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Study shows changing way international nonprofits use social media to directly connect with public

Mon, 04/30/2018

LAWRENCE — Like most of society, nonprofit organizations are frequent users of social media. And like many individuals, how they use it has changed over the years. A new study by University of Kansas researchers shows that the goals international nonprofits use social media to achieve have shifted in the last decade with reduced emphasis on providing information to journalists. At the same time, the effects of individual communicators’ characteristics on how their organizations use social media have been diminished with the increased prevalence of social media in our daily lives.

For nonprofit organizations, social media can be a way to connect with the public, raise funds, increase awareness of a cause, gather feedback, garner media coverage and promote events. A KU survey of nearly 150 communications professionals at international nonprofits based in the U.S. found that connecting with the public is the No. 1 use of social media, while connecting with media is no longer a top goal. And while support from the organization is the most important factor in whether they use social media, individual characteristics, such as the communications professionals' age, gender and perceptions of technology, did not influence how they used social media.

Hyunjin Seo and Hong Tien Vu, associate and assistant professors of journalism at KU, conducted an online survey of 146 employees of nonprofits based in the United States with international reach. The organizations were identified through Charity Navigator, a service that evaluates how efficiently nonprofits use donations, administrative costs and other factors. They will present the findings at the 2018 International Communication Association annual conference in Prague, Czech Republic, in May.

The survey found organizations relied most heavily on their own websites to share information and solicit donations, and for social media, they used Facebook, Twitter, blog sites and Instagram the most, in that order. Seo and colleagues conducted a similar survey in 2007, which found the organization’s site, blogs, videocasts, podcasts and wikis were the most common formats. That was not the only change over a decade. Respondents said the general public was the most important audience for them to reach, ahead of potential donors, current donors and the media. In fact, providing information to media was the least important function, whereas it was third a decade ago, behind promoting the organization’s image and fundraising.

“If used properly, social media enables nonprofit organizations to directly promote their messages without going through journalists,” Seo said. “This is in line with the increased decentralization and disintermediation. The finding indicates diminishing roles for journalists as intermediaries as nonprofits more directly engage with their publics.”

While the popularity of certain social media platforms changed, Seo said it was not a surprise that the organizational site still rated No. 1, as such a site can be used as more of an informational hub and place to enable monetary donations.

How active the nonprofits were in using various forms of social media was most influenced by organizational support, the survey found. In other words, when the group’s leadership provided different types of support for social media, the communications professionals were more likely to actively use it. Such support was measured in three forms: overall, resource and policy support. Organizations can say they support use of social media in furthering their mission, but if they did not provide resources in terms of money or manpower, or provide a policy in how it was to be used, it was less likely for the organizations to be active. Respondents who said their organization did not have guidelines were also less active. Questions gauged if nonprofits provided staffing specifically for social media, access to analytics to gauge performance and related written policy.

“Strong organizational leadership support of social media efforts was the most significant factor in predicting the organization’s social media involvement. A lot of people say, ‘Social media is free.’ But it’s not free,” Seo said. “It takes people to develop content and share it, and that takes time, resources and leadership commitment.”

Unlike organizational characteristics, however, individual characteristics did not have an effect on how social media was used by the groups. Previous research had indicated that men were more confident in using social media, while women viewed it as more relevant. There are also common assumptions that young people are savvier with such technologies or more adept at using it. The results, however, showed no influence from individual characteristics, indicating a possibility that social media has become so prevalent in daily life it has negated those differences. There is no longer a question of if the groups should use social media, but how, Seo said.

While individual characteristics did not influence how social media was used, the size of the communication team was negatively associated with the importance of social media for fundraising. The finding could suggest organizations with smaller communications teams are more likely to rely on inexpensive means of communication for fundraising.

The study is part of the authors’ wider body of research examining social media use and its connections with social movements, and Seo said she hopes to do followup interviews with respondents to gain deeper understanding of each organization and to learn more about whether any other factors influence how they use social media. Meanwhile, the current findings help shed light on international nonprofit work, how such organizations use social media and for those in the profession to better understand how their colleagues use social media and for what purposes.



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