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What nonprofits can learn from Obama's win

Barack Obama masterfully used social media — social networks, e-mailing, Web videos, to name a few — to help win the election.  Nonprofits ought to do the same, Contribute magazine reports.
Obama 2008
Barack Obama watches a campaign rally video on a laptop during a flight from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans on Feb. 6.Rick Bowmer / AP
/ Source: Contribute Magazine

There are big lessons for nonprofits and social entrepreneurs in President-elect Barack Obama’s election-day victory — chiefly in how to attract supporters and raise high sums of money from mainstream citizens, nonprofit and marketing leaders say.

At last week's Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, a panel discussion Friday with New York Magazine Writer John Heilemann, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and political strategist Joe Trippi underscored that view. The four concluded that Obama's victories in the Democratic primary and the presidential election would not have been possible without Internet-empowered fundraising and social networking.

To be sure, this election was as much about the Internet's ability to create a movement behind a candidate and a cause as much as it was about the economy — and advocacy groups around the world are sitting up and taking notice. Says Katrin Verclas, the editor of, a Web site of cause-wired activists using cell phones and mobile Internet technology to work for social change: “In today's world, if nonprofits don’t exploit social media, the market will get rid of them.”

The hard part? Transforming support for a candidate or a cause into a movement for change, Obama-style, is hard work, and the risks of experimentation are high — especially in this period of great economic dislocation and over-stressed staffing levels. Trouble is, nonprofits and social enterprises won’t have much of a choice, new media and advocacy experts say.

“The Obama campaign is getting lots of credit for using the Web but the forces that propelled his candidacy on the Web were happening anyway, and will continue to grow and evolve regardless of his attempts to leverage it as president,” says Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and co-founder of , a popular blog about the use of the Web in political campaigns. “It’s about creating a movement,” Rasiej says — not just an effective fundraising machine.

Embracing social networks, blogs, etc.
He and others agree that if nonprofits don’t find new ways to engage supporters and keep them in the loop through the use of social media — social networks, e-mailing, blogging, video-sharing, and instant messaging, to name a few — they will lose their competition with other causes for donor funding.

“While there is a temptation among those who track causes and online fundraising to separate political organizing from philanthropy, I think that’s a mistake,” says Tom Watson, a consultant for the Manhattan-based Changing Our World nonprofit consultancy and the author of CauseWired, a new book about the use of social media in advocacy.

“It’s wishing for a division that the audience simply won’t tolerate going forward. It’s like hoping that a print classified operation will continue to grow during the age of craigslist. Young people don’t separate their causes into neat little boxes labeled politics and charity. They simply respond to what moves them, what their friends recommend, what they believe might change the world...It’s no accident that my nonprofit clients are asking about Web sites like Barack Obama’s. The [old] order is rapidly fading.”

Mastering the medium
Both Obama and rival John McCain used the Internet to reach supporters but Obama mastered the medium early "and exploited it to the hilt," says techPresident's Rasiej. Obama's YouTube videos, for example, were watched 90 million times, his social-networking site recruited 8 million volunteers and he amassed more than 2 million supporters on Facebook, alone.

In addition, Obama raised a record-setting $605 million for his campaign-mostly from small, $10 and $25 donations from 3.1 million donors — nearly double the amount raised by George Bush did in 2004, before the advent of social media and more than twice the amount raised by John McCain's more traditional campaign fundraising efforts this year.

"This is all new technology, really only about two years old, in essence, but it's clear from this election that we've got a whole new power center — social media — that now shapes how people form opinions, build consensus, and solve problems in society," Rasiej says.

Army of digital volunteers
How well a politician — or a social cause, for that matter — connects with these new social networks (what Rasiej calls the new “publicsphere”) will become increasingly valuable, perhaps more valuable than fundraising dollars down the road, he says. “The political power of the future will be a question of how robust and socially networked and engaged you are with those outside your organization, not simply how much money you have in the bank or how many wealthy people you or your organization can count among your supporters.”

Adds Watson: “For all the money the Obama campaign spent on media in the 2008 election cycle, it was the army of digital volunteers that made every dollar spent on branding and communications feel like two or three dollars in actual outreach to real voters.”

Here are some other take-aways:

--Be consistent with your message.
“We noted how Obama was extremely consistent in the way he communicated the change he wanted to make, how he planned to achieve it and the impact that even a small donation could make on helping to create that change,” says Liz Hopfan, the Executive Director of Free Arts NYC, a Manhattan-based arts nonprofit. “I’d like to mirror that consistency and clarity at Free Arts.”

--Create a movement around your cause, not just awareness for your group.
“Social media build powerful movements—but only when the cause is powerful and moving,” says Melissa Berman, President and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. “Even the most powerful social media can’t build a movement if people aren’t poised to sign on. What’s remarkable about social media is how quickly they can forge the links that create a movement when the message is right.”

--Use multiple forms of online communication simultaneously.
“Part of what happened with the Obama campaign is that there were also other platforms, mobile phone penetration and not just social networks,” says Jessica Clark, the research director at the Center for Social Media. “The Obama text campaign was extremely important in broadcasting information and didn’t require people to be in social networks.”

--Partner with groups fighting for the causes you champion.
Find similar membership and advocacy organizations to leverage your work and build visibility for the value you bring to the table. Like it or not, the Web is changing the way people in society form groups to affect change of any kind, so the people and initiatives that understand this fundamental shift in society will be able to identify those groups and harness them around common interests. “It’s hard in these times for individual nonprofits to do everything themselves in this new world,” says Clark. “Capitalize on the experience of others." You don’t need to reinvent the wheel yourself.

--Make your site a portal for action.
“The Obama platform,, was a virtual organizing center that combined blogs, outreach groups, virtual volunteering, fundraising, and a series of tools designed to give each Obama activist the media or the network needed to recruit other supports and make that support viral through sharing content from the site and others,” says nonprofit consultant Tom Watson

--Let the public in.
Don’t keep people at arm’s length by peppering them with tons of information that takes hours to wade through—and don’t assume they’ll take that time to read it all. Says Lauren Russell Geskos, the marketing and communications manager at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors: “The Obama Web site is clean and easy to navigate, his email communications were consistently well-written, concise, and reflective of his brand and he didn’t waste money, trees, and patience by sending large quantities of snail mail."

--Use social media to ask people for their input and help in solving the social problem at the core of your mission.
Ask them to share their own experiences on your site. Steve Grove, head of news and politics for YouTube, said the online video-sharing site received more than 2,000 videos made by voters on election day who simply wanted to share their voting day stories. “We asked them to expose problems at the voting places, and some did, but overwhelmingly, it was more about people wanting to share their experiences. People were just excited to talk about their participation during an historic day.”

--Don’t pretend you have all the answers.
Source new ideas from the outside. And above all? Be consistent and honest about what you do and don’t bring to the table. It’s not about you or your group — it’s all about the social problem you’re trying to tackle and how everyone can help. Observes Geskos: “[Obama’s]speeches were often distributed on social-networking sites and engaged people by giving them the sense that they were joining him in tackling challenging odds.” All for a common cause that mattered.