Social Media and the Nonprofit Sector

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Social Media
Social media includes useful communication tools and helpful communication equipment that can help people create and share information as well as receive feedback about information. This article provides definitions and a timeline of the history of social media and describes its importance to the philanthropy sector.

Authored by Yongzheng Yang


Social media has become the predominant communication and marketing tool of social and business interactions. How do we define this popular phenomenon that includes diverse platforms, purposes, and populations? This paper defines social media as “web-based communication tools that enable people to interact with each other by both sharing and consuming information” (Nations, 2018). There are two important aspects of this definition. First, social media are media because they are useful communication tools and helpful communication equipment. Second, social media are social because they can help people create and share information as well as receive feedback about information.

Social media are quite different from traditional media, like newspaper, television, and broadcast. Traditional media are one-way communication tools, which means people can only receive a piece of information, but they cannot give feedback directly and immediately. In contrast, social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are two-way communication tools. People can easily read all kinds of information via social media, but more importantly, they can also interact with others and give and receive feedback instantly. It is instant interaction that promotes the popularity of social media.

A typical kind of social media should have at least one of the following features: “user accounts, profile pages, friends, followers, groups, hashtags, news feeds, personalization, notifications, information updating, saving, or posting, "like" buttons, comment sections, and review/rating/voting systems (Nations, 2018).” Social media and social networking are similar but different concepts. Social networking is the community that forms within social media. The broader concept is social media, and “social networking is a subcategory of social media (Nations, 2018)”.


Historical Roots

The development of social media can be summarized as follows (McFadden, 2018; Phrasee, 2018; Hendricks, 2013):

  • 1997 appearance of the first true social media, SixDegree, which allowed users to “upload profile pictures and connect with others”
  • 1998 Moveon began as “one of the first activist social media sites”
  • 1999 Livejournal, the first blogging site, allowed uses to “follow each other and create groups that also interact with one another”
  • 2000 LunarStorm was launched. This was one of the first commercial advertisement-financed social networking websites.
  • 2002 Friendster launched as a dating site and an event, band, and hobby discovery service 
  • 2002 LastFM was one of the first online music databases and online radio streaming 
  • 2003 LinkedIn emerged and continued to be one the most popular social media sites
  • 2003 MySpace appeared and quickly rose to the most popular social media site at the time
  • 2004 launched many new sites: the Harvard version of Facebook. Care2, Multiply, Ning, Orkut, Mixi, Piczo and Hyves
  • 2005 YouTube emerged and “opened an entirely new method of communication
  • 2006 Facebook became a global social site
  • 2006 Twitter allowed users to interact directly with celebrities, which was almost unheard of previously
  • 2007 Tumblr and FriendFeed appeared
  • 2008 Spotify, Ping, Groupon, and Kontain appeared
  • 2010 emergence of Pinterest and Instagram
  • 2011 launch of Snapchat



No one can deny the importance of social media nowadays. Social media provide people with a lot of advantages that traditional media don’t have. For example, one person can easily and conveniently create and share information to another person via social media and receive the feedback of another person instantaneously. Similarly, one person can read all kinds of information from another person via social media and give feedback to another instantaneously. This social interaction makes social media popular, and it plays an indispensable role connecting people and opportunities in our society. Another important reason is that people can use social media freely in most instances. So all walks of people, rich or poor, can get access to social media. Organizations can publish information and collect resources with a lower cost.

Social media play an important role in individual life. For instance, people can watch the latest news on social media. Although traditional media, like newspaper, television, are also useful ways to focus on news, people can focus on the latest news and express their opinions freely and conveniently via social media. People can also make friends via social media. Social media can transcend the boundary of countries, so people living in United States can make friends in the United Kingdom, China, Egypt, and in any other country in the world. Some social media, like Twitter, make it possible to get the latest news about celebrities and interact with famous film stars. Job hunting can also be accomplished on social media. On one hand, companies may publish their recruitment information on social media, so people can get the latest job openings from the companies they are interested in. On the other hand, people can expose their education background, working experiences, job requirements, and other related information on social media, making it more likely to be seen by human resources managers.

