Looking for Friends, Fans, and Followers? Social Media Use in Public and Nonprofit Human Services
This article uses interviews and Internet data to examine social media use among nonprofit organizations and county departments involved in the delivery of human services in a six-county area in south-central New York State. Social media use was modest, with nonprofit organizations much more likely to use it than county departments. Organizations used social media primarily to market organizational activities, remain relevant to key constituencies, and raise community awareness. Most organizations either had a narrow view of social media's potential value or lacked a long-term vision. Barriers to use included institutional policies, concerns about the inappropriateness of social media for target audiences, and client confidentiality. Findings build on recent research regarding the extent to which nonprofit organizations and local governments use social media to engage stakeholders. Future research should investigate not only the different ways organizations use social media but also whether organizations use it strategically to advance organizational goals.
The proliferation of social media has changed how people provide and receive information, creating fundamentally different ways for individuals to interact with each other and democratizing participation in community life. Social media has the potential to change a wide variety of management practices in nonprofit and public organizations. For example, social media has contributed to innovations in how nonprofit organizations approach fund-raising, organizing, and advocacy (for illustrations, see Guo and Saxton 2014; Kapin and Ward 2013). It is easy to imagine how social media's emphasis on engagement and dialogue could contribute to similar advances in performance measurement for both nonprofit and public organizations (e.g., Kanter and Paine 2012).
Social media has the potential to change a wide variety of management practices in nonprofit and public organizations.
Researchers have shown an increasing interest in the role of social media in nonprofit organizations (Bortree and Seltzer 2008; Guo and Saxton 2014; Lovejoy and Saxton 2012; Lovejoy, Waters, and Saxton 2012; Waters and Jamal 2011) and local government (Bonsón et al. 2012; Hand and Ching 2011; Kavanaugh et al. 2012; Klang and Nolin 2011). Although this research has provided a valuable foundation for understanding social media use in those settings, there are several gaps in our current knowledge, which this article addresses. First, much of the recent research in the nonprofit field has examined social media use among large, prominent nonprofit organizations but not among smaller, community-based entities. Similarly, research on social media use by local governments has focused primarily on entities located in larger metropolitan areas. Second, previous studies have considered either nonprofit or public organizations, but not both and not comparatively. Finally, researchers have not focused on how leaders in human services use social media to advance organizational goals. The close relationship between human service providers and their stakeholders (particularly beneficiaries and funders) suggests considerable potential for those organizations to draw on social media's capacity to engage stakeholders. To address these gaps in our knowledge, this study analyzes data gathered through interviews and Internet searches to explore how nonprofit organizations and county departments involved in the delivery of human services in a six-county region in south-central New York State use social media. The article addresses the following questions:
- To what extent are nonprofit and public human service organizations using social media?
- Why are these organizations using social media? In particular, to what extent do these organizations use social media to engage stakeholders?
- What vision do these organizations have for future social media use?
- What are the barriers to social media use?
The literature review focuses on research on how nonprofit organizations and county governments have used social media, particularly for stakeholder engagement. Following our literature review, we detail our data collection methods and key findings. We conclude by exploring the implications of our research and highlighting areas for future study.
Social Media: Organizational Purposes and Uses
In recent years, the term “social media” has become increasingly popular, and researchers who do not define it run the risk of having key ideas misunderstood. We prefer Kaplan and Haenlein's definition of social media as “a group of internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technical foundations of Web 2.0 and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content” (2010, 61). They characterize Web 2.0 as an open and collaborative system through which users share and modify content, and they use that term to describe how the Internet currently operates. In that way, Web 2.0 pools collective intelligence, and it is the platform on which social media operates. This definition clarifies social media's potential value: through the creation and exchange of content, social media offers leaders of organizations the potential to forge stronger bonds with key stakeholders. In this article, we focus on several widely adopted forms of social media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs. These forms of social media have received the most research attention from public administration scholars.
Within the body of literature studying social media use in the nonprofit sector, researchers have analyzed the use of blogs (Kent 2008; Seltzer and Mitrook 2007), Facebook (Nah and Saxton 2013; Waters et al. 2009), and Twitter (Guo and Saxton 2014; Lovejoy and Saxton 2012; Lovejoy, Waters, and Saxton 2012; Nah and Saxton 2013; Smitko 2012). Many social media studies have focused on the experience of large nonprofit organizations (Guo and Saxton 2014; Lovejoy and Saxton 2012; Lovejoy, Waters, and Saxton 2012; Smitko 2012). These and other studies reveal a lack of consensus among nonprofit leaders regarding the role of social media in the management of nonprofit organizations. Researchers have found that most nonprofit organizations use Facebook and Twitter as one-way communication tools to share key information about the organization with key constituents, such as using Facebook posts to describe the work of the organization (Bortree and Seltzer 2009; Lovejoy, Waters, and Saxton 2012).
