6 Things Nonprofits Need to Understand about their Facebook Pages

Photo: Steel Wool

Photo: Steel Wool on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The last two years have been tough for nonprofits that rely heavily on Facebook to reach supporters. What’s more: instead of getting easier, it has only gotten tougher. Here are six essential things you need to understand about your Facebook page:

 1. Your total number of fans is meaningless

A few years ago, we all got sucked into believing that the number of fans is a measure for success. I believe this idea still comes from a classic TV/newspaper approach where it cost people something to consume your medium/channel: either time, or money, or both. If your circulation or the number of viewers went up, then you were doing something right, if your numbers went down you were doing something wrong. But Facebook doesn’t work that way. Once someone has liked your page, it is actually more effort for that person to unlike your page than to just ignore your content.

In a way, Facebook even systematically discourages the un-liking of pages, because they stop showing you content from pages that you don’t interacting with. Be honest – when was the last time you went through the list of pages that you have liked over the years and un-liked those that you no longer care about? Never? Then you are in good company – and your fans are no different. This means that the number of fans on your page is likely to slowly go up, even as your reach goes down, simply because people neither remember nor care that they ever liked your page. So looking at the number of fans is counterproductive. Instead, looking at how many people you reach is more meaningful.

 2. You are reaching even less people than you think and less people than before

About three years ago, many of us were surprised to hear that on average, pages only reach 16% of their fans. That means that if your page had 5,000 fans only about 800 would see your content, let alone interact with it. Over the last months however, many people have reported that their reach has dropped further after Facebook adjusted their algorithm once more – to as little as 2%. This means that now only 100 out of 5,000 fans might see the content the page is posting.

The problem with these statistics is that these are global averages across all industries. I.e. you are comparing the page of National Geographic with Nike and your own nonprofit organization. That is not meaningful. Unfortunately I have never seen these numbers broken down for cause-related pages, which is where most nonprofit organizations sit. (If you happen to find them, please post a link in the comments.) So don’t get hung up on the numbers and how you compare with the global average. Instead look at whether your reach and engagement are trending up or down and decide whether the results you are achieving through Facebook make it worth your investment.

3. You need to have goals beyond the number of fans

In order to determine whether the time (and money) you spend on Facebook make sense for your organization, you need to have concrete goals. Saying “we want to raise awareness” is not enough. Maybe you want donations, maybe you want to drive traffic to your website where they can take a next step or maybe you want to involve people in a dialogue around your issues – whatever it is, you want people to do something and not just to be a fan. Once you defined your goals and once you have found out what percentage of the people you are reaching are doing what you want them to do, you can decide whether you are spending your time wisely or not. Maybe you are reaching an average of only 100 people out of 5,000. But if 50 of these 100 frequently do something that is really, really important to you, then it might be worth your time. On the other hand, if your success depends on at least 4,000 people doing something, then maybe it’s time to consider different means of mobilizing people. But first you need to know what you want people to do and how to measure success.

4. Those who suffer the most, are those who paid money to promote their pages

This part is really unfair: organizations that spent money to promote their pages in the past are more likely to suffer from a lower relative reach, than those pages that grew organically.

This goes back to Facebook not showing your content to disinterested users. Think about it: Someone who sees an ad for your page and clicks “like” might only have done so because he/she thought the ad was cool or because he liked the image you were using in it. This person is less likely to be passionate about your cause, compared to someone who saw one of your posts in his timeline, already knew of your organization or already believed that what you do is important. If this person doesn’t continuously interact with your content, he will stop seeing it in his timeline and become a dormant fan. This means you no longer reach this person and your reach is going down. The more fans you acquired through ads, the worse this problem is for you.

On the other hand, organizations who grew their fans through organic growth and who have continually invested in producing relevant content will be less affected by the drop in reach. In essence this means: there are no shortcuts to gain someone’s continuous support. You need to fight for it every single day.

5. Facebook ads can still make sense

What I just wrote sounds a little as if Facebook is penalizing organizations who are spending money. That is not the case. Instead, Facebook is not rewarding organizations who have invested money in ads instead of investing time and money in relevant content. As mentioned above, promoting a page through ads is a good way to get new fans, but not a good way to establish long-term engagement unless you can follow up with great content.

But that doesn’t help you, if you are just starting out with a new Facebook page that has no fans. So how do you get your content in front of the people you want to reach? By promoting individual posts, rather than the page. While only a tiny fraction of the people you reach through post-promotions will like your page, this is not a problem once you have accepted that increasing your number of fans should not be your goal. Instead, measure whether the paid reach helps you achieve your business goals. If it does that, then it is money well spent. Of course this assumes that your posts support your goals.

6. Facebook is not evil – they are a business

A lot of the articles and blog posts that have discussed the changes to page reach and engagement over the last months were dripping with consternation and outrage and I get it. It’s not pleasant to see your investment perform worse than in the years before. But I disagree with the attitude of many writers who assert that non-profit content should get preferential treatment. Try to see it from Facebook’s perspective: on average the friends and pages that a Facebook user follows, have posted 1,500 pieces of content since he/she logged on last. Just to be clear: this is only from people and pages the user is already following!

Since Facebook’s timeline is not chronological, the service now has to decide which of these 1,500 posts to show to the user. Unfortunately I have not been able to find data on how many posts each user sees on average per login, but even if that number was as high as 30, it would still mean that he would not see 98 % of the posts. Facebook’s whole business model is to show users content that they enjoy and that means they have to be brutal when deciding what to show and what not to show. You and I might disagree about what Facebook prioritizes, but that’s just too bad. The only thing you can do to make it to the top of the heap for free, is to consistently produce high quality content. That is neither easy nor cheap but it’s the only way to succeed on Facebook in the long term. You can skip to the top by promoting your posts, but that doesn’t mean that people will think your content is great if it isn’t at least as interesting as the other things they see in their timeline.

What I would like to see from Facebook

Having said all that, there are two things I would like Facebook to do to make the service more useful for nonprofits:

  • Give us a tool to remove inactive fans

There is no mechanism to identify, nor bulk-remove fans that haven’t interacted with a page for a very long time. If we could remove all fans that have been dormant for, say, a year, then this would give us a better idea of who our real fans are. This in turn would help us produce better, more engaging content for our fans since we’d understand them better. Facebook is a treasure-trove of demographic information, but at the moment it’s impossible to distinguish between active and inactive fans.

  • Facebook Ad Grants

While I don’t think that nonprofit content should get preferential treatment on Facebook, I do think that Facebook could do more to support nonprofits. It should be easy for Facebook to establish an equivalent to Google Grants which allows qualified nonprofits to run Google Ads for free. Facebook could and should do something similar.

What are your thoughts? How is your organization’s Facebook page doing?


  1. Diana Carranza March 4, 2015
  2. Sylvia Lewinstein May 7, 2015