Responsibilities Expand as Nonprofits Take on Social Media

Recently, I conducted a brief survey using Survey Monkey to assess how social media has changed the structure and function of communications and marketing departments at nonprofit organizations. What I learned was that communications and marketing departments of nonprofits increasingly have taken on the role of social media marketers, albeit without adding additional staff or expertise. Typically, an existing staff member was tasked with these new responsibilities, having little additional knowledge other than active use of personal social media accounts.

I chose nonprofit organizations, in particular, for several reasons: the Washington, D.C. Metro region—where I work—has among the highest concentration nonprofits and associations in the country. These organizations are, in fact, one of the largest employers in the area. (Well behind the federal government and defense contractors, of course.) In addition, I am currently working on a related project for a nonprofit organization. Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, nonprofits are actually among the most intensive users of social media as a marketing tool. Who knew?

A total of 51 individuals working at a nonprofit organization responded; 47 completed the full survey. Most organizations fell into one of two categories: membership-type organizations with either an individual membership (65%) or organizational memberships (50%). More than 90% of respondents focused on issues related to education, healthcare, or policy. The average staff size was 46 full-time individuals.

A full 72% of respondents indicated that their organization had a dedicated communications department, which was either strictly “communications” or a combination of communications, marketing, and/or membership. These communications staff ranged from 1 to 20 fulltime staff, with an average of 5 fulltime staff across all respondents. The most common titles in the department were “communications director” or “vp” (>70%) and “communications manager” (35%).  Almost 30% had a social media manager and/or website manager. Other common titles found in the communications department included an editor (28%); public relations staff (28%); and graphic designer (23%). Approximately 20% also included a marketing director or marketing manager.

Two respondents indicated that all of these roles were held by one person!

The heads of the communications department (typically the director or VP), reported directly to the CEO or executive director of the organization. In some organizations Advocacy Communications and Membership Communications were separate departments answering to those respective directors or VPs.

Although answers to “How has the staffing and structure of the department and its role within the organization changed as a result of social media?” varied greatly, a trend was clear: existing communications staff typically absorbed most of this new responsibility. Often, an existing position—such as communications manager—was tweaked to focus on social media approximately 50% of the time. Representative responses: “[S]ocial media has become one of six core functions for the department” and “Social media now occupies a large role and takes more time than ever. It’s seen as necessary though and has become part of the job.”

Approximately 25% of respondents indicated that staff had been added to the department to accommodate this increasing role in social media, although infrequently was the position dedicated solely to social media. In fact, a few respondents indicated that a small, dedicated communications staff was added in organizations that previously had not had any staff, in direct response to a need to reach out through social media.

Social media is not, however, always handled by the communications department. In at least two cases, this role is dedicated and resides in the IT department. One respondent said, “Social media is handled by membership and marketing department. Communications did not see it as a priority.”

If respondents could make one change to their departments, the answer was almost unanimously: “Add more staff”! One respondent captured this perfectly: “It’s impossible to serve the membership and wider community without greatly expanding capacity. Everyone’s doing two jobs.” Other common responses to this question included a need for better defined strategic direction in communications and goals; increasing the skill level of existing staff; and a communications audit.

The bottom line likely is familiar to anyone working in a communications capacity: Increasingly, we need to do more with less. Fewer staff, reduced resources, and less money.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor







Changing the Way We Research and Learn

Recently, I was at my local library, browsing the stacks and looking for a book on — of all things — cheesemaking. When it struck me that it had been a good long while since I had actually visited a library to learn about a new topic. I froze at that realization and tried to recall the last time I had stepped into an actual library, and I came up dry.

Libraries had been my salvation since I was a small child growing up in an even smaller town. Reading was my escape, my route to new worlds and to fulfillment of my autodidact needs. How had this happened? The library was there all through grammar school for school projects and entertainment. Then through college for papers and study sessions. Then as an adult when I wanted to learn a new skill or delve deeper into a topic. Then when I was a parent, to foster in my own children my love of books.

I realized then that, over the years, my research had slowly, imperceptibly shifted to almost entirely online. This most recent foray was no exception. I found a single book cheesemaking, which turned out to be useless with overly complicated instructions and limited images; the videos on YouTube and narratives on various cheese-related websites that I found later were so much more practical and accessible.