Researchers have found that most nonprofit organizations use Facebook and Twitter as one-way communication tools to share key information about the organization with key constituents.
Research addressing the role of social media in local government tells a similar story, albeit with a different focus given the nature of democratic governance and the relationship between local government leaders and their constituents. Several studies have identified increased adoption of a range of social media tools among local governments, including Facebook (Bonsón et al. 2012; Hand and Ching 2011; Kavanaugh et al. 2012), Twitter (Bonsón et al. 2012; Crump 2011; Kavanaugh et al. 2012), blogs (Bonsón et al. 2012), and YouTube (Bonsón et al. 2012). These studies primarily focus on large cities or local governments within large metropolitan areas. Like research in the nonprofit sector, findings suggest that local governments are uncertain about the overall purpose of social media as a tool of government (Kavanaugh et al. 2012; Klang and Nolin 2011). Perlman's (2012) review of studies of local government indicates that most local governments have used social media primarily for information dissemination on a range of topics, including traffic, emergency management, and public safety (Crump 2011; Hand and Ching 2011; Kavanaugh et al. 2012). Some local governments also use social media for marketing purposes, publicizing events or community institutions (Hand and Ching 2011), comparable to those described in studies of social media use in nonprofit organizations. Local governments’ use of social media for information sharing has largely emphasized one-way communication; however, some governments have sought information from constituents to learn things helpful to the operation of government, such as reports of infrastructure problems, criminal activity, or conditions during emergencies (Crump 2011; Kavanagh et al. 2012). This pattern is consistent with the development of earlier forms of technology in government. For example, researchers studying the evolution of e-government have noted that many local governments initially used e-government primarily for information sharing (Moon 2002; Norris 2005; Norris and Moon 2005).
While empirical research on social media use in public and nonprofit organizations indicates that most use it for one-way communication, many researchers have identified its broader potential to increase communication and engagement with stakeholders (Bortree and Seltzer 2009; Henderson and Bowley 2010; Lovejoy and Saxton 2012; Lovejoy, Waters, and Saxton 2012; Rybacko and Seltzer 2010; Seltzer and Mitrook 2007). Practitioners have also made the case for using social media to maximize engagement and have identified strategies to accomplish that goal (Kanter and Fine 2010; Kanter and Paine 2012; Kapin and Ward 2013).
We see three distinct theoretical frameworks as helpful in understanding research on social media use in nonprofit and local government settings: (1) by viewing current social media practices in evolutionary terms, (2) by redefining how we analyze social media content, and (3) by understanding social media use as a response to competing demands. Mergel and Bretschneider offer a three-stage model of the “adoption process for new information and telecommunication technologies” in government (2013, 391). The process describes the stages through which organizations proceed as they adopt new forms of technology, such as social media. The three phases are “intrepreneurship and innovation,” “constructive chaos,” and institutionalization” (392). The first phase involves individual actors innovating, largely operating on their own or within departmental structures. In the constructive chaos phase, managers establish a standard-setting process and move toward institutionalization, which removes variation in practice and creates predictability in use. This model grows out of a longer line of research assessing the diffusion of technological innovations in local government and the factors that affect it (see, e.g., Perry and Kraemer 1978).
A second approach offers a new conceptual framework for understanding social media use that moves beyond characterizing it as either one-way or engagement oriented. Lovejoy and Saxton (2012) analyze the content of tweets among a sample of the largest nonprofit organizations in the United States and categorize them into three broad types: information, community, and action. Tweets categorized as information (59 percent of those they analyzed) provide content about the organization's activities, consistent with what other researchers have described as one-way communication; tweets classified as community (26 percent) emphasize interactivity and relationship building; and action tweets (15 percent) ask stakeholders to act in some way for the organization, such as donating, attending an event, or protesting (Lovejoy and Saxton 2012, 341–42). Most important, Lovejoy and Saxton argue that the three categories represent a “hierarchy of engagement” (349), starting with information, then communication, and action at the top. Informational tweets, particularly if they direct readers to additional content (such as through the inclusion of a hyperlink), are an initial form of engagement. The authors argue that the kinds of activities defined as action, “promotion, marketing and mobilization” (350)—and not dialogue, as earlier researchers argued—may reflect what nonprofit leaders perceive as the greatest value they can derive from social media. This approach provides a more nuanced understanding of the range of users’ purposes and what constitutes engagement through social media. Subsequent research has used this framework to analyze how nonprofit organizations use Twitter to advance advocacy goals (Guo and Saxton 2014).
