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Navigating Social Media as a Nonprofit
Featuring an interview with Emily Patterson, Associate Director of Social Media and Merchandise at the ACLU.
I always say that no two social media jobs are the same. So many factors can affect your role—the type of company you work for, the industry you’re in, the audience you want to build. One of the biggest factors, I think, is if you work at a for-profit or a nonprofit company. Your mission on social media is different, the resources you are working with are different, and your audience relationship is different. We’ve covered a lot of for-profit social media roles in this newsletter, and admittedly fewer nonprofit roles. That’s why I am so grateful to Emily Patterson, Associate Director of Social Media and Merchandise at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for chatting with me specifically about working in social at a nonprofit. They’ve worked in the nonprofit space for almost 10 years and truly understand the ins and outs of it. We talk about everything from responding to breaking news, why organic social isn’t dead, and tips for breaking through with minimal budget.
Rachel Karten: First, can you tell me a bit about your current social media role and any previous social (or not) roles you've had?
Emily Patterson: I started at the ACLU as a social media editor in December of 2016. I then became the social media manager. Now I lead our team as the associate director of social media and merchandise, which wasn’t a role that existed when I started here. Before this, I ran the creative and digital programs of a boutique consulting agency that managed traditionally underfunded campaigns in the South, and excelled at judicial races. Prior to that I managed an organizing team for the League of Conservation Voters.
RK: What does your day-to-day look like at the ACLU?
EP: All social media workers can appreciate how quickly any of my days can suddenly be derailed. My days specifically are often derailed by the news cycle. I think what is different for nonprofits and the ACLU than for-profit brands, is instead of it being derailed because we have to go dark and pull everything from the calendars, we actually have to figure out how to actively respond to that event.
I spend most days that are not derailed negotiating the trickier approvals with our program staff, advising senior staff in crisis comms scenarios, reporting on how content is performing, creating campaigns, and training new affiliate digital hires.
RK: When there is something in the news, do you have a decision tree or is it more of a gut reaction?
EP: So we have a skeleton of the decision tree, and then it’s really a combination of gut feeling and the uniqueness of it. For the ACLU, if it's legal or advocacy, it's two totally different directions that we move in. For legal strategies it really doesn’t matter how good of an idea it is, if it could hurt the argument in court, it's a non-starter. Whereas advocacy is much closer to what anyone in social media would ask themselves—does it make sense and is it a good idea?
I also use Slack a lot, and we have Slack channels for specific issue areas. For example, if it deals with the criminal legal system, I've got everybody I need to be working with right in that channel. It’s been super helpful.
RK: What would you say is the biggest difference between working at a nonprofit vs a for-profit brand/agency?
EP: I think of these differences in three buckets:
Experimentation + success
Budgets + team sizes
Something I don’t hear people talk about as much is the relationship between the team that’s creating the content and the audience. We, as nonprofits, share specific values or goals with our audiences. We’re working to break through crowded spaces and be front and center with educational material. We’re not convincing our audience to buy something, rather we are giving them resources that they can use and a reason to run enthusiastically with us towards the same goal line.
Another big bucket is what experimentation and success looks like. There’s an understood reality in our nonprofit field that large amounts of staff time and resources are spent to potentially lose or pick up the pieces and try again. For us, going viral feels great—but it’s never the actual win. For us, the actual win is stopping the bad bill, overturning the law, etc. For other nonprofits that might be getting a person elected or hitting a fundraising goal but it’s never just something performing well on the internet. That can also be tough when something might have done well online, but the real world outcome the organization wanted still doesn’t happen.
In terms of budgets, I do want to acknowledge the ACLU does have a budget size that a lot of grassroots direct service orgs do not. But it's nonexistent compared to larger for-profit juggernauts. Like mentioned before, when I started we had a one-person social team and they had never hired externally for social media. I’ve definitely had to fight for the org to invest more in social media. The main thing I’d say for nonprofits is that we can’t write off organic. I see a lot of big brands that say organic social media is dead and I’m sure their data supports that. But mine doesn’t. We use popular trends and formats like cutting long-form videos up into several iterations of shorter clips. We post really shareable, short commentary via Twitter screenshots on Instagram. We dabble, when appropriate, with meme formats. We engage with our Instagram audience with questions and quiz functions in stories. All of these formats do well even with no money behind them. That’s partly because if you have no choice but to invest in organic, you’re going to figure out how to do it well.
RK: Related to this, how important is reporting for you?
EP: Very. You have to tell your stakeholders where the return on investment is and really help people understand the choices you’re making and stop them from killing the ideas that are serving what you need. And, of course, learn to kill their ideas that don’t serve what you need. I truly spent like a year of my career here at the ACLU just getting people to understand the choices we were making, but the next five years were a lot better because of it.
RK: It seems with social media we're moving in a direction that leans heavily into memes, short-form video, and humor/entertainment. How does a brand like the ACLU think about best practices and the algorithm when approaching sometimes heavy or nuanced topics?
EP: Something I've learned is that you can't fight what the audiences want, especially if you're all organic. You can't just put a bunch of money into going to find the new audience for the totally new strategy that you want. So you have to explore how to make it work with the people you've got and your brand voice.
