising needed dollars. By contrast, and pulling an example from the corporate world, the Kenneth Cole company exploited the revolution in Egypt to sell its products. Here’s the Kenneth Cole Tweet: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at[…]” When the inevitable backlash came, the company took the Tweet down and apologized. It’s important to know where the line is and to stay on the correct side of it.

Do NOT Use Foul Language. Sometimes, events get the better of us. For example, witnessing a terrible injustice can bring forth the desire to use course language. However, in the Twitterverse, it’s important to avoid naughty words. Unfortunately for Chrysler, their Tweeter snapped one morning and sent this message out, “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to [expletive deleted] drive.” Chrysler later removed the Tweet and apologized but not before it was Retweeted many times. So, watch your language and expect that some of your Tweets will be Retweeted, even when you don’t necessarily want them to be.

Do NOT Feel You Must Engage Everyone. While you will generally want to engage with people who are Tweeting about your cause or organization, remember you don’t have to engage with everyone. For example, someone might have things to say about your organization that are not particularly nice. Usually, it’s best to leave this alone, particularly if the person is simply being emotional and is off-base. On the other hand, if the person is making a valid point, apologize and respond. If the person is making a factual error, consider correcting it. Above all, be very careful when engaging those who are upset.

Do NOT Expect an Intern to Tweet. Your organization should not become an active user of Social Media, including Twitter, without having a plan in place that includes strategy, tactics, goals, and resources. While an intern can assist with the implementation of a Social Media plan, messages and interactions should be managed by a knowledgeable staff person who knows the organization, understands the plan, and has the maturity to professionally execute. Here’s another example from the corporate world: The Marc Jacobs company had an intern doing its Tweeting. Unfortunately, it seems the intern couldn’t take the pressure and, on his or her last day, decided to blast, using the company’s Twitter account, one of the partners. A more mature, professional individual would likely not have done the same on the way out the door. So, be sure to have the right person representing your organization.

Do NOT Automatically Exclude Twitter from Your Communications Mix. Perhaps the worst mistake you can make is to not realize the reach of Social Media and the impact you can have with it. Facebook claims to have 600 million active users each month. Twitter claims there are 175 million user accounts though at least one source (Business Insider) puts the number of active Twitter users at closer to 85 million, still a large number. Hundreds of millions of people across all demographic and socio-graphic groups are using Social Media. Many of your donors and prospective donors are using it. Your organization should weigh the pros and cons of using Social Media. You may ultimately decide, for whatever reason, that it is not appropriate for you to use Twitter or other Social Media tools. But, it should be a conscious decision one way or the other. Is Twitter right for your organization? Do you have the resources to use it properly? Should it be part of your marketing mix? Don’t ignore Social Media. Evaluate it the way you would any development or marketing strategy.

By the way, you can find me on Twitter @mlinnovations.

Are there any other “Do Nots” that should be added to my list? I invite you to add to the Do-Not list by commenting below.

That’s what Michael Rosen Says… What do you say?

31 Responses to “9 Things a Nonprofit Organization Should Never Do with Twitter”

  1. Michael – Great stuff!!!! Should be required reading for those just starting out on Twitter.

    Let me add one more: politics. If you are tweeting for a biz/nonprofit, try to stay away from politics (Unless you’re a PAC 🙂 ). You never know which way your followers lean – and you may upset them…the last thing you wanna do.

    Tweet on!

    • Ephraim, your comment means a great deal to me because it comes from you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights. Folks should be sure to connect with you on Twitter and should also visit your blog, regularly.

    • Hmmmm — what do you mean by “politics?” Only PACs can show support for candidates, but a lot of issue advocacy organizations can and must talk about legislation and policy. I wish more would, like when the American Cancer Society took on the highly politicized issue of lack of healthcare. A lot of nonprofits have expertise on root causes of the problems they address that policymakers and voters need to hear. Even the Girl Scouts have Washington staff that deal with policy affecting girls. It’s wise for organizations to be thoughtful in how they approach political issues, but let’s not leave the job to PACs alone.

      • Tracy, you’re absolutely correct. Thank you for commenting and giving me the chance to clarify what I meant. I believe there is a huge difference between issue advocacy and politics. For that matter, the IRS and the Federal Election Commission also see a big difference. Issue advocacy deals with causes related to an organization’s mission. Politics, at least in the context of my blog post and IRS and FEC regulations, deals more with expressing support for or opposition to a particular candidate or political party. As private citizens, we’re free to pretty much say anything we want on Twitter. However, while representing a nonprofit organization, we need to stick with advocacy, when mission appropriate and handled carefully, and avoid politics. Organizations that Tweet should develop a clear policy regarding advocacy Tweets.

  2. Michael,

    You outdid yourself with this post. I think your examples clearly illustrate what ‘not’ to do. Twitter is such an interesting and powerful social media tool, primarily because of its ‘realtime’ nature. For the same reason ‘live television’ has always been dangerous, so can Twitter be. Look no further than Anthony Weiner for an example of even a highly intelligent person who forgot common sense and etiquette when using this amazing tool.

    Before I let fly with anything, I really try and be mindful of what I’m saying and to who. One other tip for people is to use simple language. On Twitter you’ll find many English as a second language speakers who might miss nuanced language. Keep it simple, professional, and direct!

    I agree with Ephraim, as well. Politics are a ‘no no’ for NPOs, professionals, or businesses IMHO because the discussion is polarizing and counter to strategic goals.