One final way to understand nonprofit and local government organizations’ approach to social media is to see it as a response to two competing demands: one emphasizing transparency and accountability and the other focused on dialogue and civic participation. Several researchers have argued that nonprofit and local government social media use prioritizes meeting the public's expectation of transparency, providing information about a wide range of organizational operations (Klang and Nolin 2011; Waters et al. 2009). This view suggests that public service professionals have either deemphasized the engagement potential of social media or have not yet learned how to develop that capacity.
While literature on nonprofit and local government use of social media is growing, key gaps in our knowledge remain. Specifically, researchers have not focused on how leaders in community-based human service organizations have used social media applications as administrative tools to advance mission-critical goals. Local governments and nonprofit organizations are central actors in this field, both as service providers and funders. Because human service work involves direct engagement with clients, providers, and other key stakeholders, it is an important setting in which to learn whether the norms adopted in this field are similar to those followed in other public service settings. Are human service professionals more likely to use social media to engage stakeholders given the nature of their work, or do they use it for purposes that are consistent with other settings (e.g., information dissemination and marketing)? In addition, because earlier research has considered public and nonprofit organizations separately, this study provides a clearer comparison between social media use in both settings. Finally, past research on nonprofit and local government use of social media has generally focused on larger organizations, while this study examines its use in smaller, community-based entities.
Because human service work involves direct engagement with clients, providers, and other key stakeholders, it is an important setting in which to learn whether the norms adopted in this field are similar to those followed in other public service settings.
To address our research questions, we gathered data on social media use from nonprofit organizations and county departments involved in the delivery of human services in a six-county area in south-central New York State. We also randomly selected a subsample of organizations for interviews. The county populations in the region ranged from approximately 50,000 to 200,000.
In order to create our sample, we contacted all local United Way chapters, which were the key human service funders in each of the counties we studied, as well as the major local private foundations, which largely fund human service nonprofit organizations. We also contacted county departments in the region that had contracts with human service nonprofit organizations, including departments of health, mental health, social services, youth services, and aging. We asked each funder organization for the names of the nonprofit agencies that their organization funded. Our entire sample consisted of 25 county departments, 17 nonprofit funders, and 151 nonprofit providers. We counted each county department as a separate organization. Thus, all of the counties included in our sample were composed of multiple organizations for the purposes of this study.
County departments played a complicated role in the delivery of human services. All of the county departments funded services delivered by local nonprofit organizations. Many also provided direct human services to county residents. For example, in one county, the Office for Aging operated several senior centers. In some cases, the county departments were using county resources to fund the services delivered by the nonprofit providers. In other cases, the county departments were using grant money received from the state or federal government. However, even in the situations with “passthrough” funding, the county departments were performing critical “funder” functions such as selecting the nonprofit providers with which they were contracting and monitoring the services that those providers delivered. Thus, the county departments were both “funders” and “providers.” The funder sample also included nonprofit funders (public charities and private foundations) because this group engages with key human services stakeholders. Public charities (community foundations and United Way chapters) engage with donors and providers; private foundations engage with providers and, often, the broader public.
In March and April 2012, we collected data on our entire sample's use of social media tools. We recorded (1) whether the organization had Facebook, Twitter, and/or YouTube accounts; (2) whether the organization maintained a blog; and (3) the organization's service area(s). We also identified whether each organization served a vulnerable population, as concerns about client privacy may affect the way organizations use social media. We defined vulnerable populations as any group for whom confidentiality is a primary concern, such as children who have been abused and individuals with mental illnesses.
As our second data collection strategy, we randomly selected 40 organizations from our sample for semistructured interviews: 20 nonprofit providers, 10 nonprofit funders, and 10 county human service departments. We interviewed program managers, executive directors, and department heads because we were particularly interested in how social media fit into the organization's overall goals and vision. Nonprofit organizations in our interview sample had annual budgets ranging from $125,000 to $20 million and staff size ranging from no paid staff to roughly 480 employees; the median budget was approximately $1.1 million, and the median staff size was 9.5. While the median budget size in our sample was in the top quartile of all reporting public charities (Pettijohn 2013), most of the nonprofit organizations in our sample were still relatively small. The size of most county departments was small, too, reflecting the populations of the counties on which we focused. County departments had annual budgets ranging from $125,000 to $68 million and staff size ranging from one half-time employee to roughly 200 employees; the median budget was $5.5 million, and the median staff size was 5.5. We did not collect comparable data for the entire sample, but because we randomly selected the organizations we interviewed, these summary statistics are likely to be representative of the larger sample. All of the organizations we interviewed had physical offices, and none was a “virtual” organization.
