By Michelle Chen is an independent scholar with a PhD in mass communications with a focus on advocacy, activism and social change. She helps brands grow engagement and build relationships with their audience.


The pandemic has drastically altered the ways nonprofits interact with their supporters. While social media is now a common part of every nonprofit’s communication strategy, a common sentiment is that interacting on social media is a poor substitute to in-person interactions. As a result, social media strategies are often used to supplement in-person events. In fact, it is not uncommon for social media to play a minor part in a campaign rather than being a key player.

COVID-19 obviously changed this dynamic. To keep employees, volunteers, and donors safe, in-person events have been canceled for the foreseeable future. Without in-person events, nonprofits are turning to digital and social media to fundraise and grow their supporter base. And that is not necessarily a bad thing because of social media’s ability to increase reach and participation beyond a nonprofit’s loyal support base.

Social media is powerful because it leverages social influence – people trust information from those within their networks. They are more likely to donate to a cause, attend a virtual event, or volunteer when they are invited by people they know and trust. This is also why campaigns that involve tagging friends and encouraging them to pass on the message are effective. By interacting with your nonprofit’s posts on social media, supporters are amplifying your message beyond their social clique.

But not all nonprofits are effective on social media. As more organizations are relying on social media for their communication, it is becoming increasingly harder for nonprofits to attract and hold a prospective donor or volunteer’s attention. This means that nonprofits need to be efficient with their strategies, and an effective way to do so is to rely on behavioral science research. In fact, behavioral science should inform the ways you recruit and engage supporters as well as raise awareness for your cause. Here are some ways you can use behavioral science in your social media strategy:

The power of participation

Social media makes participating in campaigns easy and fun. Invite online supporters to participate in your campaign because it gives them a sense of purpose, responsibility and helps them feel empowered. By encouraging supporters to shape the campaign and providing tools or micro-tasks to empower them to participate successfully, you can help your supporters build their sense of efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that a person has in her or his abilities and competencies to achieve a goal. When a person feels self-efficacious, they are more likely to be proactive in signing up for other volunteer activities and feel more confident in their abilities to be an advocate for the nonprofit.

The nonprofit Charity: Water does this exceptionally well by inviting their supporters to create their own fundraising campaign for the organization. Supporters can set up a campaign on the nonprofit’s website and share the campaign with their social network on social media. Charity: Water provides donor impact based on the amount of donation, including information about the people helped by the campaign, which helps them set a campaign goal based on their level of comfort. A key benefit of this campaign is giving their supporters free rein of how they wish to raise money for the organization, promoting creativity and a sense of ownership. Some supporters asked for donations in honor of their birthday or wedding gifts while others let strangers tell them how to shave their beard.

Furthermore, when people participate in your campaign on social media, they leave behind digital traces, which gives you an opportunity to identify and engage them through conversations. Some social media sites such as Facebook shows you a list of people who have engaged in your campaign, and you can invite them to like your profile page to become followers. With each successful campaign, the supporter is more likely to become confident in her or his ability to perform harder tasks to help the organization meet its goals and the chances of them becoming active supporters is increased.

Appeal to intrinsic and extrinsic motivations

Understand what motivates your volunteers is important to craft targeted messages and strategies that appeal to the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits of volunteering. People volunteer for different reasons that are typically driven by either materialistic or non-materialist aims. Some people are motivated by extrinsic motivators such as fame and social status while others are motivated by intrinsic motivations such as altruism, friendships, and duty. Since most organizations have supporters who are driven by a range of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, having different strategies that appeal to different types of motivators within a campaign or a series of campaigns will attract the most number of volunteers to take action.

For people driven by fame and social reward, having avenues where people can share their donation activities or publicly acknowledge their contributions on social media with a badge or any types of recognition on social media can increase the likelihood of continued volunteerism. For people who are altruistic, showing the positive impact of their donation or volunteer activities is extremely important and one such way is communicating donor impact to supporters. By showing how much each donation amount directly benefits a person or family in need, Food Bank of the Southern Tier and Food Banks Canada are able to appeal to supporters who are motivated by the need to know the outcome of their donations or efforts. The more directly an organization can link a supporter’s activities or donations to an outcome, the more likely they will continue to support in the organization.

For volunteers motivated by the social benefits of volunteering, having activities that expand and strengthen friendships or foster community among supporters is important. Supporters who build close peer groups through interaction and conversations with other supporters tend to develop a commitment to their new community and are more likely to stay committed to the organization. As many in-person events that help foster community have been canceled, nonprofit have been coming up with creative ways to help supporters connect with likeminded people during this difficult time. One of these ways is live streaming events on social media. From virtual concerts, live performances and interviews with medical experts, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is an organization that has found creative ways to build community and fundraise on social media. A popular medium of choice, Facebook facilitates conversations and interactions among supporters in the comments section, allowing them to feel a sense of community virtually.

Leverage social information and norms

Social media campaigns that tap on the effects of social norms, which are further heightened by social media features that broadcast supporters’ actions to their social networks, are typically more effective than campaigns that do not. Broadcasting supporters’ actions to their social network matters because of the human desire to belong and to present our best selves to people we care about. Campaigns that inform supporters of how similar people compare to them (i.e. descriptive social norms) and how well their participation is perceived by people they care about (i.e. injunctive social norms) fosters supporters’ internal drive to conform to the community’s shared norms. This is also why visual representation of goals such as number of people in their network interested in a virtual event or donated to a cause provide powerful social information to supporters, which can motivate them to engage in the activity.

To leverage the influence of social norms, nonprofits can use social media to show the types of volunteer activities they value. This gives supporters an idea of what is important to the group. For instance, encourage volunteers to document and share the emotional impact that the experience has on the volunteer and those they are helping with other supporters and their social network. This strategy normalizes the act of giving or volunteering and can inspire others in their network to do the same.

An example of how a nonprofit is normalizing volunteering is the UnitedWay where they encourage supporters to think about ways they can further the cause of the nonprofit. Another strategy is to have supporters publicly pledge their contributions for the year such as donating, attending an online conference, signing an online petition, or volunteering, with other supporters on social media.

Also an example is Feeding America and its campaign during Hunger Action Month where supporters are asked to share their intentions to help end hunger with others in the group. The act of publicly committing to an action can motivate supporters to follow through with their actions, especially if they know they will be held accountable after a period of time (e.g. have another campaign to ask supporters if they followed through with their pledge).

While the above strategies are only the tip of the iceberg, the more nonprofits leverage behavior science in their social media strategies, the more effective and efficient their online campaigns are going to be. Nonprofits response to the disruption caused by COVID-19 has shown that they are incredibly resilient and adaptive during times of economic uncertainty, often doing more with less. And one way to stretch their resources in this pandemic is to incorporate strategies that are proven and tested by behavioral science research.

How Nonprofits Can Use Behavioral Science to Engage Supporters on Social Media via @nonprofitorgs