by Linh Song -npServ Director

photo courtesy of sweetjuniper.com

photo courtesy of sweetjuniper.com

Last week I organized a social media “extravaganza” with the Cultural Alliance of Southeastern Michigan for their annual membership meeting.  The group of 84 members includes small to large arts and culture institutions from The Henry Ford to the Sphinx Organization.  What brought them together was the Cultural Alliance’s ambitious plans to encourage collaborations and explore new ways to engage the communities they serve, especially in light of declines in museum memberships and funding.  For fiscal year 2010, Michigan will be the only state without state arts and culture funding, a sad statement for a state that claims a rich cultural history that ironically enough, also creates jobs.  By exploring social media the Cultural Alliance and NEW’s npServ program began  to strategize on how together with Cultural Alliance members, we can energize outreach efforts and communicate that institutions like the DIA to the Anton Art Center are committed and responsive to their constituencies.  Tough times come and go, but these community institutions are here to stay…they are a part of who we are as Michiganders.

In the months preparing for the meeting, I took a deep dive into the arts and culture community to learn how organizations effectively use social media.  There were innovative efforts from blogger preview nights with the San Francisco Symphony to the Brooklyn Museum’s membership passes based specifically on social media.  Brilliant!  This was not a half-hearted effort to ride the social media wagon or a desperate effort to expand its 10,000 membership base.  Instead, 1stfans is a thoughtful collaboration between Will Cary, the Membership Manager and Shelley Bernestein, the museum’s Chief of Technology.  In other institutions these departments orbit in their own worlds and yet here, the Brooklyn Museum was able to recognized that arts organizations are perfect candidates for social media.  What better way to communicate with members and potential members?  To encourage creative networks and engage them in meaningful ways?  And receive immediate feedback on everything from geeky t-shirts to their own iPhone app?  A new day has arrived, and it involves tweeting in Morse code.

We were fortunate enough to have Will Cary speak at the meeting (and regreted not having Shelley here to join him).  Will’s keynote ran through how the museum introduced the membership in person not just virtually, and how they worked closely with artists to develop the program.  The1stfans program speaks to huge, cultural changes for nonprofits in general.  Your online presence is no longer just a digital version of your marketing material, but a community building effort in of itself.  And, that effort lends itself to organizational accountability (i.e. executive director and client blogs) which donors and supporters are demanding.  One point that I conveyed in my workshop (“Fundraising 101:  Best Practices Using Twitter, Tipjoy, and Facebook”) was that it isn’t enough to just have a Paypal button for donations on your website, but demonstrate that your organization sincerely engages with supporters online and offline.

This was the impetus behind the panel that I organized including yelp.com, thegenerationproject.org, and sweetjuniper.com.  Yelp’s Metro Detroit Community Manager demonstrated how reviewers of cultural events, nonprofits, and businesses “blog” their thoughts and how organizations or businesses can respond to criticism or hopefully, appreciation.  The Generation Project covered how they engage underprivileged youth for their nonprofit work through donor matches AND blogging.  Last of all, Jim from sweetjuniper.com shared how a stay-at-home father and Detroit advocate can attract 50-70,000 website hits in a week through his incredible writing and photos.  Most recently he was able to attract Time Magazine to Detroit to cover how despite all of its problems, families and community members are reinventing and rebuilding their own city.  There was one post about a Detroiter who cleaned out an abandoned lot and started a community garden…..without the help of nonprofits or foundations.  The project moved donors to send thousands of dollars from around the world.  It moved me to tears.  These stories beg so many questions….  Do Detroit area nonprofits understand the marketing and outreach potential that’s before them?  Does the DIA attract that kind of traffic?  How are we giving voice to the communities that we serve?

In the coming months NEW’s npServ program will be running social media workshops every first Friday of the month.  These are some of the questions that we’ll be addressing.  While the demand has been focused on how to fundraise online and using different tools, our mission is to move organizations to listen and contribute to online communities, first.  Nonprofits are struggling with many challenges but it’s important that we stay true to mission with all of our efforts, and grow our own gardens in our physical and virtual communities.

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