For nonprofits, I think you can dabble in levity or absurdity if you're punching up, instead of down. People really expect nonprofits to have specific ethics. For us, public officials are fair game, random civilians are not. While all of our issues are of great national significance, some of those can be funny and some just can’t. For example, absurdly drawn congressional districts or the terrible argument someone makes for why a book is dangerous—you can probably have fun with it. We’ve had fun by quote tweeting a video of someone getting arrested for a “I eat ass” bumper sticker and saying “We said it before and we'll say it again: You have the right to say ‘I eat ass’ without getting arrested.” But attacks on trans youth just aren't funny. Attacks on something that has life or death stakes, like whether you can get an abortion, aren’t funny. So I think for us, it's knowing where the moment is and teaching the audience that over time.
RK: Do you feel like it's difficult to break through on social media as a nonprofit? What are some of your tips for doing that?
EP: It’s incredibly hard for charities and certain direct service organizations to break through. People are doing great work around the country in the areas of healthcare direct service or to minimize the harms of wealth inequality or to serve regional impacted communities and it is excruciatingly hard for them to make a splash online—between for-profit brands, national news cycles, budget realities and algorithms.
I do think those of us in national advocacy spaces have it a bit easier when our areas of expertise are among the talk of the day online. But it requires us to be flexible and adaptable, to be working on audience relationships and successful trends before we’re going viral, and to move as fast as our work processes can allow when that moment hits. When we aren’t front and center in a news cycle I am usually spending time in discussion with lawyers or policy advisors, or the creative teams we work with to develop assets, to talk about our norms and processes, what works and doesn’t, opportunities we’d like to tap into when we can, what their fears or hesitations may be, and what it looks like to move very quickly for them. This lets us activate that shared understanding for success as soon as we realize something is breaking online that is ripe for our expertise.
RK: Can you give me three tips you'd give a social manager at a nonprofit? Maybe someone at a nonprofit with not quite as many resources as the ACLU.
Your relationship with your audience has to be reciprocal. They are the people who are sharing your resources, taking action, joining your lists, donating or asking others to, voting on your issues, and more. You cannot get bogged down by highly particular preferences from a few people in your internal audience and forget to advocate for those people who built your platforms alongside you.
You have to build the platform audience you need before you need them. If you know you need younger, engaged online audiences when your issue is trending, you need to be mastering the platforms where they spend their time online now, not the day you need them or else your campaign will outright fail.
Lo-fi, fast paced content is a golden ticket. Your content doesn’t actually have to be highly stylized, immaculate, and beautiful—you’re consistently being outperformed by pages that aren’t worrying about that. It does have to be accessible and a message you’re happy to stand by, and it does have to be really clear about what you are offering to them or asking them to do.
RK: Is there a particular post/campaign/etc that you are proud of?
EP: I’ve been able to work on a lot of campaigns I am proud of in the 5 years I’ve been at the ACLU. One that comes to mind is when we found out that Motel 6 locations were systematically sharing guest lists with ICE. We drove more comments on their posts on Facebook and Instagram than they’ve ever had before, in addition to calls made to their corporate office and got it trending on Twitter. They called the ACLU immediately and were like, what do we have to do to make this stop? And they rolled out a new nationwide policy banning that practice for all staff 24 hours later. I was very much at that moment like, oh, bullying works.
I’m also really proud of how our entire organization mobilized during the summer uprisings of 2020; we had lawyers on the ground at major protests sharing information about protesters’ rights, how to protect your devices from digital surveillance by police, and how they could share footage or other proof of abuse of protesters’ or journalists’ rights with us.
RK: Are you hopeful about the future of social media?
EP: No and yes. I’m not especially hopeful about the tech companies that run these platforms in the absence of serious government intervention. I think we’ll continue to see disparately applied policies that impact trans and nonbinary users, Black users, fat users and others online more than people who frequently make threats, dox other users, maintain huge bot farms, and more. These tech companies will also continue to acquire more of their competitors or simply steal ideas and tools to enhance their own power and share of users, and lean on their hoards of our personal data and private information to sell tools or strategies to for-profit brands across the internet. But I also think that a lot of audiences have become so aware of these realities and generally disenchanted with platforms that ultimately their skepticism about the information they’re reading has increased and they’re more likely to engage with reputable individuals instead of institutions. That encourages me as a person on the internet.
Here are a few featured jobs from the Link in Bio job board!
Naza Beauty is hiring a Community Manager: Social Media. Naza is building a new type of beauty company that centers on Black and brown women. “Starting with reinventing the salon experience for women with coily, kinky, afro-textured hair, we have big plans for more units on the horizon, the launch of products, expansion into skincare and wellness, and building a vibrant community of women to support and celebrate each other.” Seems like a great opportunity to get in as an early contributor and help the brand strategically grow their social media accounts. Get more info about applying here.
Active Minds is looking for a Social Media Content Producer! Active Minds is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for young adults. And they are looking for someone to help spread that awareness to the next generation! Get more info about applying here.
We also have new listings for roles at Vital Farms (best eggs), Discovery Inc (specifically the Food Network, Food.com and Cooking Channel brands), Ford’s Theatre Society (“the site of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination”), Neeva (ad-free search engine!), Beekman Social (cool company started by a friend), and more!