Nonprofit Bloggers & Social Media Adopters Scream Foul But Are They Right?

Have you read the latest rants about nonprofits using social media?

Seth Godin started the current debate with his post “The Problem With Non”. (Non as in “non-profit.”)

Seth states that most people join nonprofits because they want to make change. “The way the world is just isn’t right or good enough for you… there’s an emergency or an injustice or an opportunity and you want to make change” he says.

He continues and says that most nonprofits are afraid of change and that many are lacking in social media adoption. Many nonprofit social media specialists took issue with Seth’s reasoning and approach. They cried foul and rightfully so because Seth used some broad strokes to paint all nonprofits. Yet, interestingly enough, the people that cried foul are those that are using social media. What about the rest of the nonprofits?


What’s missing from the debate are the facts about nonprofits. Let’s look at the cold, hard facts about the nonprofit world:

The Facts About Nonprofits

  • There are more than 1.8 million nonprofit associations in the U.S.A.
  • There are more than 70,000 registered associations in Canada.
  • More than 26 million people serve on nonprofit boards in America.
  • Associations have more than 260,000 full time employees and more than 35,000 part time employees.
  • More than 157,000 nonprofits have a designation of 501(c)(6) as business leagues.
  • Of the 157,000, 150,000 are associations and 7,000 are chambers of commerce.
  • More than 100,000 associations form each year. About three a day.

(Facts from U.S. IRS, Nonprofit Center, American Society of Association Executives, Canadian Society of Association Executives)

The Types Of Nonprofits
There are different types of associations or nonprofits:

  • 501(c)(3) – charitable, educational, literary, religious, scientific organizations (member-driven or public benefit organizations)
  • 501(c)(6) – business league, trade association, chamber of commerce (also member-driven)
  • 501(c)(5) – agricultural organizations

Many people confuse the words nonprofit, association and charity and think that associations and nonprofits are two different things. They are the same thing and the words are used interchangeably. The word charity defines a specific type of association or nonprofit. The US IRS clarifies what can and can’t be called a charity and receive tax exemption status.

The Largest Nonprofits & Their Use Of Social Media

  • AAA – 50 million members – Facebook Fan Page, Linkedin Account, two official Twitter accounts, YouTube
  • AARP – 40 million members – Videos on their website, Webletter, no Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter account
  • YMCA – 20.9 million members – separate chapter accounts, no national presence
  • National Geographic Society – About 40 million members - has an active social media presence including Facebook Fan Page, Linkedin, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Widgets
  • National PTA – More than 6.5 million members, 54 state congresses and more than 26,000 local units -has a Twitter account for the editor of their magazine, a Facebook Fan page, YouTube site

The Tough Questions
Did you read the first fact? There are more than 1.8 million nonprofit associations in the USA alone. Those are some big numbers.

Are the majority of those associations using social media? Are the majority of those 26 million board members using social media for their nonprofit? Are the majority of those associations on Twitter? Facebook? Blogging? Linkedin?

If they were using social media, wouldn’t many of the social media sites user numbers be higher.

Are the bloggers listed in this post talking about all nonprofits or charities only? I don’t know and perhaps the next step in this discussion is to clarify who we are actually talking about.

Back To The Debate: Views From Bloggers

Beth Kanter, one of my favorite nonprofit social media bloggers, recaps the debate in her post: “Seth Godin’s Non Post About Nonprofits: Deers in the Headlights?” There is a lot of anecdotal information in her post and comments. Many of the early nonprofit social media adopters commented that they are offended by Seth’s post.

Peter Panepento swings right back at Seth with his post “Followers and Friends Not the Only Measure of Nonprofit Success Online” on The Chronicle Of Philanthropy. Peter sites a study by The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research. That study only focuses on the 200 largest charities. That’s about 0.1% of all the nonprofits. And, let’s remember, those were “charities.”

Tom Watson writes “Why Seth Godin is Wrong” on CausedWire Communications. The comments there are worth the read and I applaud those that left comments. I especially like Seth’s and Hildy Gottleib’s comments.

Geoff Livingston writes “Why Seth Godin Needs to Do Field Work” on The Buzz Bin and takes Seth to task for not doing research before writing that post. I agree and think Geoff’s point applies to all nonprofit bloggers.