But I didn’t decide to write this blog to talk about cheesemaking. I think this incident instead speaks to a larger change about how and where people are getting their scientific information and the format in which they expect to find it. Do school-aged kids even go to libraries to do research anymore? Does it even make sense to do that? Books are outdated as soon as they are published; yet you can find up-to-date information online on virtually ANY topic in an instant.

I have to admit that although I miss the library, and certainly have a great deal of nostalgia for it as an institution, I get a great deal of satisfaction at having this wealth of knowledge right at my fingertips. Now when someone spouts a scientific fact, I can quickly consult the published literature via and find out if what they are saying is supported by peer-reviewed journal articles. Or if an issue is discussed that is a bit over my head, I can school myself quickly with more basic information first to get up to speed.

But do the data support this? Do readers gain knowledge online? A recent article on Slate about how people read online provides some disturbing statistics about how long readers are willing to stick with an article. According to the article, about 40% of readers who land on a web page, leave instantly, and 10% never hit the scroll bar, reading only what they can see. Only about 50% make just past the halfway point.

A Scientific American article took a look at the recent literature on how our brains process information when reading from electronic versus paper sources. Published literature has drawn only a tenuous advantage to paper over electronic. However, research has shown that individuals reading electronic sources lose a certain key aspect of paper reading: mental mapping of information. The idea is that when we read a book, we make a mental map of where in the book we find a certain piece of information. This map is not created in electronic sources, such as e-books, which lack these more tactile navigational features.

But improvements in how web sites are constructed and how e-book readers are designed and used could — and already have begun to — narrow these differences.

Don’t get me wrong, libraries and books are not going away any time soon. Nor should they. But have we come to a time when the use of libraries is diminishing in importance? And if so, how do we ensure that electronic information is not only accessible but able to sustain eyeballs?

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

References, References, References

I cringe when I see that a scientific article I am about to work on has reams of references at the end. I suppose I should have the opposite reaction: lots of references mean a well-researched and documented submissions. Right? Unfortunately, that’s not quite the entire story. Lots of references typically mean lots of mistakes and lots of extra work for the person who has to clean them all  up (me!). To that end, I have included here some quick pointers on citing and including references in your scientific (or even other!) article.

  1. In-text citations. An in-text citation should be included for all references that are listed in the “References” section of your article. The reverse is also true: if you include an in-text citation, then make sure you include the full reference in the list. The format for the in-text citation should match the requirements of the style guide used by the publication or journal to which you are submitting your article. For example, ACS requires (author last name, year). Speaking of which…
  2. Style guides. Be sure to format your in-text citations and references in a way that is consistent with the style guide used by the publication or journal. There are many, many style guides out there, with varying levels of similarities and differences, APA, ACS, AP, Ecology, etc. Regardless of the style is used, know it, and use it, and double check your work afterward. And I highly recommend that you buy or borrow the book and refer to it often until the style has become comfortable and familiar to you.
  3. Zotero. Have you tried this tool yet? A great way to not only keep track of all your references but to organize them and … wait for it … even format them! It’s free, it’s fantastic, and it has hundreds of style guides to choose from just waiting to be applied to your reference list. Before you get too excited, Zotero is not perfect (did I mention it is free?), so you will have to go in and do some cleanup after importing. But overall, highly recommended.
  4. Reference list. Please make sure that each reference includes all required fields, typically all author names (et al. is not a substitute for the names of additional authors); title of publication; journal name (if a journal); publishing company and publishing company city, state (if a book); journal volume, issue, page numbers. Please alphabetize them, and sub-organize them in accordance with the style guide. For example, ACS requires all publications by a the same single author be listed first; followed by same author, with a single co-author; followed by same author with multiple additional authors — all listed chronologically within that author’s listings.
  5. Electronic resources. Most style guides have been updated recently enough to have addressed most issues you will run into with using websites and other electronic resources. Typically, if you are referencing a journal article that is accessed through an online database (i.e., Sciencedirect,, etc.) you would treat the journal article as a journal reference and not as an electronic reference.
  6. Google scholar. This fantastic tool is indispensable for double-checking references, filling in missing information, etc., in addition to its original use for conducting your initial research.