The interviews, part of a larger research project, were conducted between July and December 2011. This study focuses on interview respondents’ answers to questions about the forms of social media that their organizations have used as well as their organization's current goals and long-term vision for using social media. To address concerns about the time lag between when we conducted the interviews and collected the Internet data, we compared the data collected using the two different methods and found that the use of social media tools was generally unchanged: only two organizations adopted Facebook between the time we conducted our interviews and the time we did our Internet data collection.
At the beginning of each interview, we guaranteed the confidentiality of the individual being interviewed. Average interview length was 45 minutes. All interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded. Initial codes were developed based on the interview protocols. This list of codes was then revised and augmented through an inductive process based on analysis of the interview transcripts using QSR Nvivo 8. Memoing (for a description, see Miles and Huberman 1994) and pattern matching (for a description, see Yin 2013) were also used as part of the data analysis.
In addition, we conducted content analyses of the Facebook pages maintained by organizations from our interview sample in April 2012, as this was the social media tool most commonly used by the entire sample and by the interview sample. Of the 40 organizations in our interview sample, 19 had Facebook pages at the time we collected our Internet data, although one organization was not maintaining its account at that time. For each page, we noted the establishment date, the date of the most recent post, whether it contained an “Events” section, and the date of the most recently created event, if applicable. We calculated the mean number of posts per month based on the total number of posts during the last three months and the mean number of events created per month using the same standard. This information provided a snapshot of how often the organization reached out to the public via Facebook. We were able to collect data on three months even though we only looked at the pages over a two-month period because posts are archived on Facebook pages and available indefinitely beginning when a post is published. We also recorded the number of “likes” the page received in order to evaluate the extent to which the public reached out to the organization. Finally, the information in the page's “About” section was categorized based on content, and the organization's last five posts were thematically coded to assess the reasons why organizations were posting on Facebook. The same coding system developed to classify the interviews was used to categorize the reasons why organizations were posting on Facebook.
Strengths and Limitations of the Research Design
This study's research design has important advantages. Our approach provides an overall picture of which social media tools different organizations in our sample were using, as well as detailed information on how and why a subset of our sample used these tools. By collecting interview data and conducting content analyses of Facebook pages, we are also able to compare interviewee claims about Facebook use with their actual practices. While this study's research design has benefits, it has limitations as well. Our study focused on human service organizations located in a six-county region that included small and medium-sized cities and the surrounding suburban and rural communities. As a result, many organizations we interviewed were relatively small both in terms of budget and staff size. This may limit the generalizability of our findings to larger organizations that may have more access to technology and greater capacity to use this technology. In addition, our findings may not be generalizable to “virtual” organizations that lack physical offices or to organizations using forms of social media other than Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs. Finally, given the rapid adoption of social media, some of our findings, which are based on data collected in 2011 and 2012, may not reflect current use patterns.
Our findings explore how nonprofit organizations and county departments involved in the delivery of human services utilized social media and their vision for using these tools in the future. Facebook was the most commonly utilized form of social media. Nonprofit providers and funders were much more likely to use social media than county departments. Key reasons for using social media included marketing organizational activities, remaining relevant to key constituencies, and raising community awareness. Only one interviewee indicated that her organization used social media to gather constituent feedback. In terms of future use, the vast majority of interviewees either (1) had a limited view of social media and did not recognize its potential to create interactive dialogue, (2) were still developing their long-term vision for social media, or (3) lacked any long-term vision. Interviewees also identified several other barriers to using social media.
Table 1 details the percentage of organizations in the entire sample that used various forms of social media, broken down by organization type. The most common form of social media used was Facebook: 49 percent of our entire sample had Facebook accounts. By contrast, only 9 percent maintained a YouTube channel, the next most popular medium. The findings on social media use were generally consistent with interviewee reports.
