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An average of 3,100 poor and homeless families seek help from Tampa's Metropolitan Ministries each month. They need diapers, peanut butter, school supplies, volunteers.

In an unforgiving economy, the charity's supplies can run low.

But help, it turns out, may be just a tweet away.

"Whenever we have a plea out there, the community rallies right behind us," said Ana Maria Mendez, Metropolitan Ministries' community relations manager.

That support is nothing new, Mendez said. What has changed is how - and how quickly - the word is getting out.

Like other nonprofit organizations these days, Metropolitan Ministries is supplementing direct mail and other traditional marketing campaigns by using Facebook and Twitter to reach out to more people.

Using online social media sites saves time and money, they say. The sites can also strengthen ties with younger adults who may be new to charitable giving or volunteer work.

Last month, Mendez used 140 characters or less on Metropolitan Ministries' Twitter account (@MetroMinistries) to boost donations for an annual backpack drive.

The charity has more than 1,100 followers on Twitter. As many as 100 of them forwarded or retweeted the messages, helping lead to backpacks and school supplies for 3,500 children in the Tampa Bay area.

For charities using social media sites, the key is to reach out gently and consistently without being pushy, said Lizz Harmon, owner of the HarmonTampa public relations, which helps nonprofit and for-profit companies craft their online marketing strategies.

The way charities use sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn is "not very much different from a regular business," Harmon said. "You may have to soft-pedal a little more. But the whole thing about social media is you treat it as a networking event or a cocktail party.

"You don't come in and just start selling. You make friends and introduce yourself. And then you might ask for help or advice once you know one another."

Even nonprofits with sizable marketing budgets are using social networking.

The Florida Aquarium, for instance, supports marine conservation, research and education programs, all of which need consistent funding.

"Making people aware of our fundraising programs is important to us," said public relations manager Tom Wagner.

The aquarium has been using Facebook and Twitter (@FloridaAquarium) since November, often to promote smaller fundraising events, to post aquarium news and showcase updated photos and videos.

"What I've found is, (the sites) work best when you can create a buzz about something," Wagner said. "We have 3,000 (Twitter) followers. If I send something out that 30 people send to their followers, we're reaching 5,000 or 10,000 or even more."

That ability to reach an online village of friends - and their friends, too - inspired Pat Warbritton to join LinkedIn, a professional networking site that claims more than 47 million members worldwide.

Warbritton, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, now uses the events section of LinkedIn to post the foundation's fundraising events, including gatherings to watch the Bucs' away games.

The lure of LinkedIn is not just the number of friendly "connections" you can make, she said, but the people reachable through those connections. She said she is much more likely to be interested in something recommended by a friend or the friend of a friend.

"I have 63 connections that link me to 301,900 people," Warbritton said. "It is amazing."

Most nonprofits are still trying to figure out what works. The biggest mistake charities or businesses make, Harmon said, is creating Facebook or Twitter pages and then failing to keep them current. The goal is to develop loyal relationships so your followers will then "take your message out for you," Harmon said.

To Terri Goldstein, foundation manager for the Lions Eye Institute for Transplant & Research in Ybor City, social networking sites like Twitter and LinkedIn are just more "little doors" to push through to raise awareness about needs ofblind and visually impaired people.

The institute's foundation is known for its annual Eye Ball, but much of its support comes from individuals, rather than corporations, she said. Goldstein has experimented with Twitter (@LEIFoundation) and LinkedIn for a few months.

Her motto: Keep it positive and uplifting.

"If people are going to be permanently drawn in," she said, "they're going to be drawn in by the warmth and success and what they get out of helping people."