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Nonprofits should make better use of social media in grant applications

We try hard to keep our proposals fresh by making our project concepts reflect what is going on in communities today—not what the world was like decades ago. For example, several years ago we began including references to emerging social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) in proposals, mostly in describing the outreach component. The reality, unfortunately, is that we write in the Proposal World, while our clients live in the real world. I talk to nonprofit Executive Directors all the time and most don’t use social media in any meaningful way, other than perhaps for fund raising or PR. I’ve yet to come across one that is using new tools in their programming.*

This is not surprising, as nonprofits are always slow to adopt new technology, due to budget constraints, lack of imagination, and/or overall fuddy-duddyness. Although we used email and had a website in 1993, nonprofit clients didn’t routinely use email until about 2005. Though most of our youth services clients don’t know it, virtually all of their teenage and young adults clients have smartphones, no matter how low-income they may be.** Social media permeates American youth culture.

In my post last week, I briefly mentioned the troubling emerging problem of big city “flash mobs.” I’m not referring to the original “Thriller” flash mobs that suddenly did zombie dancing, but to the Philadelphia and Milwaukee youth mobs that have recently rampaged. It seems that the mobs formed and de-formed by using Twitter, Facebooking and texting to coordinate their activities, confounding police and potential victims alike (see this video depicting the Milwaukee situation).

A potential flash mob was defused in the Oakland BART subway system last week when the cell phone system was disabled in underground stations. While this raises First Amendment issues that are beyond the scope of this post (for a free proposal phrase, substitute “proposal” for “post”), it shows that public sector administrators and police are getting hip to social media. If a BART bureaucrat can figure this out, as can the State Department, nonprofit executive directors should be able to. For example, we recently completed a federal job training proposal for a large nonprofit in South Central LA. While the executive director told me that virtually all of her very low-income youth clients had smartphones, she wanted to stick with traditional outreach strategies and removed all of my first draft references to utilizing social media.

Consider a project concept for an enterprising nonprofit in any city that has experienced the flash mob phenomenon or might. Let’s call this Project YEAH (Youth Electronic Action Helpers), proposed by Youth Engagement Services (YES), a fictional United Way agency. Project YEAH could work this way:

  • The basic concept is that all community youth are not angry and disaffected. Lots of good kids can be mobilized through social media to produce peer pressure to prevent violent, flash mob behavior. The target population includes middle and high school age youth, as well as out-of-school, unemployed youth and young adults—say, age 14 – 22—of whatever ethnic population predominates in the target area.
  • YES forms a Project Advisory Committee (PAC), including representatives of other services providers, law enforcement, the local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), elected officials, the chamber of commerce, employers, faith-based organizations, etc. The PAC meets virtually, using on-line meeting software and members communicate with one another through a secure web portal, texting, and private tweets. No travel, no donuts, and no wasted time should = better organizational participation. Public access is assured by publicizing the on-line meetings and allowing anyone with a web connection to watch.
  • A Social Media Consultant (a tech-savvy local nerd) is hired to set up the project social media sites and develop training protocols for staff and the target population, who are engaged through the outreach effort (see below).
  • Several Peer Helpers are recruited as outreach and engagement staff. PHs are 18 – 25 or so and are former gang members, star athletes, American Idol contestants, junior preachers, or have some other affiliation or background that provides them with natural connections and street cred with the target population. PHs are trained in community organizing techniques and skills, along with use of social media, using on-line training to the maximum feasible extent. Smart phones, iPads, Internet service, and similar gear are provided. The PHs mostly connect with each other through virtual methods, rather than gathering at the YES office. Once again, no donut eating. Time and activity logs are keep through a secure database, developed by the Social Media Consultant.
  • PHs conduct outreach and education, primarily using social media, rather than the traditional mailings, presentations, street-based outreach, etc. The outreach is based on the ever popular “train-the-trainers” model, updated for the social media world. The trained PHs recruit a cadre of Youth Ambassadors (YAs), who are paid a monthly stipend and are trained by the PHs in community organizing techniques and, to the extent necessary, the use of social media. The YAs use the project-developed social media tools to engage the target population, encouraging them to avoid flash mob/violent anti-social behavior while accessing supportive services (e.g., pre-employment skills training, after school enrichment, GED preparation, job searches, emergency food and clothing, etc.) from YES and PAC members. In effect, each YA will develop a YEAH Follower Cadre, using the Twitter model. Should info begin to circulate on social media channels about potential flash mobs, the YEAH Follower Cadres will react by using social media to discourage participation. In some cases, YEAH Follower Cadres, wearing brightly colored Project YEAH t-shirts and hats will physically meet at potential flash mobs sites, forming a human peer pressure blockade before violence develops. This could include well understood nonviolent protest techniques (e.g., going limp and lying down, etc.). PHs will video the blockades, immediately uploading to YouTube to build awareness and peer pressure.
  • All activities, services, follow-up and client satisfaction feedback will be tracked with user-input databases developed by the Social Media Consultant.

