Non-profits enter the world of Social Media


By Kathleen Armstrong & Joey Vento

In 2001, a group of homeless men and women, community activists, and local church leaders saw the lack of help for those who need it most. Many shelters were for overnight stays and kitchens were only open for breakfast and dinner. Throughout the day many homeless people had no other choice but to roam the streets. The group realized that this could go on no longer. They worked together to form the Community Day Center in order for the homeless to have a safe place to visit.

The Community Day Center (CDC) is a nonprofit organization located in Waltham, Mass. It is the only day shelter in the metro area for those who wander the streets. The center provides a warm place for those in need. The employees at the day center build trusting relationships with its visitors, to work individually and try to get every person back on their feet, in a path to self-sufficiency.

CDC serves people who are homeless, lack a safe or affordable home, have emotional or physical abuse, and are under-employed or not employed at all. The center accepts people for who they are and provides the tools and services to move them towards a stable lifestyle. They strive to create a safe environment without judgment and work with their communities to better the town where each visitor lives.

Since the CDC is the only one of its kind in this region, their use of social media could be very beneficial if done effectively. Being a nonprofit shelter that accounts for the homeless in all the surrounding areas, we hoped that by enhancing their Facebook profile we will actually help the shelter gain a bigger audience. Improving this profile will help get the word out to someone who didn’t know about the shelter previously.

Dinner at the CDC

Many towns are unaware of how many people roam the streets every day because they lack a home or job. There are stereotypes placed on many of these people due to lack of knowledge. The center works hard to promote a better living environment for the homeless and those who live in the surrounding communities. Although they are doing a lot of work and progressing with traditional tactics, the CDC has attempted to use social media to generate more of an audience to aid their cause.

They have in place a Facebook page which contains basic information about the who, what, when and where of their organization. To learn more about this page and about other ideas the CDC has, Marilyn Lee Tom, the executive director spoke to us. Marylin feels that she has not been able to fully grasp the concept of how useful social media could be for an organization like the one she operates. The CDC page has 51 people who “like” it and this is what Marilyn has a problem with. She is unaware of how to create a page that many will want to “like” to promote more volunteering opportunities and possible donation drives.

Normally, volunteers from local schools, churches, and other local organizations are the ones that reach out to the day center after a phone call or email from Marilyn. On average, Marilyn helps about 50 to 60 people per day, sometimes with little help. She has been working at the Community Day Center for the past year but has worked with other not-for-profit organizations for 35 years. This is the first time she has used social media to help her cause and she doesn’t feel it’s working the way she hoped it would; mostly because of a need for technical education to master the social media activity.  She truly takes pleasure in community-based programs that bring people together.  This is why she wants to know some tools for creating a better social media campaign.

Creating a social media campaign can make advertising and marketing for an organization go from average to great. Social media is a platform to reach anyone on the internet, and for the CDC that means reaching potential donators and volunteers. Creating an online brand will help to connect with these like-minded people. Perhaps the most important step after creating social networking profiles on sites such as Facebook and Twitter is keeping up with them. In a way, you get out of social media exactly what you put in. Keeping up with the comments and replies keeps your followers engaged and let’s them know you’re serious about what you’re doing. If this isn’t something you can do each day there are tools that can help do this for you. Hootsuite for example, is a social media dashboard that helps you manage multiple social profiles, schedule messages and tweets, and track your media traffic. Marilyn could use a site like this to schedule when and where she wants to release information about the CDC. At the beginning of the week she could schedule all her activity ahead of time, and throughout the week periodically check for mentions and comments. The time it takes to keep up with one networking site can be done for two or three with the use of Hootsuit.

Community Day Center Facebook

After creating the CDC’s Facebook page Marilyn did not get the feedback she hoped for. On average, she emails reporters or other donators to inform them of events and update them on new issues. This is her main source of communication among those who are involved with the cause. She is more comfortable with this way of getting her information out because she knows exactly what to say to each individual. Letters are what she is most familiar with since she did not grow up in a time where social media was the way to contact people. Individual e-mails or letters feel more personal and genuine to certain donators of the CDC. The reporters that write stories regarding the center are in contact with Marilyn every so often to find updates. She has a great relationship with them and feels comfortable enough to send them pitches for events that are coming up. Creating a status on Facebook that will capture an audience is often difficult for her though, which is also why she updates the website more often. Marilyn could continue contacting individuals the way she is comfortable, but add links to her social networking sites at the bottom of each email in order to help her sites grow. And with the use of a site such as Hootsuit, her networking profiles will be easy to follow and produce more information for reporters or donators.

Facebook is always on the back of her mind when she goes about her day, said Marilyn. She has many other issues and people to worry about since not many other volunteers help her run the program. “I’m willing to try and change if I need to,” Marylin said about becoming more involved in the social media world. She thinks the only way to gain an audience though, is by having a high profile celebrity or community member to back up the organization. However, this is not the case. Without knowing so, Marilyn already uses Facebook in a proper manner.  She makes announcements about the center, or post news articles about homelessness in the area. She also posts pictures of the events that go on and invites people to join in the activities.  Pictures are great ways to inform and engage with an audience. Marilyn is very articulate and therefore has the ability to create something that will draw an audience. One item that she talked about is that she has created videos in the past for other organizations. This is something she could also post onto the CDC Facebook page or other social media sites like Twitter. Unfortunately, Marilyn explains that she does not have the time to work on projects such as these.

