Tech in the Commons: A Toolkit for Place-Based Nonprofits
Consider both the message and the medium.
An anti-violence rap that went viral and other social success stories.


  1. Ask yourself, Why does my audience care about my organization’s mission? What is our “noble pursuit”?
  2. Look at your 25 most recent social media posts. Make note of which got the most engagement and any commonalities. Do they follow the 70/30 rule?
  3. Brainstorm 10 social media posts that involve first-person stories told by those served by your organization.


How can place-based nonprofits best use social media to tell the stories of their impact? Step one: Your social media strategy doesn’t matter if your content has no heart.

Why the story matters most

Musician Mike Boston’s #BlackWithBlue movement started with a rap song coproduced by police officers and inner-city youth in a studio he’d rigged in the back of his truck, called Mobile Stü.

After the song’s music video and accompanying social content was released last November, it soon went viral — organically, with no paid media — to reach over 50 million impressions and counting, according to Boston-based ad agency Allen & Gerritsen (A&G), which helped form Mobile Stü’s social messaging. (Boston works as a facilities manager for the company in its, yes, Boston location.) The rapper has appeared on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and The Ellen Show to talk about the initiative, and he has a documentary series in the making.

What mattered here was the message, not the medium — people recognized the importance of Boston’s work in mending the tense relationship between cops and kids and wanted to spread the good news.

“It’s a meritocracy on the brand side,” said A&G principal Tim Reeves, who helped make Boston’s efforts national news. “For nonprofits, the stories that resonate with people are stories of mission, stories that have a noble pursuit” — and now, major brands are following that rule, too. “This is about having such a great story that it wins engagement.”

There’s a tangential lesson here: Have the people affected by your work be their own storytellers. Mobile Stü wouldn’t have taken off if A&G had been the driving force behind it; Boston was the one who had seen firsthand the tensions between the police and youth in his community, and he was the one to give a platform to both groups, who in turn shared their own stories. Nonprofits, invite those you serve to be the faces — or voices — of your campaign.

“There’s always a champion to drive a story forward,” said Comcast NBCUniversal’s community impact division, Kunal Gulati — such as, say, the young aspiring filmmaker who got to watch the NBC Sports team capture the Eagles beating the Patriots live while exploring a potential future career, thanks to the corporation’s joint program with the Boys & Girls Club of America.

The most important points for nonprofits to keep in mind when crafting a social message are emotional resonance and human connection, Gulati said. In other words, the stories must be relatable and shareable to make it past your immediate network. That’s the emotional resonance at play.

… But the medium matters, too

As for turning that story into a social presence? When it comes to the available media, “if you’re not using it to the fullest, it is sadly going to waste,” said Stephen Rapp, Arden Theatre Company’s director of marketing and communications.

Read more about how the Arden revamped its social media presence in the next chapter. First, here are the Arden team’s tips for making the most of the medium:

  • Use the 70/30 rule — That is, 70 percent of your social content should further the “story” and not necessarily have a sales message attached. It’s less “interruption-based,” more “permission-based,” Rapp said.
  • Add videos straight to Facebook — As opposed to posting YouTube links. The former autoplays, the latter does not. It’s an easy way to guarantee views.
  • Have an open door policy for content — Rapp’s team offers opportunities for other staffers and actors to take over its Twitter and Instagram accounts: “We’re not precious about it.”
  • Consider Google Grants — Google offers $10,000 of in-kind advertising to nonprofits, allowing their websites to appear to the top of results pages as paid ads.

Connect with Tim Reeves for further advice on building a story worth telling at

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