Table 1. Use of Different Social Media
|Facebook||1 (6%)||10 (40%)||85 (56%)||96 (49%)|
|Twitter||0 (0%)||2 (8%)||8 (5%)||10 (5%)|
|YouTube||1 (6%)||4 (16%)||13 (9%)||18 (9%)|
|Blogs||0 (0%)||2 (8%)||11 (7%)||13 (7%)|
|Other||0 (0%)||0 (0%)||11 (7%)||11 (6%)|
Closer analysis of interviewees’ Facebook pages reveals that the majority of these organizations were relatively new users of Facebook and did not have high levels of activity on their pages. Only six of the 19 organizations in our interview sample with Facebook pages had held their account for more than two years, and the oldest Facebook account was 39 months old. Among this same group of organizations, the average number of Facebook page likes was 109, the average number of posts in the prior three months was five, and only three organizations had created events on Facebook in the last three months.
We also analyzed social media use by organization type and found important differences. As reported in table 1, nonprofit providers and funders were much more likely to use social media than county departments, with only two of the 17 county departments using any type of social media. This pattern was especially evident when examining Facebook use: 56 percent of nonprofit providers and 40 percent of nonprofit funders used Facebook, while just one county department had a Facebook account. Facebook use was lower for specific organization subgroups in our sample than adoption rates reported in other studies: 65 of the 100 largest nonprofits in the United States (Nah and Saxton 2013), 87 percent of nonprofit advocacy organizations, and 17 percent of European municipal governments (Bonsón et al. 2012) had Facebook pages. The difference between the use rates of other social media by subgroups in our sample and the use rates reported in existing research was even more dramatic: 73 percent of the largest nonprofits (Lovejoy and Saxton 2012) and 80 percent of nonprofit advocacy organizations (Guo and Saxton 2014) used Twitter; 29 percent of European municipalities studied had a YouTube channel, and 32 percent used Twitter (Bonsón et al. 2012).
In addition to differences in use between nonprofit and public organizations, organizations exclusively serving vulnerable populations whose privacy was a primary concern were less likely to maintain social media accounts than organizations serving nonvulnerable populations. Again, this trend was most pronounced with Facebook use: more than half of the organizations serving nonvulnerable populations used Facebook compared with 31 percent of those serving vulnerable populations.
Table 2 details the number of interviewees who identified specific goals for using social media. Only interviewees who were currently using or had used social media in the past were asked about their goals. The most common reason why organizations used social media was to promote organizational activities, with respondents in 13 interviews identifying this goal. One nonprofit provider described his organization's use of social media this way: “To get our name out there, to share information. Sometimes we're the best kept secret. This is what we're doing, come support us or participate in this event or this could benefit you.” Another important goal identified in seven of the interviews was to remain up to date in the eyes of key constituencies. As one nonprofit funder commented, “We started it [using social media] because of the younger generation but also for funding Event X. That's a signature fund-raiser. We haven't been successful in getting kids to go so we thought Facebook invitations may help.” In addition, respondents in two interviews mentioned that their organizations used social media to educate the public regarding issues pertinent to their organization. For example, one nonprofit provider indicated that the organization used social media to increase “mental health literacy.” Only one interviewee reported that her organization used social media to engage beneficiaries and learn about their experiences.
Table 2. Social Media Goals Cited by Interviewees with Active Social Media Accounts
|Community awareness||2 (12%)|
|Communication with beneficiaries||1 (6%)|
The purposes of Facebook posts identified in our analysis of interviewee Facebook pages were generally consistent with our interview findings. The most common purposes of Facebook posts were to market organizational activities (16 organizations) and to raise community awareness about issues important to the organization (6 organizations). Thirteen of the 16 organizations using Facebook to market organizational activities had posts that promoted specific events. Our analysis of Facebook pages also identified other ways that organizations used social media that were not mentioned in the interviews, for example, to thank key constituencies, to direct the public to their organization's Web site or blog, and to recruit volunteers and staff. Similar to the interview data, none of Facebook posts indicated that organizations were using social media as a tool for gathering constituent feedback.
