Dear Nonprofit CEO: About that Twitter feed

Dear Nonprofit CEO:

I’m happy you’ve decided to launch your own Twitter feed. Thought I would just offer a few pieces of advice.

Here’s the most important thing I can tell you, so I am putting it right up front: Don’t think of your feed as a promotional vehicle for the organization. Think of it as a way to create a direct connection with others who are interested in the same issues. The real power of Twitter comes from the community you are creating with your followers, and the conversation you can have with them. It is about give and take. If your feed is just about turning the spotlight on your organization, it will fail. (Just to be clear, we are talking about your personal Twitter feed. Your organization’s Twitter feed is a different animal with slightly different goals.)

So, given that perspective, what do you tweet about? I’m glad you asked:

  • Provide people with a glimpse inside the amazing work life of the CEO of a nonprofit. When you are traveling to a speaking engagement or key meeting, let your followers know where you are headed and what you plan to speak about. And share some interesting things afterward. Even when you are not traveling, let people know about initiatives you are working on. Offering an inside look at how your organization works and what you are up to will go a long way toward making the organization feel more accessible, more human. Here’s a tweet from New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.

Spent last night hanging around with Valentino Deng in his amazing school in South Sudan. No windows, no running water, but lots of hope.

You may not be doing that sort of exotic traveling, but you still have interesting inside glimpses to share. Why do you think 750,000 people follow Allysa Milano (or other celebrities)? It is not to hear her political views. It is because she provides an interesting peek inside the life of a celebrity. And because she writes it herself, they feel a bit of a personal connection with her.

  • Share links to  interesting stuff that you read in the newspaper or online. Or mention books that you are reading, even if they are not work related. “Retweet” items that catch your eye on other people’s feeds. Nothing wrong with mentioning stuff coming out of your organization’s work, but I wouldn’t make that all that you do. Your followers will truly appreciate your help in pointing out valuable items they could be reading, whether it comes from your work or not. They are following you because of your knowledge and expertise. Share that freely with them.
  • Promote other people’s work. Your staff, colleagues, grantees, people your organization has no connection with—doesn’t matter who as long as they are credible. The more generous you are in helping others get the word out, the more your feed will be appreciated. (And the more help you will get from others.)
  • Let some of your personality come through. 140 characters doesn’t give you a lot to work with, but you can provide personal glimpses through the way you say things. Authenticity is a Web 2.0 watchword, and you should let some of yourself shine through. Steve Case, founder of AOL and now chairman of the Case Foundation, wrote a wonderful op ed for the Washington Post a few months back. He argued that this first phase of health reform was really about insurance reform, and the next phase needs to be about a healthier lifestyle for Americans. Here is how he tweeted about his op ed piece:

I know talk is cheap—so one of my new year’s resolutions is to really walk the talk this year:

He could have done a straight message saying, “Look at my op ed in the Washington Post.” He revealed some personality instead.

  • Throw away the bullhorn. Twitter is not just about broadcasting, which is one way. (You on a mountain top with a microphone.) Ultimately, Twitter is about creating a network of people with a shared interest so that you can tap into each other’s wisdom. (You at a cocktail party with interesting colleagues.) Use your feed to pose questions to your followers or ask their advice. You’ll get some great responses, and will be sending the message that you want feedback, want to have conversations.
  • Emphasize transparency. Being genuine and authentic is crucial to social media. You can’t build honest connections without being honest and open. Share thoughts on the organization’s challenges and failures. It will bring you respect. Send people the message that you are willing to have tough conversations. That you are not hiding from the truth. In the end, you and your organization will be stronger.
  • Tell a story. The most powerful weapon you have as a nonprofit CEO is the stories you can tell about your work and the work you see around you. Granted, 140 characters is not a lot of space to tell a tale, but you don’t have to tell the whole narrative in one tweet. Think of your feed as one long, interesting attempt to tell the story of your work. You are just laying down one morsel at a time to a world that is hungry for a good page-turner.
  • Start a conversation. Twitter, like all social media, is about conversation. No one enjoys a conversation with a bully or a lecturer or people that just want to talk about themselves. Most people want a lively discussion that makes them think or cry or laugh. Look for information you can share that will start a conversation.
  • Ask for help. You don’t have all the answers. It is a relief to admit that to the world. (Guess what? We already knew it.) There are people who are as passionate about your cause as you are and will be happy to help. Will offer good suggestions. Will appreciate the chance to contribute. Working at a foundation, I learned that we had a little extra leverage in getting people engaged in our social media because they already cared so much about our work. People who are following you are interested in your work. They will relish a chance to contribute. Give them something more interesting to do than checking Facebook for the 15th time that hour.
  • Have fun. Let’s face it. Your organization could benefit from lightening up a bit. Loosen your collar. Be self deprecating. If you see a funny piece in the Onion that is relevant to your field, share it. It will make you and your organization more approachable, and more important, make your time on Twitter more enjoyable.

Just some thoughts as you begin to venture out into Twitter. One more thing. Don’t forget to listen. It is easy to set up some RSS feeds to follow others doing similar work or to listen to what is being said about your organization. There are some great tools – free and at low cost – to help you listen as well. Get some help from the summer intern with the purplish hair or that 40-year-old guy who sits by himself in the corner of the lunch room eating an egg salad sandwich made by his mom everyday. They will be happy to assist.

Oh, you might want a few role models to follow. Other nonprofit CEOs/presidents/board chairs you can look to for an example. Steve Case, Bill Gates and Paul F. Levy represent a good place to start. Follow them for a bit. See how they use Twitter to share and engage. Bloomberg’s Business Week has a list of CEOs in the for-profit world who use Twitter effectively. Check them out. Then get out there.

Best of luck to you. You have a grand adventure ahead. Someday soon you’ll be as cheerful about your success on Twitter as this guy is:

  1. #1 by Rick Austin on May 6, 2010 - 5:50 pm


    I’ve seen the interview with the Russian singer, and he seems like a genuinely nice guy, but that original video creeps me out! High incidence of alcoholism in the old Soviet Union? No wonder. BTW, we’ll have your podcast up on KTExchange in a couple of days. I’ll email you when it’s up.

  2. #2 by Anna on April 26, 2010 - 1:27 pm

    Just what the MD ordered. Thanks!

  3. #3 by anotherjess on April 26, 2010 - 9:28 am

    The video at the end almost broke my brain. But I LOVE this post; thank you. Found it because someone I follow RT’d an RT of it.

    • #4 by Larry Blumenthal on April 26, 2010 - 10:56 am

      Thanks to all of you for the kind words. I’m glad you found this helpful. It is fun to watch social media gradually take hold in the mainstream world.

  4. #5 by heidimassey on April 24, 2010 - 5:41 pm

    OK, first you write an extraordinary piece on tweeting for nonprofits…had all the points, just as they needed to be listed. Then you end with the Trololololo guy! What a 1 2 punch! Nice job!

    (FYI, they now have an entire list of vids on him, including a recent interview about that video-hysterical!)

    Heidi Massey aka @HeidiEKMassey

  5. #6 by Laura B on April 23, 2010 - 3:06 pm

    Nice work, Larry! And this is stellar advice for anyone doing this professionally, whether or not they’re a CEO!

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