In this enlightening post, Idealware's summer intern, Rachel, shares her perspective as a 20-year-old college student with a strong interest in social justice and experience trying to organize and engage around related topics.
Last year during my sophomore year of college I had an internship in Baltimore with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which works to end poverty and injustice in the United States. It was my job to educate my peers about the Church’s call for social justice, so I organized a speaker series on my campus for such topics as "Solidarity with Immigrants" and "Dignity of Work."
From my perspective, I’m not convinced that social media is the sole solution when trying to connect young people with the nonprofit community. I tried to use Facebook to promote my events last year, but it was not very effective. Most of my friends receive Facebook notifications on their phones, including event invitations, so they were receiving the messages. People really seemed to know about the series, but they were not showing up. The only times I saw a large crowd was when professors offered credit to students who attended. It was disappointing but understandable. As a fellow college student, I know that time and energy are limited for us. A lot of my peers told me they wanted to come but had other priorities getting in the way, whether it was writing papers, going to play rehearsal, or dinner with friends. Convincing people to come was much more complex than making sure it was well known.
Sometimes I wonder if the emphasis placed on social media is too high when nonprofits try to reach younger audiences. To me, it’s like nonprofits are saying the solution to engaging youth is to advertise to them. Just as most people ignore ads on TV by muting the audio or getting up for a snack, most youth will ignore social media posts from any organizations. Sure, ads help with public awareness, but are you really going to buy insurance from a gecko? I’m not. My main use of Facebook is to stay in touch with friends who live further away. It helps me stay updated on their lives. I’m not really looking to be baited into supporting corporations. The point is that social media alone is not enough. It is a means, not an end.
What does engagement mean to you? For us, it means tangible action and a voice in the organization. I know that people my age have opinions. They don’t feel like their voices are being heard. Social media is still too impersonal for that voice to be heard. It seems only the very tech savvy people of this generation are being heard on social media by businesses. Not everyone has the time, money, or interest for technology.
So how can we be reached?
I find that petitions via email on mobile devices are well received by youth.
Make it easy for us. If you are going to invest time in emails, make them quick and catchy. We’re most likely to receive everything on our phones. I receive my emails on my phone. While it has saved me tons of time, I actually miss viewing emails on a computer. Emails appear as notifications on my phone. Instead of actually reading my messages, I just want to get rid of the blinking red light on my phone. So I sort through my emails to weed out the junk. As someone involved in social justice, I get countless emails to sign petitions. I simply don’t have the time or patience to read all those emails, despite my passion for justice. If an organization asks for money, I definitely delete the email because I am a poor college student. I am happy to sign petitions, but only if it is quick and easy from my phone.
Furthermore, the issue that the petition targets needs to be very clearly stated. I keep an editing eye out for the issues that matter most to me, and if the email title is not specific or compelling, I don’t usually take time to read any further. I just click to get rid of the notification. But I do sign petitions pretty often. The petitions themselves should be accessible on a phone, so we are more likely to sign them if the webpage is compatible with mobile devices.
So what’s an example of an email with a strong call to action? Here’s one I recently received:
I opened this right when I got it-- I was attracted by the word ‘student.’
As a poor college student, I don’t need any more debt! This was a no brainer. College is expensive enough already. I simply clicked on the orange box and my information was communicated from my email account to the online petition. I didn’t even have to fill out any boxes. One click and I had a voice.
Signing a petition feels good, but I typically want to be more actively involved with the causes I am passionate about. I want to do something. If active engagement is your goal, my suggestion is to make involvement personal and fun.
Most youth value socialization. They like to do things with friends. If you want to really get students actively engaged with your organization, you need to build relationships with them. I’ve never volunteered because of social media. I volunteer because someone I know tells me about a place. I do weekly service at meal programs because I have built relationships with the lead volunteers and the people we serve. I enjoy community service. It’s fun. To engage anyone in work in a way that is meaningful, they have to gain something from it. Make your events fun and friendly. Invite groups of friends, not just individuals, so youth can be involved with their friends. Youth want to have fun. Don’t we all?