Most interviewees had a limited vision for social media in their organizations. In just 16 of the 40 interviews, respondents were able to identify long-term goals that their organizations had for social media (detailed in table 3); those goals were consistent with interviewees’ current goals. The most common long-term goals mentioned by respondents were to market organizational activities, to remain relevant to key organizational constituencies, and to raise community awareness. However, only three respondents, all from nonprofit organizations, identified that social media could give their organizations an opportunity to engage directly with constituents by collecting feedback or participating in shared learning. Respondents in two interviews hoped to use social media as a mechanism for collecting feedback from clients. In the words of one of those respondents, “There are opportunities to use Twitter to potentially engage beneficiaries in a dialogue about their experiences. People do that on Facebook too. You post and they comment or share so that's a direction I would like to see us move in.” Only one respondent discussed the potential that social media offers for organizations to learn from each other. According to this respondent,
It's [social media is] used for mobilization around particular topics or issues people are concerned about and as a way to help them to move into more systematic ways of thinking. There's some real value to embedding within websites or social media, sort of a lot of heavy thinking needed to be done around a particular topic. For example, we get people who don't interface with us directly but have a great idea about something and want to run with it, they replicate something that someone else has already done and make the same mistakes, have the same failures and the thing goes away. In the meantime they've devoted a tremendous amount of their own resources to it, whether it's time or anything else. Wouldn't it be great if they could put themselves into a network where they could see fairly quickly where they fit within the system and they could tap into those experiences that have already taken place and essentially locate themselves in this system?
Table 3. Future Social Media Goals Cited by Interviewees
|Community awareness||3 (8%)|
|Communication with beneficiaries||2 (5%)|
|Programming support||1 (3%)|
|Shared learning||1 (3%)|
|Vision still being developed||6 (15%)|
|No vision||21 (53%)|
Respondents in six interviews indicated that their organizations were discussing their long-term visions for social media but still had not determined the desired direction. One county department head even commented, “Our long-term vision is to get a long-term vision.” In three of the six interviews in which respondents indicated they were still developing a long-term vision, interviewees were able to identify at least one long-term organizational social media goal. In the three other interviews, respondents could not name any long-term goals. Finally, 21 other respondents indicated that their organization lacked any long-term vision and did not have immediate plans to discuss the issue. Reflecting the sentiments of many interviewees, one nonprofit provider stated, when asked about her organization's long-term vision, “No, I'm just starting to look at it [social media] and understand it.”
Barriers to Using Social Media
In addition to having a limited vision for social media, interviewees identified several other reasons why they either could not use social media or were reluctant to use it. As reported in table 4, the most common barrier was institutional policies: respondents in five county government interviews reported that access to social media sites was blocked for at least some employees in their organization. Institutional policies were not mentioned as a barrier by any of the nonprofit organizations.
Table 4. Barriers to Using Social Media Cited by Interviewees
|Institutional policies||5 (13%)|
|Inappropriate for target population||4 (10%)|
|Client confidentiality||3 (8%)|
|Staff/equipment capacity||3 (8%)|
|Lack of expertise||2 (5%)|
Another barrier was the concern that social media is inappropriate because of an organization's target population. Three of the four interviewees who raised this concern worked for organizations in which youth were the target population. For example, when asked what her organization's vision for social media was, one nonprofit provider responded, “I don't know that we know enough. Our type of population [at-risk youth] makes you cautious. I'm not sure. It [social media] can be misused and vicious. Twitter even scares me.” The other interviewee who referenced his organization's target population worked for a county and indicated that his department did not provide any direct services, so he did not believe that using social media to market organizational activities would be effective.
In addition, respondents in three interviews reported that their organizations were reluctant to use social media because of client confidentiality concerns. These respondents were worried about violating client confidentiality, particularly through the use of client names or pictures on a social media site. In the words of one interviewee, “I think it's [social media is] something we would stay away from, because that is right from the state level [of the Department of Social Services]. They have had a big emphasis over the last year about protection of confidential information. They pointed out that it's something you really need to think about before you start using it.” Other concerns about social media mentioned in multiple interviews were the lack of the capacity and staff expertise to manage social media.
This study examined how nonprofit organizations and county departments involved in the delivery of human services use social media. Our findings are generally consistent with past research on the way in which public and nonprofit organizations use social media; however, we also learned valuable new information about the role of social media in human services, notably, the extent of use, perceptions of utility (both present and future), barriers to adoption, and key differences in the approach of public and nonprofit organizations. The study found that a modest number of nonprofit organizations were using Facebook, and few were using other forms of social media. Very few county departments in our sample were using any form of social media. Consistent with earlier studies, most of the organizations using Facebook were relatively new users and used social media to market organizational activities, to remain relevant to key constituents, and to raise awareness of their organization's work. Only one interviewee reported currently using social media as a tool for creating interactive dialogue with stakeholders, and only three interviewees envisioned using social media in this way in the future. Finally, interviewees highlighted a variety of barriers impeding social media use.
The study found that a modest number of nonprofit organizations were using Facebook, and few were using other forms of social media.
