Over the past year, opportunities to connect with people have been largely limited to digital spaces. But with social media giants like Facebook and Twitter no longer attracting Gen Z, some non-profits are looking at platforms such as TikTok and Clubhouse to share information and build relationships with new audiences and potential donors.
If you’re not on TikTok, it might be hard to imagine how a Scottish postman could start a sea shanty trend that would generate 5.3 billion views globally and amplify a Canadian Red Cross message about ice safety.
Red Cross officials noticed the trend and were inspired to create their own version. A musician in Ottawa volunteered to write the shanty, and the video has now garnered 2.3 million views, with additional clips coming from members of the organization’s digital volunteer program. “You have to be that quick or you’re going to miss out on those opportunities,” says Sara Falconer, director of digital communications.
Over the past year, opportunities for non-profits to connect with people have been largely limited to digital spaces. But social media giants like Facebook and Twitter aren’t attracting Generation Z. Consequently, some non-profits are looking at newer platforms such as TikTok and Clubhouse to share information and build relationships with new audiences, beneficiaries, and potential donors. But while the reach of these platforms is immense, creating timely content and meaningful engagement can be a real challenge. Some non-profits are joining Clubhouse, while others have invested heavily in figuring out what works best for them on TikTok.
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TikTok, the app for creating and sharing short videos, now gets more downloads than Facebook, which will be 18 years old in 2022. The site is also fundamentally different, displaying videos selected by algorithm on a “For You” page rather than prioritizing content from friends and followers. Released in 2017, TikTok reportedly boasted about 700 million monthly users by July 2020. Beyond the viral jokes and dances, messages and actions can be quickly amplified. Young K-pop fans who shared information on how to reserve tickets to a Donald Trump rally last year may have reduced actual attendance.
Falconer says the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) was an early adopter of TikTok. The viral success of its second post – a Nope Yup video – and a nationwide team of 60 social-media-savvy volunteers have helped generate 300,000 followers and 3.6 million likes. TikTok users, she explains, are eager to learn new things, which is why the CRC’s engaging safety tip videos perform well. “Once we had done a few of them, it was easier to show to people and say, ‘Hey, this might look a little bit silly, but see how many people are watching it and engaging with it.”
Falconer adds that like other Red Cross Societies around the world, the CRC may begin to use TikTok’s donation function. “I could see that in a disaster or emergency response that people may be looking to us to donate in any channel they encounter, so I would like to make sure that that’s set up for future emergencies.”
Beyond easily measured likes, followers, and donations, qualitative indicators of TikTok success include various kinds of engagement, such as users’ questions or requests to get more involved. Responding to feedback was key to building those relationships, Falconer notes.
Last winter, a non-profit thrift store in Montreal’s West Island that supports On Rock Community Services food bank was struggling to be discovered until a TikTok video created by a high school student took off. In one day, they sold about $4,000 of inexpensive secondhand clothing to people who waited for hours in their cars to get a chance to shop. But some people on the platform doubted that such a trendy-looking store could operate as a non-profit. Manager Kayla Reid needed to respond quickly before public opinion flipped. “I figured out after the first few days of it going viral, just be ready with the answers,” she says.
While non-profits and charities may be interested in TikTok, they might not have the resources to figure out the app and maintain an account, while some join but get only a few hundred views of their videos. Others, however, have managed to gradually build a solid following.
“TikTok definitely requires a lot of work if you’re trying to grow at a faster rate,” says Mashaal Saeed, communications and government-relations coordinator at Islamic Relief Canada. She says TikTok is easier to use for those who already love creating content and following trends, as is the case for her and her team. The group has attracted nearly 5,700 followers over the last year or so by sharing fun glimpses into their creative fundraisers, work, humour, and daily life. The main goal is to build relationships with young people, Saeed notes, but the account also links to fundraising merchandise, such as the Ramadan chocolate calendar. The warmth of the videos is reflected back in the comments section. But, as effortless as these videos may appear, the three members were spending about three to five hours per week working on them and recently brought on more help.
Steve de Eyre, TikTok Canada’s director of public policy and government affairs, suggests the first step for non-profits is to see how other organizations use the app. “Our users value authenticity, and the accounts that are most successful are those that tell stories and engage and interact with the user community – whether through taking on trends, Duetting/Stitching videos, or responding to comments.” De Eyre noticed an uptick in Canadian charities using TikTok in 2020 during lockdowns. He says TikTok Canada wants to continue working with non-profits and encourages organizations to learn the app and start posting. The company has hired more staff to reach out to Canadian non-profits and charities over the past few months.