The biggest mistakes I see are related to not following the proper style guide including: incorrect format for author names; missing journal information; and capitalization problems for publication titles (some require initial caps; others first-word initial caps only). The best way to ensure that you’ve done a good job, is to review your references with as much attention as you give to the content of the article. They really are that important.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

The Beauty of Simplicity

One of the single most important rules in writing for a wider audience on a scientific topic, is simplicity. And when I say, simplicity, I do not mean “dumbing down” as I often hear. I mean creating a narrative that is accessible to a thoughtful person who is interested in the topic but does not have the depth of background. Unfortunately, simplicity can be elusive. Some quick tricks that may help are listed below:

  • Keep sentences short and to the point. If a sentence starts to run on too long, then break it up into two or more.
  • Try not to use words that are more complicated than necessary, requiring that your reader hunt down a dictionary with every other sentence.
  • Omit needless words that clutter the sentence. For example, “a number of” can be replaced with “several” or “many”.
  • Similar to above, omit empty phrases. For example, “As mentioned earlier…” or “It is interesting to note that…”
  • Use the active rather than passive voice whenever possible. Doing so will keep the writer more engaged. Plus, it’s just better.
  • If after several tries, you cannot make a sentence work, then scrap it and start over. Maybe even move on and come back to it later when you are thinking more clearly.
  • And, perhaps most important of all, if you don’t understand what it says, then neither will your reader.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

An Acronym for Everything

I find that I always do particularly well on any Jeopardy categories having to do with figuring out the full phrasing behind an acronym (my kids love the show; trust me, I’ve had enough). There is a simple explanation for this (useful?) “skill” — I spend a good deal of my professional editing hours spelling out acronyms in articles, manuals, and other publications that I edit. Apparently engineers and scientists love their acronyms. And although acronyms can be useful when used judiciously to replace an overly long title, name, or process, overuse can be problematic for the reader. Overuse of acronyms can reduce comprehension and reading completion.

Most scientific journals require, at the very least, that all acronyms be spelled out on first use with the acronym following the spell out in parenthesis. All subsequent references can then use the acronym, unless the acronym falls at the beginning of a sentence; in which case, the full phrase/name/title should be used. I would, however, go a bit further and suggest that acronyms should be chosen and used carefully and avoided when possible even for journal articles. Acronyms may be appropriate for commonly used terms in that field (still following the rules above, of course). It’s important to remember, however, that the audience of that particular journal may be broader than the specific field for which the article is written. So careful choice of acronyms is important to avoid losing readers from other fields who may otherwise be interested.

For general news publications, however, virtually all acronyms should be avoided. Readers are unlikely remember what an acronym stands for later in an article after having been introduced to it for the first time at the start of that article. Common sense exceptions to this include acronyms for federal agencies or other proper names (for example, diseases) that are used frequently in the media, and, are thus familiar to the public.

Finally, it’s important to get the acronym right. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen a writer do the “right” thing by spelling the acronym out only to get it wrong. Usually by one word.

P.S. My other acronym-related skill is deciphering custom license plates, which are plentiful here in Virginia. I’m pretty sure there used to be a game show for that as well!

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

Scientists versus the Media

Recently, I was speaking to an ecologist and researcher who has dedicated his life to successfully protecting ecosystems throughout the United States. The conversation shifted to media coverage of his efforts. He told me about a reporter who had contacted him to ask about one of his projects and how he had instructed the reporter to “educate himself” on the topic before an interview could take place. He followed up by sending the reporter reams of documentation including scientific reports and journal articles. Needless to say, the reporter never called back. A lost opportunity.

Unfortunately, the ecologist/researcher did not see it this way. He did not understand why the reporter did not appreciate the additional information he sent. Or why a reporter would call for an interview without a full understanding of the topic first. There was a note of frustration in his voice, which perfectly captures the divide between scientists and the media.

I think a better understanding of how the media works might have helped significantly in this situation. First, it’s important to understand that most journalists work under severe deadlines — perhaps they have a few hours to complete the story. Or a couple of days, if they’re lucky. There is little to no possibility that the journalist would have had time to slog through reports, articles, and web sites. Particularly technical materials, which will be filled with terminology, acronyms, and other information with which the journalist is unfamiliar.

Second, journalists typically have a broad range of topics that they cover. So even the “science” journalist may cover many topics ranging from nanoparticles to medicine to ecology. There is simply no way that any journalist could be completely knowledgeable about so many fields — no more than any researcher could be.

Finally, the journalist wants to be able to explain to his or her readers the “so what?” about the research. Why should the reader be interested in this research? How does it affect their lives? Often, that information is not captured clearly in any report or article. That information can only come from the researcher.

