The community engagement principle that stands the test of time

Social media is the way of the future, they said.

There is no credibility without a website, they said.

Nonprofits must seek online donors in the information age, they said.

It turns out, “they” might not be right.

I recently conducted a (brief) search on how nonprofits can improve community engagement. I was fully expecting to find all the above ideas as the top hits: improve community engagement through Twitter. Through Instagram. Through new interactive online platforms.

Surprisingly, these technology-based ideas showed up exactly once out of about twenty-five recommendations, and even then, it was sandwiched between more traditional forms of communication: “Writing your own blog posts, articles, newspaper editorials, and such is effective for a number of reasons.”[1] When social media was mentioned, it was in a distinctly secondary way, as in this claim: “And while social media such as Facebook and Twitter make it easy to meet people online, there is nothing like slow, meaningful live conversation to make a real difference to your organization.”[2]

Other ideas that cropped up in much more positive tones included boring old traditional ideas, such as participating in local events, partnering in the community, and using an organization’s own space to host events.[3] Articles also emphasized the need to communicate effectively, through telling stories (in a variety of formats and to various audiences), through powerful data, through publications, through public speaking, and through one-on-one conversations.[4] None of these rely on flashy, up-and-coming technological tools for their success.

Still, there is certainly room for innovation in the technological market, and there are plenty of resources (mostly for purchase) that allow nonprofits to “maximize their presence” in an online world. However shiny and appealing these ideas seem, however, it seems that some community engagement strategies simply don’t get old. It turns out, to engage the community, nonprofit leaders just need to be in the community. And to engage, they still benefit from looking at people eye to eye and speaking to them face to face.





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