One word (maybe two depending on whether you're a type A personality or not): Facebook.
For those who have never used it, Facebook is a social networking site where individuals create profiles and build networks of friends. More importantly, it also offers users the opportunity to join common interest groups that relate to everything from social causes to specific companies and employers. Therein lay the potential for non-profits.
If you've never checked to see if there is a group dedicated to your non-profit, you may be missing out on a wealth of unsolicited, unedited information/opinions/feedback from the very audience you serve (which could be priceless to your decision-making process). You see, in most Facebook groups there are message boards where members can create discussion threads on a variety of topics related to the group. Within these message boards you have vocal supporters, opinion leaders, dissatisfied customers and everything in between. What's important to know is that these are exactly the kind of people you'd want to recruit if you were conducting focus-group-based research.
Since those of us in the non-profit field are expected to do more for less as often as possible, these Facebook groups offer a unique opportunity to gather opinions and perceptions at no cost. There are a number of member-created groups dedicated to the non-profit I work for and I often find myself reading the user's comments, looking for trends in opinion, potential threats of misperception or misinformation and above all learning about what's important to our members. Other times, if I'm trying to get a feel for how our members will react to certain topics or issues, I'll post a question to all the group members on the message board. Often, this will elicit a number of responses, and it's like having a virtual focus group. The results are often very illuminating and always informative.
However, I would caution, if you do decide to give this a try you need to maintain a high level of credibility. Do not hide the fact that you are employed by the non-profit that is the subject of the group, do not simply troll for information and, above all, add value to the discussions. Remember, these boards are a two way street and if you just throw out a question and then remove yourself entirely from the discussion, members won't want to participate. Be ready to answer questions or to contribute to the conversation sometimes, and always show that you are taking the members comments seriously. Doing so will increase the quality of information you derive and make for a great experience for everyone involved.
To learn more about using social media as a non-profit resource, contact Erik Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org