Our users value authenticity, and the accounts that are most successful are those that tell stories and engage and interact with the user communitySteve de Eyre
“We’ve all seen the dances, but we don’t actually know how we can leverage this internally,” says Sarah Midanik, president and CEO of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund (DWF). But when TikTok reached out to her, she said she would be happy to discuss a potential partnership around the National Indigenous History Month events. In the past, the organization’s concerts drew crowds to venues and public squares to watch legendary artists such as Buffy Sainte-Marie, A Tribe Called Red (now The Halluci Nation), and Tanya Tagaq. This year, with people attending virtually, Midanik still hopes to reach students in the DWF’s Legacy Schools Programs, possibly through channels like TikTok.
Clubhouse, a social audio app that launched in 2020 had garnered enough buzz in the spring that non-profits were starting to take notice. It welcomed celebrities and maintained a virtual lineup for what was then an iPhone beta version of the app. It has since become available for Android but is still invite-only. On Clubhouse, users can enter a “room” and hear from a celebrity, thought leader, or investor, or they can start their own rooms to attract listeners and gain followers; the conversations are not recorded. As more people are welcomed into the space, some non-profits have become early adopters. This past April, Clubhouse, which is backed by Silicon Valley investors, introduced its first monetization feature, allowing users to send money directly to creators, establishing the potential for online fundraising.
Katherine Zhu uses Clubhouse with her non-profit, For a Safer Space (FASS), to educate people about mental health and connect listeners with culturally competent resources in English and Mandarin. “I think almost everyone has an interest in psychology – that’s what I learned from Clubhouse,” she says. The names of her virtual rooms refer to questions around mental health. For Zhu, a public speaker, social worker, and psychotherapist, talking to people is easy and requires little in the way of resources or planning. “Whenever I have free time, I just press start a room.”
Still, Clubhouse itself isn’t yet an inclusive space, which is problematic, given that inclusivity is often part of an organization’s mission statement “We get a lot of messages like ‘I don’t have an invite,’” says Ali Mashayekhi, executive director of the Ethnically Diverse Artists (EDA) Foundation. The organization uses Clubhouse to talk with artists between 18 and 35 about their challenges as well as EDA’s mentorship opportunities and resources. Clubhouse saves the small, volunteer-run organization time because organizers can address a virtual room of people instead of responding to individual emails. However, marketing and discoverability are limited on the network, so EDA leverages its Instagram account and the celebrity of founder Mena Massoud to direct people to its virtual rooms.
While non-profits have no guarantee that the latest buzzy network will endure, users are learning how to connect in ways that may be less easily abandoned. For example, social audio is attracting virtual crowds that other companies such as Facebook are now vying for. This June, Facebook launched Live Audio Rooms, while Spotify debuted Spotify Greenroom, another live audio network. While Clubhouse may be losing some buzz and facing more competition, social audio isn’t going anywhere. And while Vine is long defunct, the rise of TikTok demonstrates that networked video sharing is also only getting more popular.
Despite the challenges of using Clubhouse in beta version, Mashayekhi was pleased to be an early adopter and optimistic that the time they spend now will pay off later. “It’s still a developing, blossoming application,” he said in April. “So we want to be on it. We want to be active.”
The Matriarch Movement podcast
Matriarch Movement is a new podcast featuring animated and unscripted conversations between host Shayla Oulette Stonechild and inspiring Indigenous women.
“I wanted to shift the narrative and also take back that power because I feel like when we are represented in media, it’s usually from a colonial perspective,” says Stonechild, who is Métis and Plains Cree from Muscowpetung First Nation, in Treaty 4 territory.
Her guests have included extraordinary poets, activists, educators, and athletes who speak about everything from decolonizing urban design to Indigenous futurism.
I wanted to shift the narrative and take back that power.Shayla Oulette Stonechild
Stonechild’s intimate conversations are suited to the medium, but non-profit podcasts take many forms, ranging from recorded panel discussions to professionally produced and marketed content. Some podcasts share news about the sector or best practices for small non-profits, while others focus on specific topics such as multiple sclerosis, housing, or how vulnerable communities have been affected by the pandemic. Sometimes they just provide the space for people to speak for themselves.
Stonechild says her podcast is an accessible way to amplify Indigenous women’s voices on a weekly basis. Through the one-on-one conversations, guests can feel free to be authentic and avoid the code-switching often expected of Indigenous women.
While that kind of candour could turn off some listeners, Stonechild says the conversations are much needed. “There’s not really a space for Indigenous women to have these conversations, and also I feel like when I talked to a lot of these women, they really feel empowered and inspired.”
The Brand Is Female produces and markets Stonechild’s podcast, and new episodes drop every #MatriarchMonday.