A growing number of charities and non-profits have gone social. From Facebook to Twitter, social media has an obvious appeal: the costs of getting involved are low, awareness can be generated virally and people naturally tend to use social media to engage around topics and causes that are important to them.

But what isn’t so well understood is how social media can best be applied to the non-profit sector in meaningful ways.

Talance, a Boston-area web development firm, looked at how non-profits in Massachusetts are using social media in its 2009 Massachusetts Non-Profit Social Media Report. Some of the findings are of interest and relevance to non-profits everywhere who are interested in using social media to do good.

Talance’s study surveyed a non-profits in Massachusetts with budgets ranging from under $1m to over $100m annually. Most (69%) operated on budgets under $1m and 28% operated on budgets ranging from $1m to $5m.

The findings:

  • Non-profits know about social media. Social networking, blogging, etc. were known to just about all of the respondents.
  • Non-profits are using social media. 55% of the non-profits Talance surveyed are using social networks and another quarter are planning to use them.
  • Microblogging isn’t hot – yet. Surprisingly, 80% of the respondents were unfamiliar with microblogging services, such as Twitter. Only 7% who knew about microblogging services were currently using them.
  • It’s all about networking. Most respondents are using social media as a networking tool but are not yet leveraging it as a tool to engage with donors.
  • Strategy is missing. Over three-quarters of the non-profits surveyed didn’t have a marketing plan.

Perhaps the biggest challenge highlighted by Talance’s study is that the vast majority of non-profits in the study reported that less than 5% of their donations originated online.

There’s obviously two ways to look at this. Either social media is best applied for networking and to generate awareness or non-profits will need to focus more heavily on developing strategies to turn social media engagement into donations. Given that so few of the non-profits surveyed had marketing plans (the equivalent of flying by the seat of your pants in today’s cluttered multimedia culture), I’d say there’s a very good chance that online donations haven’t realized their potential because a strategy is usually a prerequisite for success when it comes to getting people to open up their wallets.

One thing is for sure: social media is on the non-profit radar and even the smallest of organizations are looking to jump on the bandwagon. That’s a great thing since social media and non-profits seem to be a natural fit.

At the same time, however, with so many non-profits going social, it will be increasingly important for these non-profits to figure out how to cut through the clutter and weave social media into their overall operations, as Talance suggests.

Photo credit: sterlingpr via Flickr.