In this case, a bit more understanding and patience would have gone a long way. At a time when science seems to be playing a rapidly diminishing role in decision-making, I think we need to take every opportunity to bring science to the public as possible.

Green Your Conferences, Meetings, and Events

Sometimes, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting. Unfortunately, conferences, meetings, and other events require electricity, heating and air conditioning, ground transportation, air travel, and they produce paper, food, and water waste. The good news is that there are ways to minimize the environmental effects, particularly as facilities become more aware of the need to provide sustainable solutions.

Choose a Green Facility

The first, and perhaps most important, step to “greening” an event is to work closely with your potential meeting facility early in the planning stages. Communicate your organization’s desire for an event with a reduced environmental impact, and make it clear that preference will be given to facilities with environmental goals that align with yours. Then, once a facility is chosen, incorporate environmental priorities into the contract.

Some things to look for:

  • Natural lighting and a comprehensive recycling program.
  • Mass transit services and bicycle parking.
  • Energy management system to reduce electricity and HVAC demands.
  • Certification (e.g., U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED) or energy- and water-efficient equipment and practices.
  • Conveniently placed recycling containers in all key meeting and gathering areas.
  • Clean-up crews trained to keep recyclables out of trash.
  • Facility staff trained to close blinds, turn off lights, and HVAC in unused areas.

Reduce Emissions from Travel

To reduce the impact of travel, try to select a destination city that is close to the majority of participants and is served by direct flights. Multiple take-offs and landings result in higher emissions from air travel. For smaller meetings, consider attendee incentives like reimbursed public transportation costs or a special drawing or recognition for car-poolers.

Other approaches:

  • Choose a destination city with good public transportation that connects the event venue with major transportation hubs and accommodations.
  • Offer a videoconference option.
  • Use alternative fuel vehicles in a guest shuttle service.
  • If taxis must be used, select companies offering hybrid vehicles.

Help Guest Go Green

Choose hotels with environmental certification, such as from Green Seal ( For larger meetings, look for conveniently located hotels that are either within walking distance of the venue or close to public transportation. And be sure to provide guests with information about accommodations with environmental certification or policies and practices. For example, ask guests to participate in hotel linen reuse programs andshut off lights, televisions and air conditioners or heaters when leaving their rooms. You can also work with hotels that employ laundry water-saving programs and ask them to reduce frequent replacement of linens, soaps, etc.

Consider Food and Beverage

Look for food service providers that use reusable service ware and that serve water, beverages, condiments, and other food items in bulk to eliminate packaging. Other ideas include:

  • Request locally produced food and beverages to cut transportation emissions.
  • Ensure the venue has a food donation program for leftovers.
  • Conduct a careful head count of attendees to minimize waste.
  • Consider providing refillable beverage containers for attendees.

Minimize Conference Materials

Waste reduction options include digitizing event literature so that it is available online, rather than handing it out on paper. Such measures may only save minimal amounts of waste in the context of the whole event, but can quickly add up.Other options include:

  • Use certified paper (Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forest Initiative) or paper that is processed chlorine free and made from a minimum of 30% post-consumer recycled content.
  • Use printers and photocopiers that are Energy Star certified.
  • Choose suppliers that provide low-carbon products or services.
  • Match print runs to registered attendees.
  • Ask speakers not to include written materials, but to provide upon request.
  • Use materials that are reusable and/or contain post-consumer recycled content.
  • Double-sided printing for promotional materials and handouts.
  • Avoid mass distribution of handouts and allow attendees to order copies.
  • Cardboard recycling in exhibit area.

Use Offsets

Once conservation and carbon reduction strategies are exhausted, emissions that cannot be eliminated can be offset. Renewable energy certificates (RECs) may be used to offset electricity used during the event and carbon offsets can emissions from air travel, energy use, and vehicle use. It is essential to choose a certified provider to ensure that reductions in greenhouse gases actually occur (such as from or

Communicate Your Efforts

From the beginning, make sure attendees are aware of your environmental efforts so that they too can become stewards. Your event’s website, program, press releases, opening, signage, and post-event publications can all deliver your message. Large event organizers may want to set up an onsite sustainability booth to provide information about the event.


U.S. EPA’s Green Meetings Initiative
Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Conferences
Government Canada’s Green Meeting Guide
Meeting Professionals International
Convention Industry Council
Blue Green Meetings

Elizabeth Striano
Consultant and writer on sustainability and the environment

Helping you leave a green footprint on the world…