by Rabbi Jason Miller
Thousands in Metro Detroit’s Jewish community have been flocking to Home Depot’s Facebook page in recent weeks. No, they are not all interested in becoming fans of the national retail giant. They are simply trying to help a local social service agency win $250,000 from the Home Depot Foundation.
Jewish Family Service in Michigan was one of 12 nonprofits around the country to win a monthly prize of $25,000 cash and another $5,000 in Home Depot gift cards from the Home Depot Foundation this past January. That win put them in the competition for the Aprons in Action contest that will give away a total of a half-million dollars in March. JFS plans to use the cash prize for its Project Build! program, which provides JFS clients with safe and barrier-free homes through pro bono repairs and renovations provided by local builders, remodelers and suppliers.
While many nonprofits in the Jewish community are still trying to find their way in the new world of social media, online contests like the Home Depot Foundation’s Aprons in Action have pushed nonprofit organizations to create a social media strategy to get out the vote on Facebook, the social networking site that boasts more than 850 million users.
Retail giants like Target and Home Depot, as well as large corporations like Toyota and Ford Motor Company, have drawn millions of Facebook users to their corporate and foundation “Fan Pages” through their online contests.
These crowd-raising initiatives have required nonprofits to familiarize themselves with such 21st-century terms as “social clout,” “social analytics,” “network amplification,” “true reach” and “social media influence.” Additionally, these nonprofits that compete in the contests have to quickly bolster their own online social identity to broadcast their participation in the contest. Many of these nonprofits are trying to raise their online presence on a shoestring budget, if they have allocated any marketing funds to social media at all.
In most cases, competing in such online contests is a gamble for the nonprofits because they don’t know what their return on investment will be, and they are allocating a lot of resources, including staff time, to the cause. JFS has recruited Jewish professionals and lay leaders in the community to reach out to their own networks to encourage daily voting on the Home Depot Foundation Facebook page during March. Local members of the Jewish community were asked to include reminders on their social networking sites and in email signatures. Some also participate in “post-a-thons,” where volunteers gather at a site and recruit voters via laptop postings. Additionally, JFS offered a daily email reminder service to increase its odds of securing the most votes.
“The Home Depot contest, as well as our success last summer at winning Toyota’s 100 Cars for Good competition, has made us aware that everything we do needs to have a social media layer,” explained Perry Ohren, CEO of JFS. “This has profound meaning in terms of our timing and our message. Timing has to be instantaneous and our message has to be short and engaging.”
One organization that has found much success in using its social reach to garner the votes needed to win online contests is Chabad Lubavitch. The international organization headquartered in Brooklyn exploits social networking not only to broadcast its message globally, but to also win financial grants. Chabad schools and service organizations, like the Friendship Circle, have used Facebook and Twitter to rack up hundreds of thousands of votes in national contests for six- figure grants by Chase Community Giving and Target Stores.
In a Facebook contest sponsored by Kohl’s Cares, 12 Jewish day schools in the U.S. finished in the top 20 of the competition, with 11 of those schools being Chabad-affiliated. Friendship Circle of Michigan, an organization dedicated to helping children with special needs, won $100,000 when it finished third in the Chase Community Giving Challenge on Facebook after using several social media tools to get out the vote.
Through these online contests, major corporations are able to donate funds to social service organizations, but it’s not completely altruistic. After all, the corporations are attracting a lot of attention to their brand. In the case of Home Depot, they are able to get thousands of people to visit their Facebook page each day for a month and look at their corporate logo, even if it is subliminal advertising. That is valuable advertising for the company and the half-million dollar investment is a small fraction of the retail giant’s more than $1 billion advertising budget.
Foundations for these large companies, like the Home Depot Foundation, have to make large charitable gifts each year so they figure they should at least help promote their corporate brand in the process.
Regardless of the motivation behind these online contests, it is certain that they have been the driving force in getting nonprofits to focus more on social media strategies. Hopefully, when there’s no large cash prize at the end of the rainbow, nonprofits will continue to utilize social media to promote theircause, raise awareness about their mission and solicit donations.
Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneur, blogger and social media expert. He is president of Michigan-based Access Computer Technology and Access Social Media. He was voted by the National Jewish Outreach Program as one of the top 10 Jewish Influencers during Social Media Week in New York City this past January.
This article was originally published in the Detroit Jewish News.