After looking through the items that Marilyn has for social media, we thought of some advice she can take to gain the audience  she wants. The main source to find out about CDC is their website. The website can use some updating and a splash of life. This could be included by adding photos or testimonials. The site is very basic and does have some spelling errors and information from years before that should also be changed. Even a new website could be created by using a service like WordPress, which offers various simple management tools. They do have a very useful “Like” button that brings one right to their Facebook page, but once you get to the page you realize that it could use some updating as well. Even some basic status updates in between the more important event updates could help create conversation and as a result keep people coming back to the page or help promote it to follower’s friends.

Volunteers at the CDC

In order to update these elements without using some of the already limited time Marylin has, the CDC could find a local volunteer savvy in social media or a college student majoring in communication. Nonprofits, small or large, should remember that these tools are widespread and mostly everyone in Gen Y knows how to use and implement them. Therefore, asking for volunteer support to update these digital resources is not farfetched or wrong. Updates to social media do not have to be made by professional agencies, in fact most social media “gurus” advocate users to revamp their online personal brands on their own and with the help of fellow social media users.

Facebook has become a phenomenon in our society to create awareness for organizations and their missions. While Marilyn feels that social media is not the right tool for the organization she is apart of, we disagree. With the proper help and information this site can get many more “likes” and activity . When asking Marilyn about some ideas she felt would draw a bigger audience she said that, “If people saw through the eyes of the homeless, they could feel the emotions and want to be more a part of the cause.” This could be a creative way to enhance the viewership of the site. It could be achieved by getting the guests involved in their sites. Sharing some of the homeless person’s stories of how the shelter has helped them in difficult times could really make people want to get involved. Sharing audio interviews or even videos might bring a drastic increase in interest of the CDC.

Journalists could be more receptive to writing articles about individuals after hearing or seeing their stories on the CDC site or Facebook page. By possibly having a week dedicated to the story or the life of one of the people the CDC helps, community members may become more interested in the center and desire to help as well.

In addition, Marilyn has been working to start a job readiness program for those who are unemployed. This could be a great topic to update people on, or even get professionals to mentor participants. Her hope is to have volunteers to help guide participants through the process of getting back to work. She personally had one man who used to be a painter, come to her house to paint. The pay was not high but it was also a trial. If she started making announcements on Facebook about services like these, perhaps other community members could give the job readiness program participants an opportunity to work towards full-time employment.

Facebook can also be used to post pictures so that news sources can quickly obtain visuals of events that have gone on if they want to write a story about them, or just include a photo essay on their own website. Marylin also hopes to build a better relationship with college students and Facebook is a great tool to do so. There are many college students looking to volunteer to add more experience to their resumes. Giving them the knowledge of an event where they can help, in a platform they already use every day, will be beneficial for both the center and these students.

Twitter could be another tool used to inform people about events that they can join to volunteer. Twitter is an even faster way to get this information “out there” and keep people updated. Twitter is an easy way to find people and join conversations by searching or creating hashtags that make it easy for other users to chime in. It is a way to connect with surrounding communities that may retweet or follow you. We think the CDC is an organiatation that people would love to go out of their way to mention and possibly help. The same reason we decided to profile such a great organization and cause is the same reason we believe people will connect with the CDC on social media outlets. Essentially providing news outlets and free promotion for the organization.

Community Day Center backpack drive

With the holiday season quickly approaching the CDC has many events that would be great to promote on social media sites. During the winter the homeless have the toughest time. Many reach out to places like the CDC for help. For this reason, there is a backpack drive  coming up where the CDC makes backpacks filled with winter gear, hats, gloves and scarfs to help those on the streets get through the colder months. If they were to broadcast this on a social media site many more backpacks could be produced, or even more items could be donated and added to the backpacks.

“I enjoy high energy, and that’s what my hope is for this center,” Marylin added.  This could be easily done through getting more volunteers to visit those who frequent the CDC. Social media is a great tool to spread the information people need about issues that are going on close to home. The only way that Marilyn thinks she would be able to better her social media tactics is by having someone else handle it. When asked if she would want some kind of intern to help her out she replied, “Oh, Yes!”

Most small organizations such as this one can get a proper handle on social media by having someone dedicate the time to get a good set up on the organization’s website and online profiles. Once something is set up it is easier for leaders to get a good handle on how to keep with the flow of items.

Marilyn and the CDC could truly do much more than what is being done now. After all, while people still read the paper many people get their news on social media first. This is the same case for events, volunteering ideas and even party invitations, more and more people turn to social media for information on the go. If she was able to have an intern explain proper ways to use the tools, she believes she would be more inclined to using them and appreciating them more. Marylin also said she would love to have  guideline from us on what we think she could do to improve. After this project we will be providing her with one.

Upon finding the CDC we were able to learn what great work they do for people in need. We hope that with our help they will be able to take it even further off the ground. If by expanding and improving the use of their social media outlets gets the word out and one or two more people donating or volunteer their time, it will be worth while. Creating an effective social media brand could help gain a returning volunteer that may not have heard about your organization without the internet. The internet has a young audience that can bring those high energy people to the CDC that Marilyn is looking for. Social Media could be the most effective outlet for spreading awareness for any nonprofit organization, and the Community Day Center of Waltham is no exception.

CDC at First Presbyterian Church of Waltham


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