I think a project concept like the above would be great interest to large community foundations and national foundations, particularly those associated with technology companies. Go try it. A version of this social media-based youth engagement model will make much more compelling reading to a funder than the traditional approaches out clients typically want us to use.

EDIT: The New York Times reports: “Phone Messages Improve [Health] Care, Study Finds.”

* I know one emergency medicine resident who observed that her patients routinely had nicer phones than she did.

** If I’m wrong and you know of a nonprofit that is using social media in its programming, post a comment, as I (and readers) would love to know about it.

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Seliger + Associates Finally Enters the Twitterverse: @SeligerGrants

After three years of contemplation, we’ve finally decided to use Twitter. Sign up at Twitter and you can follow us using our handle, @SeligerGrants. Or, see the “What I’m Doing” column to the left and right of this post.

I’m starting to tweet because I think the world of nonprofits is at another major inflection point, similar to the situation that started three years ago in August 2008 with the bank near-meltdown, TARP and, eventually, the Stimulus Bill. As I’ve been blogging about since, the reality for nonprofits has changed markedly for the worse. As the economy tanked—whether or not the official “recession” ended or is about to re-start—the competition for grants and donations has intensified. Just last week, I blogged about how Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes Keep Coming to the Nonprofit World. And what happened in the last seven days?:

And I thought the news was bad the previous week!

I don’t know what will go wrong this week, but I suspect there are many nonprofit executive directors who’ve just learned that pledged donations have been cancelled, and those executive directors are struggling to re-do their budgets to keep the doors open. I suspect that there will be little good economic news in the coming months to brighten the prospects for nonprofits. Hence, @SeligerGrants. I plan to tweet at least once per day, doing what I can to get information out as quickly as I can.

Here’s my second tweet:

#MilwaukeeYouthRiot… – Nonprofits Go Get Grants – Windhover Fdn… or Marshall & Ilsley Fdn 414-765-7835

For those of you not in the Twitterverse, this may look like gibberish*, as Twitter allows only 140 characters and the URLs are shortened. Allow me to dissect this tweet.

The initial “#”” is a hash tag (#). Hash tags flag interesting or trending tweets. The URL that follows the hash tag is an active link (in a Twitter client), which leads to a story about a riot last week a the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee, in which dozens of African American youth fought a pitched battle with police. For those too young to remember, Milwaukee, like other big Midwestern cities, was the scene of a major urban rebellion in 1967. News of a similar event 44 years later immediately caught my grant writer’s eye. Back to the tweet. “Nonprofits Go Get Grants” is followed by contact info to two large foundations that fund at-risk youth services in Milwaukee, the Windhover Foundation and the Marshall & Ilsley Foundation.

You have it in 140 characters: breaking news affecting nonprofit youth service providers in Milwaukee and a small bit of free grant source research. Whenever there is an urban riot in the United States, foundation and government grant funds are sure to follow. Having written many funded proposals for nonprofits that serve the African American communities in Milwaukee and nearby Racine, I know local needs very well, and I’ll be contacting some of our former clients to see if they want to go after the grants I think will be available. But you can beat me to it through the wonders of Twitter.

If you have a credible nonprofit in Milwaukee, get busy thinking up a plausible concept to help the community overcome the challenge of young people forming a mob in the middle of what is supposed to be a carefree summer event for families and children. Here are a couple of ideas: mentoring, summer jobs, alternative recreation activities, and training a corps of Youth Ambassadors. It doesn’t really matter, as long as your organization springs forward to propose solutions to new or critical problems, as I blogged about last week. Hence the brief but pointed “Go Get Grants” and two foundation funders in my tweet.

I’ll be tweeting as often as I can, highlighting interesting news, project concept, announcing RFPs and blog posts, and throwing in the occasional Huntington Beach Surf Report. Set up a Twitter account and follow my tweets. Even a single idea you get from @SeligerGrants could be the difference that keeps your agency ahead of the competition. Nonprofit executives need all the information they can get. Take our tweets and run with them.

* Jake, who finds Twitter “stupid”—or was it “inane,” or was it “a humbug”—but knows a lot about grants, could not decipher this tweet. His younger sister, who is very involved with social media both for her job and personally, understood it immediately, although she knows little about grants. Jake said, “What can be said in 140 characters is either trivial or abridged; in the first case it would be better not to say it at all, and in the second case it would be better to give it the space it deserves.”