Nonprofits have special opportunities as well as special challenges in taking advantage of social media. Beth Kanter, a consultant and author in the field of nonprofit training, says that the key is to meet the organizations where they are and guide them through the first steps.

In Beth Kanter’s newest book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit (Jossey-Bass, 2012), she and co-author Katie Delahaye Paine write, “Affecting social change is, of course, the ultimate goal for nonprofit organizations. But you can’t get to any destination without a road map and some signposts along the way. Measurement is your map, and metrics are your signposts.”

The book is designed for “networked nonprofits,” organizations that know how to use social networks but need help figuring out how to use measurements to better understand their networks, measure outcomes and understand cause and effect. (You can get a taste of Kanter’s ideas at
Beth’s blog,” a site devoted to how nonprofits are using social media.)

Kanter consults with nonprofits and foundations to build their use of social media and incorporate best practices for measurement. She is a visiting scholar at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a grantmaking organization in Los Altos, California. Her projects with the foundation include running a peer learning session for grantees in the field of sustainable agriculture and leading a social media lab for participating organizations to develop experiments to try out the powers of social media — sometimes for the first time.

In a conversation with MIT Sloan Management Review’s Robert Berkman, Kanter talks about her social media spectrum of Crawl, Walk, Run, Fly, the importance of starting with a low-risk pilot to show that nothing bad will happen, and how one organization puts on “Joyful Funerals” for its failed ideas.

What are some of the key similarities and differences for a nonprofit that wants to begin a social program, compared to a typical for-profit business?

There are certain similarities. Like a small business, smaller nonprofits often don’t have a lot of staff time allocated to doing social media. I have a social media spectrum of Crawl, Walk, Run, Fly, and for small nonprofits, it’s often hard for them to get past what I call the crawling stage, which is maybe about five to 10 hours a week of staff time. For those operations, the focus is on how you can be most effective in that small amount of capacity that you have to do the work.