This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Research Communication Center.

Over the past few years, large and mid-sized nonprofits have rapidly adopted social media to communicate with internal and external constituents. Social media proves to be a cost-effective resource for nonprofits, playing a pivotal role in accumulating social capital, enhancing nonprofit visibility, and strengthening stakeholder engagement. For instance, the American Heart Association launched the “Keep the Beat Challenge” in 2020 to raise awareness for heart disease. The challenge asked followers to create videos of themselves getting hearts beating through dancing, rapping, singing, bouncing, or jumping and posted videos on social media with the hashtag #keepthebeat. The social media campaign promoted people’s awareness for American Heart Month and increased donations to the organization.

Small teams and volunteers often run nonprofits. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofits’ available resources and budgets are stretched even thinner. Increasingly, nonprofits have switched to virtual fundraising to stay afloat, and it becomes crucial for nonprofit leaders to create virtual communication that is engaging and effective. At the same time, people have realized that leaders can function as the human side of organizational communication to authenticate and personalize otherwise mundane and impersonal organizational-level communication.

In scholarly literature, the focus has always been on how nonprofits as a whole can leverage social media channels to communicate, engage, and build relationships with their stakeholders. In comparison, how executive leaders of nonprofits (often referred to as Executive Director, Chief Executive Officer, or President) directly engage with their online publics is rarely mentioned. Given the critical communication function of executive leaders in liaising between nonprofits and stakeholders, it is natural to ask what communication strategies nonprofit executives adopt on social media and whether these strategies can effectively enhance online engagement.

My recent co-authored paper with researchers from the University of Florida and the University of Pennsylvania taps into this question. Based on the renowned Nonprofit Times 100 list, we identified 35 executive leaders from the U.S. and analyzed 700 Twitter posts published between February 1, 2018, and February 1, 2020. Here are some key findings:

Communication strategies nonprofit executives adopt on Twitter:
More than half of the examined posts concern executives’ personal opinions and reflections on an issue relevant to the nonprofit or its specific industry. This indicates that nonprofit leaders practiced thought leadership to reach their internal and external stakeholders, inspire learning, and cultivate public trust with their skills and expertise.
About one-third of their posts express their nonprofits’ mission, vision, and goal. This implies that nonprofit executives understand the importance of using their unique platform to promote the nonprofit brand and “sell” nonprofit value and purpose. Expressing their mission, vision, and goals online reinforces its value among employees and help make it an integral part of the day-to-day experience.
More than three-quarters of posts contained organizational listening and feedback solicitation. This percentage far exceeded the use of this tool among for-profit CEOs on Facebook.
Nonprofits outweighed for-profit executives in applying affective (e.g., expressing emotions, feelings, and detailing personal life and opinions), interactive (e.g., addressing the needs of communication partners by answering their questions, recognizing their feedback, and showing appreciation), and cohesive (e.g., using inclusive pronouns, vocatives, and salutations to build a sense of community) strategies in social media posts.
One-way information-sharing was most prevalent in their posts. Furthermore, about two-thirds of posts served the community function, suggesting leaders’ efforts to build relationships with current or potential partners. Almost half of the tweets contained at least one action-focused strategy.

If, and how, can communication strategies affect social media engagement?
— Both effective and cohesive strategies boosted likes, retweets, and comments. When a post contains an interactive component (e.g., answering questions, recognizing feedback, showing agreement), it is more likely to draw comments from both internal and external publics.
— Informational messages simultaneously elicited a greater number of likes, retweets, and comments. In comparison, community-focused messages received more likes and comments, while action-oriented messages spawned more retweets.

In the digital media era, communication professionals are counseled by top leaders to build relationships and engagement with online publics. Knowing how to leverage social media communication – including selecting relevant topics, designing effective messages, and evaluating key outtakes and outcomes – is an essential skill for communication professionals. In particular, nonprofit executives should be encouraged to ramp up two-way, interactive communication; choose strategies that reflect their authenticity, openness, and expertise; and account for people’s informational and emotional needs. In a nutshell, nonprofit executives should seize the opportunity to amplify the organization’s digital impact.

Cen April Yue (Ph.D., University of Florida) is an assistant professor of marketing, advertising, and public relations at the University of Connecticut and research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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