Our literature review identified two studies addressing social media adoption rates for nonprofit organizations (Guo and Saxton 2014; Nah and Saxton 2013). While the organizations in those studies are different in important ways from those in this study, comparing this study with the earlier two may help us interpret out results. Social media adoption rates by nonprofit organizations in our study were lower than those reported in the earlier studies: 54 percent of nonprofits in our study used Facebook compared with 65 percent in large nonprofit organizations (Nah and Saxton 2013) and 87 percent in nonprofit advocacy organizations (Guo and Saxton 2014). Twitter adoption rates show an even more dramatic contrast, with 6 percent in our study using it compared with 73 percent in large nonprofit organizations (Lovejoy and Saxton 2012) and 80 percent in advocacy organizations (Guo and Saxton 2014). One explanation may have to do with the types of organizations in our sample. The much higher Facebook and Twitter adoption rates among nonprofit advocacy organizations suggest that organizational purpose—in this case, advocacy versus human service delivery—may affect social media use. In fact, other research (Nah and Saxton 2013) has found that advocacy activity is related to social media use. This explanation, however, does not fully account for the near absence of Twitter use among the organizations in our study. One can argue that institutional isomorphism (DiMaggio and Powell 1983) may account for the high levels of Twitter adoption among advocacy and large nonprofit organizations. While Twitter use may have become a norm among those organizations, the organizations we studied provided no evidence that Twitter use was an expectation among stakeholders. Another explanation for this difference may be that the organizations in our study were smaller than organizations in Lovejoy and Saxton's study and may have lacked the “pre-existing resources and capacities” related to technology (Nah and Saxton 2013, 306) that other research has found to be important factors influencing social media use. Notably, however, Nah and Saxton (2013) did not find a significant relationship between asset size and social media use in their sample of the 100 largest American nonprofit organizations.
Overall, the nonprofit organizations in our study that were using social media presented a limited view of the actual and potential value of social media for their organizations. This finding is consistent with earlier research showing that nonprofit organization staff use social media in limited ways (Lovejoy, Waters, and Saxton 2012; Waters et al. 2009). Our analysis revealed that marketing organizational activities, in many cases by promoting events, was a primary purpose for social media communication among organizations in our sample. While this purpose appears to be one way in nature, Lovejoy and Saxton's framework categorizes content designed to promote an event as “action” and a form of engagement because it asks constituents to “do something” (2012, 345). In fact, the emphasis we found on promoting events provides support for Lovejoy and Saxton's characterization of “action” content as the highest priority for nonprofit organization users of social media. At the same time, the lack of well-developed visions for future use, the limited volume of Facebook posts, and the essential absence of Twitter use among our sample suggest that the organizations we studied are continuing to struggle to define how they can use social media to advance organizational goals.
The nonprofit organizations in our study that were using social media presented a limited view of the actual and potential value of social media for their organizations.
One benefit of our use of interviews for data is that they provide a helpful complement to recent research on social media content by giving us more information about the thinking behind the content interviewees post on social media sites. In nearly all cases, the interviews displayed an absence of well-developed, strategic thinking regarding how to use social media to advance organizational goals. In this way, the focus on “action” content among the organizations in our sample is not reflective of Lovejoy and Saxton's characterization of it as the “apex” of their “hierarchy of engagement” (2012, 349–50). Researchers may want to consider further the conditions under which “action” content reflects this apex and when it does not. For example, it would be valuable to examine whether “action” content achieves engagement goals in the absence of strategic thinking.
As noted, only two of 17 county human service departments in our sample had any social media accounts. Similar to our findings about nonprofit organizations, these numbers are lower than what other studies of local government social media use have found, although, in contrast to this study, they focused on use at the municipal rather than the departmental level (Bonsón et al. 2012; Hand and Ching 2011). We found that a key barrier preventing county departments from using social media was institutional policies that blocked access to social media sites for at least some employees; in fact, respondents in five of 10 county department interviews cited institutional policies as a barrier. In contrast, none of the nonprofit organizations in this study mentioned this obstacle. This finding is consistent with Kling and Nolin's (2011) assertion that local governments focus more on regulating how their employees use social media than on advancing its benefits for democratic participation. Others have similarly argued that public administrator have used innovations in technology to advance management interests over engagement goals (Kraemer and King 2006; Norris 2005). It is unclear which stage of Mergel and Bretschneider's (2013) model of social media adoption this result reflects. It could be that county departments in our study have not had innovators or intrepreneurs who have experimented with social media, or it could be that experimentation led to the institutionalization of policies that prohibited social media use. The answer to that question would depend on data collected about social media policies and practices for county governments as a whole; our study only collected data from individual departments within those governments. The finding suggests the need for more study about the status of social media in local governments.
