Originally written by Rachel Chong for Fast Company.
Danielle Brigida has done wonders running the social media at the National Wildlife Federation, providing a model for how organizations can use new communications technology to inspire their supporters.
Danielle Brigida is the Social Media Manager for the National Wildlife Federation. An admitted “wildlife geek,” her passion for her work is palpable. In fact, she wrote an ode to it, “The Return,” in the same meter as Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” about the value of using social media metrics to gauge engagement:
Though tweets are short and fitted, I said, we’ll increase the total submitted
Ghastly grim and empty forums we’ll be faced with nevermore!
It’s hard not to climb on board with that kind of enthusiasm. As a result, Brigida has been recognized as one of 75 Environmentalists to Follow by Mashable, Top 50 Green Folks to Follow on Twitter by Greenopolis, and a featured Changemaker by Change.org.
What was most surprising and illuminating about your success at NWF?
I knew connecting with our supporters online was important for us to accomplish our mission, but I had no idea how much their passion would provide inspiration to me, day in and day out. We have more than 400,000 people in our online communities, and I’m learning something from them all the time.
I use social media as a way to listen and to get to know them better. Through that deeper relationship, I then do my best to represent their voice back to my colleagues, so we can all work on behalf of the community. Social communities have had a huge impact on our staff. By simply removing barriers and allowing them to talk to our supporters, social media raised the spirit of NWF’s staff, helping people enjoy their job. It’s strange that nonprofits have grown to remove a lot of communication from supporters. Social media makes it both possible and not too costly to have stronger relationships with them.
You have said that social media is a good way to “start the conversation and then you have to take it offline.” Are there limitations to what social media can achieve in activism?
From my perspective, the strength of social media is when you blend online and offline worlds. It can be challenging for people to do, but your goal should never be to get a number of retweets, it should always be to get people thinking about an issue or topic in a way where they feel empowered to help. I plan on using social media to make a difference offline and help connect people to our natural world. I think online can extend an experience and share it with others, though. By photo sharing, storytelling, and developing our curiosity online, we can accomplish so much offline.
What advice can you give activists using social media on reaching the right audience and getting them to act?
If you wouldn’t share your ask with your family or friends, don’t share it with your social media contacts. I think the biggest mistake I see is people thinking of social media as simply a marketing channel–it can be so much more than that if you let it. The whole reason nonprofits should spend time on social media is to empower supporters to take their message and run with it. I think figuring out a way to embrace this can be difficult but totally worth it in the end.
What trends do you foresee in social media activism?
With all the information and noise making it harder and harder to get the attention of social media users, I think things will become even more targeted and focused while really looking to make change. It’s very difficult to make a difference using one channel over another, so integrating communications and targeting people in the places will be even more essential. I think social really needs to continue to adapt to changing times and decreased attention spans by being flexible and easy to integrate.
Why is giving time different than giving money?
Giving money shows that you want to be connected with the cause but you may not necessarily see the cause as part of who you are. Both play vital roles in getting involved but I think giving time shows a true dedication. Giving money is certainly necessary, but it doesn’t allow people to get their hands dirty and see the impact they are having all the time. The nice thing about social media is that it helps bridge the divide so donors can see their impact and feel connected to the mission day to day.
Was there a moment that you realized your life would be dedicated to giving back, to giving more than you received? What was that moment?
I’ve been fascinated by nature and animals for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until I went on a trip during spring break in high school, to MarineLab in Key Largo, that I realized how much I loved the science and problem solving that went into conservation and helping wildlife and the ecosystems they depend on. From there I realized I would never put all my energy toward anything else. So I guess for me, it was never about deciding to give back, it was all about dedicating my life to a cause I believe in. I’ll only be satisfied when I feel like I’ve helped make this world a better place for other living things.
What does generosity mean to you?
To me, generosity means giving without having expectations of receiving anything in return. Our members are generous when they donate or take action because they know wildlife will never send them a thank-you card but they contribute for reasons they select. Generosity is tough to define, though, because it can also mean just taking time out to help or make life easier for someone else. When it comes to social media, generosity with knowledge sharing is incredibly important. I think it defeats the purpose of making friends online if you expect things out of them all the time or hoard valuable information that could improve the lives of others. I much prefer the attitude of delivering value and making symbiotic relationships rather than always looking at what something can do for me. What I hope to do with our social media presences is provide value to both the organization as well as supporters and I work each day to help make them better in order to help wildlife.
Please tell us the names and stories of three individuals who inspire you most with their generosity.
It’s always inspiring when someone tries to make a difference especially if they are young and the issues seem insurmountable. One of the most inspiring moments came during the oil spill of 2010 when we saw a huge number of donations from, you guessed it: children. One in particular was from Grace, a 10-year-old who raised money for the National Wildlife Federation by having a lemonade stand. In a way she represents all of our donors, because it is their passion that inspires me, but I think it’s so impressive when kids are empowered to help where they can. I’ll never forget the kindness she showed at a time when things were bleak.
Combining my family into one person seems only fair, but I’m related to a lot of generous people (a number of teachers, scientists, and engineers). They inspire me with their tendency to create and share their findings. However, my immediate family played a huge role in why I intend on dedicating my life to the environment and wildlife. For all the times my parents taught me how to give without expecting a desired result. My younger brother also played a role in this. There’s one story my mother likes to tell that talks about how I was complaining about how I wanted some toy and my brother (who is three years younger than me and I believe was 3 at the time) silently went back to his wallet, that was filled mostly with monopoly money, and handed me every cent. I look back on that memory and laugh and even though I didn’t really appreciate the sentiment at the time, I would do the same for my family as they would do for me. No questions asked. I’m sure if I wasn’t shown by example how to live with a greater cause in mind, I wouldn’t have found myself down the nonprofit path. And for that, I thank them.
There are so many generous nonprofit technology users like Beth Kanter, Wendy Harman, Holly Ross, and countless others, but I wouldn’t know any of them if it weren’t for Jonathon Colman. At the time he was working for the Nature Conservancy and I had just started doing social media for National Wildlife Federation. We met on Stumbleupon and he immediately took me under his wing and taught me the virtual ropes of the online communities that were bringing him value for TNC. He introduced me to a number of fantastic green bloggers but he also gave me the opportunity to meet others in the social and technology field that have continued to help me accomplish my work for NWF. He was never concerned with the idea that we were at “competing” organizations and I truly admired his generosity. In fact, it is this attitude that I take toward my work, that I want to help others and network looking at the goal at large and not necessarily a brand or who gets credit.
How did you use social media to respond post-Sandy?
I see my job during these disastrous events as a person who keeps the media covering stories and I peruse our channels for mentions of wildlife in distress. We tend to get a ton of questions online and I try to use our online communities to solve problems and help people help wildlife when we can’t directly help them.