A new model to explore non-profit social media use for advocacy and civic engagement

David Chapman, Katrina Miller-Stevens, John C Morris, and Brendan O’Hallarn in First Monday: “In an age when electronic communication is ubiquitous, non-profit organizations are actively using social media platforms as a way to deliver information to end users. In spite of the broad use of these platforms, little scholarship has focused on the internal processes these organizations employ to implement these tools. A limited number of studies offer models to help explain an organization’s use of social media from initiation to outcomes, yet few studies address a non-profit organization’s mission as the driver to employ social media strategies and tactics. Furthermore, the effectiveness of social media use is difficult for non-profit organizations to measure. Studies that attempt to address this question have done so by viewing social media platform analytics (e.g., Facebook analytics) or analyzing written content by users of social media (Nah and Saxton, 2013; Auger, 2013; Uzunoğlu and Misci Kip, 2014; or Guo and Saxton, 2014). The value added of this study is to present a model for practice (Weil, 1997) that explores social media use and its challenges from a non-profit organization’s mission through its desired outcome, in this case an outcome of advocacy and civic engagement.

We focus on one non-profit organization, Blue Star Families, that actively engages in advocacy and civic engagement. Blue Star Families was formed in 2009 to “raise the awareness of the challenges of military family life with our civilian communities and leaders” (Blue Star Families, 2010). Blue Star Families is a virtual organization with no physical office location. Thus, the organization relies on its Web presence and social media tools to advocate for military families and engage service members and their families, communities, and citizens in civic engagement activities (Blue Star Families, 2010).

The study aims to provide organizational-level insights of the successes and challenges of working in the social media environment. Specifically, the study asks: What are the processes non-profit organizations follow to link organizational mission to outcomes when using social media platforms? What are the successes and challenges of using social media platforms for advocacy and civic engagement purposes? In our effort to answer these questions, we present a new model to explore non-profit organizations’ use of social media platforms by building on previous models and frameworks developed to explore the use of social media in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

This research is important for three reasons. First, most previous studies of social media tend to employ models that focus on the satisfaction of the social media tools for organizational members, rather than the utility of social media as a tool to meet organizational goals. Our research offers a means to explore the utility of social media from an organization perspective. Second, the exemplar case for our research, Blue Star Families, Inc., is a non-profit organization whose mission is to create and nurture a virtual community spread over a large geographical — if not global — area. Because Blue Star Families was founded as an online organization that could not exist without social media, it provides a case for which social media is a critical component of the organization’s activity. Finally, we offer some “lessons learned” from our case to identify issues for other organizations seeking to create a significant social media presence.

This paper is organized as follows: first, the growth of social media is briefly addressed to provide background context. Second, previous models and frameworks exploring social media are discussed. This is followed by a presentation of a new model exploring the use of social media from an organizational perspective, starting with the driver of a non-profit organization’s mission, to its desired outcomes of advocacy and civic engagement. Third, the case study methodology is explained. Next, we present an analysis and discussion applying the new model to Blue Star Families’ use of social media platforms. We conclude by discussing the challenges of social media revealed in the case study analysis, and we offer recommendations to address these challenges….(More)”