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Keeping friends in your loop
Arts, educational organizations network with their fans online
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Educational and art-oriented nonprofits are constantly looking for ways to tell more people about themselves — but still spend less money.

So, with the advent of social networking sites like Facebook and tools like Twitter, local organizations are quickly finding out that they can now join, generate fans and generate interest for their cause, too.

Some organizations simply use Facebook, specifically, as a way to communicate more personally with their fans. Others use it to drive people back to their own Web sites and promote upcoming events.

Plus, all this social networking has even linked local nonprofits to one another.

Take the “wish list” posted on the Quinlan Visual Arts Center Facebook page. Before the start of its summer arts camps, Executive Director Amanda Kroll was looking for books of wallpaper samples.

Sheri Hooper, executive director of Interactive Neighborhood for Kids in Gainesville, quickly came to her rescue.

“She saw we wanted wallpaper books, and she just sent me a little thing on Facebook about that,” said Kroll of the resource Hooper was able to hook her up with. “It’s really great how nonprofits can help each other out like that, too.”

Kroll said she recently attended a workshop addressing the use of social networking Web sites to promote nonprofit organizations, and one of the lessons she brought back was how important it is to make use of them.

“So I created a Facebook (profile for myself) first, and they said instead of creating a (profile) for a business, it’s better to create it (for) a group, because people can be a fan,” Kroll said. “And when someone is a fan, all their "friends" will see who they’re fans of, and it starts to spread virally.”

Also, just to keep unnecessary childhood photos from mingling with her professional life online, Kroll said she has one Facebook profile created specifically for business networking.

The Quinlan uses Facebook for a variety of things, including posting photos of exhibits, linking to artists’ Web sites and showing images of the space being used as a rental facility.

Up the road at the Sautee Nacoochee Community Association, Executive Director Kathy Blandin said the center uses Facebook to keep friends up-to-date on the latest events.

The center started the Sautee Nacoochee Community Association Facebook group in June after Blandin attended a conference that included a lesson on using social networking sites to market a nonprofit. “We thought, let’s start a Facebook (group) and let’s see what we can do.”

Because SNCA is in a tight-knit community, where everyone is essentially linked through common friends, word quickly spread about the center’s Facebook group and “members” of the center started signing up.

“We’ve been very diligent about creating an event that links back to the SNCA site, having people post video and pictures of their events,” she said. “And we’re still learning a lot. We’re still learning how to really make the most of it.”

And word spreads quickly when SNCA announces an event, Blandin said — much faster than if they printed up flyers to mail out.
For the upcoming Sautee Jamboree, for example, she said “that event invitation has already reached 1,000 people. It would take a lot from me to reach 1,000 people. That’s merely friends inviting friends, and it really kind of snowballed.”

At Interactive Neighborhood for Kids in Gainesville, Hooper said the medium is great for their frequent visitors who are typically younger parents who are on Facebook already.

“We have used it for, personally, in getting in closer touch with the people who visit us,” Hooper said. “Being a free site, that’s a bonus; it is great marketing. And it gives you a forum to get the message across, and a lot of our market are very young families or stay-at-home moms, and this is a social networking system that they use.

“So I feel like I’m reaching them faster that way than by e-mail or calling or mailing even. It saves us a tremendous amount of money, and we’re also able to network with other nonprofits.”

It’s also a way for an educational center like Elachee Nature Science Center to enhance its upcoming lessons.

“We do list our events, and we try to do a post just about every week or every other week — not necessarily event related — but we will post a link for a Web site about snakes for our upcoming Snakes Day,” said Cynthia Taylor, natural resource manager and IT director at Elachee. “So, it’s not necessarily an event but it’s something you can look at. Something of interest.”

But for as popular as Facebook has been among local organizations, Twitter, the site that lets you inform others in 140 characters or less, hasn’t gotten the same foothold.

For some, it’s because there’s nothing that needs updating quite that quickly. Blandin also noted that she doesn’t do a lot of texting on her phone, which keeps her from using Twitter more.

Plus, there’s the matter of cellphone coverage.

“Cellphone coverage is so spotty up here,” she said. “But I think the better coverage we get up here, the more people will have smart phones and Internet-enabled phones. That will open Twitter up in the not-too-distant future.”