Steve MacLaughlin writes “Seth Godin And The Problems With Nonprofits” on Blackbaud and sums it ups with “Seth Godin did nothing more than shout “fire” in a crowded nonprofit chat room. Those taking most offense to his comments probably aren’t the ones he’s concerned about.”

Frank Barry, at Nitwit’s Think Tank wrties on “Nonprofits and Social Media: Seth Godin, Beth Kanter and The Chronicle of Philanthropy All Chime In”: “People are talking and reacting on either side of the argument. This is the type of behavior that has the potential to lead to real evaluation and change – That’s the point of it all if you ask me. Some nonprofits are doing it right. Others need to embrace change, get online and start learning how to leverage the web to affect change in our world.”

Kevin Gilnack responds at (Nonprofits+Politics)2.0 with “More Reasons Seth Godin is Wrong”. He writes “However, the Society for New Communications Research recently determined that nonprofits are leading the way in social media! For example, ‘their latest research shows the Fortune 500 with the least amount of corporate blogs (16%), the Inc. 500 with 39%, colleges and universities blogging at 41%, and charities now reporting 57% with blogs.'” 57% of charities are blogging but charities only represent a fraction of nonprofits.

My Thoughts
Here’s an interesting observation. How many of the bloggers that I listed above are full time employees for a nonprofit? Kevin is the only one that is actually a full time employee in an association. The rest of them are consultants to nonprofits on using social media. So naturally, they are upset with Seth because he’s talking about their business. 

I’d like to see these nonprofit bloggers in action in Kevin’s or my shoes where we deal with low budgets, low tech, small staffs, big visions, and several layers of leadership. We juggle a lot to try to serve the public and our members. Serving on a Board of Directors for a nonprofit is very different than being an employee of a nonprofit. Then add social media to the mix and you’ll see the struggles we face. Right Kevin? 

To Peter and those that commented on his blog I say, “Bravo that 89% of those 200 largest charities are using social media. I would expect them to because they have large staffs and can allocate resources and time to marketing, networking, community building and fundraising.”

To all those that commented on one of the blogs and are enraged by Seth’s comments because your nonprofit is using social media, kudos to you and your team. Thank you for leading the rest of us.

To all the nonprofit social media consultants, we need you. You will still be needed for second wave of nonprofit social media adopters. Please be patient with us as we try to educate Executive Directors, Board Members, Committee Chairs, Volunteer Leaders and staff on how social media can help us reach our strategic goals.

To Seth Godin, thank you for stirring the pot. Even if you made some people mad. People are talking about the issue!

Let’s move beyond Seth’s poor choice of metrics and his broad strokes of all nonprofits. Let’s look at his intentions as a call to nonprofits.

Let’s face it. The nonprofit sector has a long way to go before social media is fully accepted and adopted as part of the practice by all nonprofits. Yes there are those that are having success using social media and many have been listed on some of these blogs. While we applaud them, let’s not forget that there are thousands more that have not even started. Seth is right that fear is one of the motivating factors for not integrating social media at a nonprofit.

Change is hard. In the nonprofit arena, change requires leadership of the board, executive director, staff and volunteers. Securing buy in from each of those levels of leadership often can be a barrier for change and adoption of new practices, especially social media. I applaud Seth for challenging all nonprofits to step into the social space. I don’t agree with his metrics or logic, but I agree with his intentions.

From a 15+ year nonprofit employee that has seen many nonprofits move very slowly with new ideas, technology and social media.


  1. says

    Jeff, very informative post. Thanks for sharing!

    In a down economy, the speed of change for non-profits should ideally be significantly improved. What should keep most association execs up at night is the fact that free on-line communities either are already, or will soon be created, that will harm their value proposition. A strategy to deal with these new competitors (who are nimble, quick and likely their members) should be a high priority for most associations.

    If I were an association executive, I’d consider giving free membership to significant industry influencers that contribute their time and help advocate for the association on a regular and ongoing basis. If membership is shrinking, radical measures are in order.

    • Jeff Hurt says


      What a radical and great idea about membership! I think you’re right on the money that nonprofit associations should have concerns about free on-line communities that will harm their value proposition. That’s dead on!

      Thanks for sharing Dave.


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