    • Darren, thank you for your generous comment. I also appreciate your additional insight. Even for folks for whom English is a first language, things can get confusing when trying to communicate in only 140 characters. I think that’s one reason why some folks have argued with me when I’ve actually been agreeing with them. It can be tricky at times. Your reminder to “keep it simple, professional, and direct” is solid advice. As for the advice to avoid politics, I’d add another reason to avoid the subject as a nonprofit Tweeter: You’re not going to convince anyone to your view in 140 characters. Thanks again for the kind feedback; coming from you, it means a lot to me.

  3. I’m never buying Kenneth Cole again. Pretty tacky!

  4. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the mention of my Twitter gaffe and the positive words. 🙂 I am always glad to see it become a lesson for other folks. Great points in this article… I think they are all good pieces of advice to keep in mind!



    • Gloria, I have no idea how you found my blog post (you have to let me know), but I’m honored you stopped by and commented. You’re a good sport and, quite possibly, the coolest person in the Twitterverse! Thank you for your nice comment, the great story, and the terrific work you do for a superb organization. I just Followed you on Twitter and suspect other readers will as well.

      • Actually, since you mentioned Red Cross I came across your post while monitoring for Red Cross mentions for work. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words – I will follow you back on Twitter as well.

      • Gloria, I know other folks were curious about how you found my blog post. So, thank you for taking the time to let us know. Most organizations really do not engage with folks via Social Media. Sadly, they use tools like Twitter to simply broadcast. I love that the American Red Cross engages with people, even when those folks do not necessarily engage directly with the Red Cross as was the case with my blog. You don’t need me to tell you, but your approach to Social Media and the Internet is very smart. Even if organizations do not actively use Twitter and other Social Media tools, they should monitor those sources for mentions and, when appropriate, engage. Thank you for another terrific lesson!

  5. All helpful insights, especially on how fundraising shouldn’t be ask #1. It takes time and a lot of work to cultivate a community. Once you’ve got an army of passionate followers, then you can start making that outreach, but if you’re really good at what you do, you won’t have to – they will do the asking of their networks on your behalf.

  6. Great post Michael.

    Your suggestions really relate to all brands using Twitter and Social Media and not just non-profits. Through social media, brands have the unique opportunity to be real and to open up the heart of what they do to others.

    For non-profits, I believe that people truly want to feel an emotional connection with those who are doing the hard work (giving of their time, money or support) when they can’t. Building on this association is important. Social is a great avenue to do this.

    Great work.

    Twitter: @eyebrand

  7. An excellent way to educate about this topic…how NOT to do something is actually telling me what to DO in Twitterverse (which I/my organization has not yet entered but are learning so we can start). Thank you!

    • Jacqueline, I appreciate your comment. Thank you! I’m happy you found the tips useful. I noticed you’re on to me; you’re right; I did find a sneaky way to suggest to folks what to do. 🙂 Good luck in the Twitterverse!

  8. Another really useful article Michael – thanks! Linked to your ‘do not be corporate’ I think ‘do not only broadcast’ which someone taught me – you need to be having conversations and responding to people’s mentions and retweets to truly get people engaged. (And I like how Gloria has commented too – and I too am intrigued as to how she found your blog post!)

    • Sophie, thank you for your comment and your suggestion that Twitter should not be used only to broadcast. I frequently tell new Twitter users exactly that, so I’m not sure why I did not include it on my list. *Sigh* I’m grateful that you brought it up. While organizations can use Twitter as a billboard or radio station, simply sending out messages, they will certainly not be realizing the full value of Twitter. The Philadelphia Zoo (@phillyzoo) does use Twitter as a broadcast medium. They Tweet announcements, share photos and videos, and post interesting tidbits. But, while they do not Follow back, they nevertheless occasionally engage people with Tweets such as, “Hope you have fun today! What animals are you most excited to see?” Through actual engagement, the Zoo is building relationships. That’s smart marketing and smart fundraising.

      As for the American Red Cross, they’re a very smart organization. Rather than merely interacting with people who directly engage the organization, the Red Cross monitors Social Media and the Internet looking for mentions. When they find that the Red Cross has been mentioned, they evaluate the situation and determine whether or not to engage. As Gloria Huang explains, that’s how she found my blog. Very smart.

    • Sophie, I heard from Gloria Huang. The American Red Cross monitors Social Media and the Internet for mentions. Then, they evaluate when and how to respond or even if a response is necessary. They’re very smart about this. And, Gloria is a super sharp and a real good sport.

  9. Michael – thanks for referring to this post I missed. While I agree that organizations shouldn’t expect to raise money, actually raising some can help justify the time spent and show true dollar value to engaging w/o diminishing the inherent stewardship and cultivation value it brings on its own. A while back I guest posted on the #fundchat blog – sharing some of our small-sized organizational successes – http://fundchat.org/2011/07/26/11-dos-and-donts-of-social-media-fundraising/. While raising funds via social media should not be the main goal – it sure helps!

    • Nathan, thank you for your comment and sharing the link to your helpful blog post. I agree that nonprofits can indeed raise some money via social media as the Blackbaud report indicates. And, raising some money can certainly help justify the effort. I just don’t think senior management should expect a significant amount to be raised and staff should certainly not encourage senior management to think that. Any money that can be raised through social media is icing on the cake. It’s possible to raise money. It’s good when you do. But, it should not be the expectation or main goal, as you’ve stated. I also agree, though, that raising money sure does help, on a number of levels.


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