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The Quest for Attention

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The Quest for Attention

Nonprofit Advocacy in a Social Media Age

Stanford Graduate School of Business,

15 min read
9 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Discover the science behind turning fleeting social media attention into stable social media capital.

Editorial Rating



  • Analytical
  • Scientific
  • For Experts


Sustained attention is scarce on social media. People notice whoever shouts the loudest and their interest is fleeting. How can nonprofits get their message across in this noisy environment, especially when an advocacy organization’s effectiveness depends on engaging people? In this in-depth study, Associate Professor of Nonprofit Management Chao Guo and Associate Professor of Accounting Gregory D. Saxton apply a novel scientific approach to help nonprofits understand what draws people’s attention in a social media environment – and how to leverage that attention to attain strategic objectives.


Nonprofit organizations face a number of resource and relevance challenges.

The majority of charitable giving in the United States goes to a small number of large public charities. The amount of giving has gone up, but hasn’t changed percentage-wise; the number of people giving to charity has decreased. Nonprofits face shortages of volunteers, especially longer-term and advocacy volunteers. The second major challenge for nonprofits is staying relevant.

Nonprofits’ influence on policy decisions is small or non-existent. Nonprofits often face mismatches between the causes they want to support and those that appeal to donors or help secure government funding. These mismatches can draw nonprofits from their original purposes when they invest resources in causes more likely to attract funding.

Social media provides organizations with three attention-building tools: architecture, sending messages and making connections.

Over two-thirds of nonprofit organizations now have at least two or more social media accounts, and nonprofit advocacy groups tend to use, on average, three or more social media channels. Almost all use Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram...

About the Authors

Editor-in-chief of Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly Chao Guo is an associate professor of nonprofit management at the School of Social Policy and Practice, University of Pennsylvania, and an associate faculty director of Fox Leadership International. Gregory D. Saxton is an associate professor of accounting at the Schulich School of Business, York University.

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