United Way using social media to drive social good

Tony Maraschiello    November 20, 2017

It’s the season of giving. And with more than 85,000 registered charities in Canada, the competition for your discretionary dollar is heating up.

For traditional non-profits like the United Way, dealing with dwindling donation dollars is compounded by the rise of online, crowd-sourced and increasinlgy niche charitable initiatives.

How does one of Canada’s largest and oldest charities break through the clutter, especially during the prime giving season, to successfully engage local, distracted and digitally savvy donors?

While bricks-and-motar organizations like the United Way certainly have their work cut out, the increasing use of social media and the resulting metrics are helping organizations focus their marketing efforts to maximize awareness, engagement and, ultimately, donations.

Story-telling is the key

The United Way in Canada is a network of close to 100 local, non-profit branches. Each United Way works locally to raise funds and invest in improving lives in its community.

The United Way of Toronto and York Region is one such branch. Originally founded in 1917 in Toronto, and adding York Region two years ago, it is the largest United Way agency in North America, collecting a record $102 million in support of more than 200 local charities in 2016.

But with the rising cost of living in the Greater Toronto Area and competition for donation dollars steadily increasing, the United Way needs to continually be at the forefront in the hearts, minds, and wallets, of current and potential donors. More and more, it’s using social media to tell stories of those in need.

“Our key audiences are donors, volunteers, agencies and clients,” says Maria Khan, Associate Social Media Manager, United Way Toronto & York Region. “We provide opportunities on social media to let these supporters know they are making a difference in the community and provide further opportunities for them to get involved. We also use our social channels to keep our followers informed on social issues impacting our region.”

The traditional method of engaging donors – weeks and weeks of face-to-face, TV and radio ads, and out-of-home campaigning around a particular holiday season or large local cause – is now being replaced in large part by donors going online to crowd-sourced sites like GoFundMe to contribute directly to individuals and families forced out of their homes by natural disasters or other calamities around the world. Dollars are also being siphoned to celebrity-backed causes that often grab headlines for a short time and then fade away.

These sometimes smaller, niche charitable drives have seized upon this new online dynamic and are doing a great job marketing to their target audiences around the world through equally great story-telling. They know that gaining global attention for a cause creates a buzz, draws attention and generates big money.

In its attempt to ensure it is continually engaging the hearts and minds of local donors, the United Way of Toronto and York Region is focusing its marketing efforts primarily through a series of social media-based stories – called “It Looks Like Me” – that focus on real people, facing real issues in the local community. By marketing through social media, the United Way also hopes that donors who support a cause near and dear to them are more likely to share posts with their friends (and potential new donors).

The data collected from the United Way’s recent social media efforts is helping further influence and customize the type of content published on its various channels.

“Social media is our key marketing/outreach activity for potential donors and the data we collect from social media definitely influences the type of content we publish on our channels,” adds Maria. “If we see something is getting high engagement, we try to replicate that success, find out why certain things are performing better than others and adjust our content accordingly.”

Different ways to tell a story

The United Way is continuously active on its various handles, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.

Through its social media metrics, the United Way has learned that stories about real people in local communities resonate most for Facebook, Instagram and YouTube users. Here’s an example.

Maria adds that issues- and research-based content, on the other hand, works particularly well on the United Way’s LinkedIn and Twitter handles.

“We’ve discovered different types of content works better on different channels,” Maria says. “Instagram and Facebook definitely favour more story-based content that describe stories of clients who have been helped through United Way and its agencies. On LinkedIn and Twitter, we see more research/issue based content works best. Our social media audience is primarily female and ranging from ages 25-49. This is across the board.”

The metrics that show the United Way’s target demographic has resulted in the agency focusing much of its recent marketing efforts on a strategy aimed at helping young people get access to higher education, job opportunities, and a so-called community hub of help in areas of highest need.

As the biggest non-governmental supporter of social services in the Greater Toronto Area, the United Way is successfully using social media and the resulting metrics to keep up with changing demands for help.

Lessons for Others

For traditional charities like the United Way, with bricks-and-mortar operations and thousands of volunteer boots on the ground, social media has presented a new way to market to target donors in a cost-effective manner.

The resulting audience metrics it receives in return is further helping to shape content, decide which social media tool to deliver it from and how often.

Speaking to a particular audience in a manner that appeals to them can translate into mobilized and engaged individuals who get involved more deeply in making a difference.

“Knowing the types of people who are naturally engaging with a cause is a great way to create content and messaging that appeals to those people,” Maria adds. “Can audience data collected though social media be used for social good? Absolutely.”

Organization: The United Way
Industry: Non-profit
Name of Organization Contact: Maria Khan, Associate Social Media Manager, United Way Toronto & York Region

Authored by: Tony Maraschiello

If you have concerns as to the accuracy of anything posted on this site, please send your concerns to Peter Carr, Program Director, Social Media for Business Performance.


United Way Toronto and York Region: https://www.unitedwaytyr.com/

United Way Annual Report: http://annualreport.unitedwaytyr.com/

Annalect: https://www.annalect.com/data-driven-social-good-really-happening/

Vancouver Sun: http://www.vancouversun.com/life/United+suffers+from+competition+donation+dollars/9711616/story.html

The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/celebrities-good-causes-benefit-themselves-more-than-the-charities-9655350.html

Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnrampton/2015/04/17/how-video-marketing-is-changing-online/#2dce90cb2487

CBC News: https://globalnews.ca/news/3130108/charitable-giving-in-canada-drops-to-10-year-low-according-to-tax-data/

TechCrunch: https://techcrunch.com/2017/01/10/gofundme-buys-crowdrise-to-expand-to-fundraising-for-charities/

Toronto Star: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2017/02/24/united-way-toronto-and-york-region-shows-it-can-adapt-editorial.html