Our findings also help us understand barriers to using social media use among public and nonprofit organizations involved in human service delivery. Concerns about client confidentiality are a major issue in human services, and a variety of codes and laws address these issues, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, state and federal confidentiality laws, the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics (1996), and state licensing laws. Consistent with this perspective, some interviewees indicated that they were reluctant to use social media because of concerns about client confidentiality and its appropriateness for high-risk populations; organizations exclusively serving vulnerable populations were less like to maintain social media accounts than organizations serving nonvulnerable populations. Related concerns emerged in the development of e-government; 29 percent of local government respondents to a 2002 survey identified privacy as a barrier to e-government (Norris and Moon 2005, 71). Nonetheless, we are unclear about the best way to interpret this finding. Many of the ways in which organizations use social media do not violate confidentiality standards or threaten vulnerable populations. Social media users can generate content in all three categories of Lovejoy and Saxton's (2012) engagement framework, such as calling people to action or sharing information, without revealing the identity of clients or placing them in compromising situations. The reluctance of staff in these organizations to adopt social media may reflect a lack of familiarity with its potential. At the same time, the findings could suggest that they believe social media has limited utility for their organizations, thus discouraging adoption.
The absence of vision about how to use social media was another important barrier limiting social media use. In the introduction to this article, we identified a range of ways in which public service professionals can use social media in public and nonprofit organizations—for fund-raising, advocacy, and performance measurement, to name a few. The results of this study suggests that before nonprofit organizations and county departments involved in human service delivery can take advantage of those capacities, they need to develop a greater understanding of these capacities and how to use them. Fewer than half of our interviewees were able to articulate their organization's vision for social media, and those who did had a narrow vision of its potential uses. Only three interviewees envisioned greater constituent engagement through social media. These findings suggest that the leaders of the organizations in our sample lack knowledge about the potential ways in which they can use social media to advance their goals.
To increase awareness of social media's potential value, scholars should share their research with leaders of public and nonprofit organizations on how social media can be used not just for one-way communication but also to engage stakeholders in interactive dialogues. In addition, it might be helpful for scholars to detail ways in which social media can be used without violating client confidentiality. Ideally, this research would be presented using nontechnical language and in a format that is accessible to practitioners, such as an issue brief rather than as a full-length journal article.
To increase awareness of social media's potential value, scholars should share their research with leaders of public and nonprofit organizations on how social media can be used not just for one-way communication but also to engage stakeholders in interactive dialogues.
Finally, our findings highlight several areas for future research. We need more refined analysis of the types of public and nonprofit organizations that are most likely to use social media. We limited our analysis to public and nonprofit organizations involved in human services. Drawing on Nah and Saxton (2013), many other characteristics are likely to influence social media practices in local government and nonprofit organizations, such as the primary age group of the organization's target populations, organization size, and level of information technology support. Another finding that public management scholars should explore is how social media use in county government varies by service area. Our findings about social media use in county human service departments differ from those of previous studies of other divisions of local government. It would also be useful to learn whether perceptions of social media and its value vary by where in local government an individual works or, similarly, by type of nonprofit organization. Finally, social media remains a relatively new and dynamic phenomenon. Many of this study's findings may be time sensitive. As county and nonprofit human service organizations become more comfortable with social media, they may be more likely to integrate it into their service delivery system and use it for broader purposes. Changes in technology and the types of social media available may also affect use. Nonprofit and public administration scholars should continue to investigate social media as technology and organizational practices evolve.
David A. Campbell is associate professor and chair of the Public Administration Department in the College of Community and Public Affairs at Binghamton University. His research interests include performance measurement in nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, and campus-based civic engagement. He has published his research in a cross-section of public administration and nonprofit management journals. E-mail: email@example.com
Kristina T. Lambright is associate professor of public administration in the College of Community and Public Affairs at Binghamton University. Her research interests include service delivery structure, contracting, organizational performance, and campus-based civic engagement. She has published or has articles forthcoming in several journals, including the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Administration & Society, American Review of Public Administration, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, and the Journal of Public Affairs Education. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher J. Wells is a 2013 graduate of the master of public administration program at Binghamton University. He currently works in the nonprofit sector in Washington, D.C. E-mail: email@example.com