Social media play an important role in economic, political, and cultural fields. For companies, social media are helpful equipment for brand building, which means companies can get a positive reputation for their products and “strengthen their existing brands (Waters et al, 2009)”. Companies can also interact with potential consumers (Young, 2017) and launch products (Waters et al, 2009) via social media. Political field uses social media, too. People can get a lot of political information from social media. Governments can publish city service information via social media, such as extreme weather, road conditions, to name a few (Young, 2017). On top of economic and political fields, social media can be used in the education system, clinical social work, environmental protection, and many other fields (Young, 2017).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Social media play an important role and have been used in many fields. The philanthropic sector is a field keeping an intimate relationship with social media. Social media can help philanthropic organizations publish identifying information, such as name, logo, age, mission, financial and work report, personnel, programs of an organization. This published information helps attract large audiences and raise awareness of specific causes. Social media can also be used to build strong relationships with stakeholders, such as interacting with stakeholders, stakeholder engagement, and forming a dynamic community. Most importantly, philanthropic organizations can accomplish their goals and missions via social media, such as fundraising, recruiting and mobilizing volunteers, advocacy, educating people, making social change (Young, 2017; Saxton & Wang, 2014). Often, nonprofits have not made full use of social media. It is not enough to have a profile, but instead, it requires careful planning and maintenance for nonprofits to benefit from the power of social media (Waters et al, 2009). So it is necessary for nonprofit organizations to take measures to use social media to their full potential. The following measures are helpful.

First, attach importance to social interaction. Nonprofit organizations should play as ‘‘information sources” ‘‘community builders’’ and ‘‘promoters & mobilizers’’ (Lovejoy & Saxton, 2012). According to a myriad model developed by Guo and Saxton (2014), advocacy organizations are encouraged to use social media following three steps: “1) reaching out to people; 2) keeping the flame alive; and 3) stepping up to action.” Interaction with audiences / stakeholders plays an important role in all of the three roles / steps, especially keeping the flame alive and building a sustainable community. Adding social interaction is an important agenda item for all kinds of nonprofit organizations.

Second, make full use of functions of social media. Some social media have introduced functions helpful for nonprofit organizations. For example, nonprofit organizations can easily “create fundraising pages and add Donate buttons to their profile and posts” on Facebook (Gordy, 2018). Similar functions can be found on Twitter (e.g., tinyGive) and they “enable nonprofits to accept donations on Twitter by encouraging followers to tweet #Donate or #tinyGive plus a dollar amount at your handle (Gordy, 2018).” Nonprofit organizations can join a topic via “a specific hashtag (#),” connect to existing contents via URLs (hyperlinks), and interact with a specific person via user mentions (@) (Guo & Saxton, 2018).

Finally, notice some influencing factors. Research confirms the power of one's social network (Guo & Saxton, 2018; Saxton & Wang, 2014). Nonprofit organizations should pay attention to build a strong social network (i.e., the number of followers). In terms of organizational factors, “volume of speech (i.e., number of tweets sent), and how many conversations it joins (i.e., number of hashtags employed)” of an advocacy organization (Guo & Saxton, 2018) are positively related to people’s attention to that organization. Web capacity rather than financial capacity has positive effects on fundraising, and some specific programs (e.g., health-related causes) can receive more contribution from online donors (Saxton & Wang, 2014). With that in mind, nonprofit organizations can optimize use of social media to increase organizational factors above. In terms of content nonprofit organizations send on social media, photos, rather than texts, and photo or video links have a statistically positive relationship with the amount of attention to nonprofit organizations (Guo & Saxton, 2018). Photos can tell stories and generate emotional reactions to the nonprofit's mission.


Key Related Ideas

  • Media ecology & Social media ecology: Media ecology is a theory examining “the substance of how media affect human perception, interaction, and understanding and whether media facilitates or impedes chances of survival” (Young, 2017). Social media ecology is the development of media ecology theory in the era of social media. The two theories will be helpful for nonprofit organizations to use social media to their full potential and serve for their own missions and goals.
  • Media User Typology (MUT) was first put forward by Brandtzaeg. It refers to six different types of media users: “nonusers, sporadics, lurkers, entertainment users, instrumental users, and advanced users” (Goldkind, 2015) Advanced users can use media fluently. Nonprofit organizations should learn from this model and make the transition from nonusers of media to advanced users.
  • Slacktivism is defined by United Nations as when people “support a cause by performing simple measures” but “are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change” (Muslic, 2017). The positive aspect of slacktivism is that it will raise public awareness of some specific causes via liking / sharing / re-tweeting information, but the negative aspect is that people will not donate or volunteering for causes because they may think they have “done their part” on social media.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Joseph Kony was the leader of Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a former military organization in Uganda. He is mentioned here because it was through the power of social media efforts around the world that this cruel leader was stopped from harming more children. He was the subject of a documentary Kony 2012 for Invisible Children, Inc., which told the story of his actions forcing boys to become child soldiers and girls to become slaves. The release and viral spread of Kony 2012 made many people focus on Kony’s inhumane behaviors and even promoted US senate to take action.
  • Mark Zuckerberg is a famous entrepreneur and philanthropist in United States. He was born in 1984 and graduated from Harvard University. He is the co-founder of Facebook, one of the most popular social network websites in the world. Now Facebook is also an important social media for nonprofit organizations. Mark contributed a lot to philanthropy, e.g., donated $100 million to save public schools in New Jersey, signed the “giving pledge”.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Charity: Water [] was founded in 2006 and it is a nonprofit organization “bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries.” This group “organized the first-ever Twestival—a series of 200 off-line Twitter-based charity events that raised more than $250,000 from 10,000 new donors (Greenberg & MacAulay, 2009)”.
  • Greenpeace [] was founded in 1971. It aims to raise people’s awareness of global environmental issues and promote effective measures to protect environment. Greenpeace has great influence in many countries. It makes full use of social media to expose environmental problems to the public and encourage protest and other actions.
  • March of Dimes [] was founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 and it aims to “fight premature birth” and promote health of moms and babies. It shares all kinds of information about its causes on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Blog. For example, it has promoted its "Walk for Babies” program via all social media since 2008.


Reflection Question

What examples can you give to show the positive and negative sides of social media? If you were running a nonprofit organization, how would you make full use of social media?



  • Goldkind, Lauri. 2015. “Social Media and Social Service: Are Nonprofits Plugged In to the Digital Age?” Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance     39(4): 380-396.
  • Gordy, Jeff. 2018. “3 Ways to Encourage Volunteer Giving on Social.” Neon.
  • Greenberg, Josh, and Maggie MacAulay. 2009. “NPO 2.0? Exploring the Web Presence of   Environmental Nonprofit Organizations in Canada.” Global Media Journal (Canadian Edition) 2(1): 63-88.  
  • Guo, Chao, and Gregory D. Saxton. 2015. “Tweeting Social Change: How Social Media Are Changing Nonprofit Advocacy.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 43, no. 1: 1-23.
  • Guo, Chao, and Gregory D. Saxton. 2018. “Speaking and Being Heard: How Nonprofit Advocacy Organizations Gain Attention on Social Media.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 47, no. 1: 5-26.
  • Hendricks, Drew. 2013. “Complete History of Social Media: Then And Now.” Small Business Trends, May 8, 2013.     
  • Lovejoy, Kristen, and Gregory D. Saxton. 2012. “Information, Community, and Action: How Nonprofit Organizations Use Social Media.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 17(3): 337–353.
  • McFadden, Christopher. 2018. “A Chronological History of Social Media.” Interesting Engineering, October 16, 2018.                    
  • Muslic, Hana. 2017. “What is Slacktivism and is it Even Helping?” Nonprofit Hub, June 20, 2017.
  • Nations, Daniel. 2018. “What Is Social Media?” Lifewire, Updated March 26, 2019.     
  • Phrasee. 2018. “The history of social media: a timeline.” August 6, 2018.  
  • Saxton, Gregory D., and Lili Wang. 2013. “The Social Network Effect: The Determinants of Giving Through Social Media.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 43(5): 850–868.
  • Waters, Richard D., Emily Burnett, Anna Lamm, and Jessica Lucas. 2009. “Engaging stakeholders through social networking: How nonprofit organizations are using Facebook.” Public Relations Review 35(2): 102-106.                     
  • Young, Jimmy. 2016. “Facebook, Twitter, and Blogs: The Adoption and Utilization of Social Media in Nonprofit Human Service Organizations.” Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance 41, no. 1: 44-57.            
This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.