Online Games and Nonprofits – Lessons Learned

Today we have a sweet guest post from Jenny Nicholson who is the creator of a game called SPENT. She works for the folks at McKinney ( and her client was Urban Ministries of Durham (

The Game:

Social Media & Non-Profits: Five Lessons from SPENT

Before I tell you what we learned from making and launching SPENT, a few words about what the heck it is: SPENT is an interactive game that challenges you to see if you can make it through a month as an American living below the poverty level. See for yourself at

These lessons can be applied to a non-profit’s social media strategy, whether you’re making something as development-intensive as SPENT or just trying to figure out how to maintain your organization’s Facebook page.


Social media is powerful because it’s personal. If you’re going to join the space, you have to make it clear there’s a human being on your end of the conversation. In this space, highly polished statements come off as inauthentic. SPENT was successful because we didn’t shy away from some of the tougher truths about homelessness and poverty – we made it as real and honest as we could and people responded to that.


Tracking conversations online is a big part of success in the social media space. With so much noise, people aren’t going to come looking for you. The most successful non-profits keep a close eye on the social media space, so they know exactly who is talking about the issue, what they’re saying and how it relates to the organization.


When you find people talking about your organization or issues relevant to your cause, jump in. After the launch of SPENT, we put in a lot of time on Twitter and blogs, having conversations with people about the game and their responses to it. In doing so, we got valuable feedback about the site and created powerful advocates for what we were trying to do.


Be clear from the start what you hope to achieve from your social media efforts and keep that focus in mind as you build your presence. We built SPENT with the understanding that it was an awareness-building tool rather than a fundraising effort. As it became more successful, it was easy to start asking ourselves, “Why aren’t we making tons of money?” Knowing our definition of success from the beginning kept us from trying to turn the experience into something it wasn’t.


With that said, if you want money, don’t be afraid to ask. But make it specific and actionable. We initially launched SPENT with a standard “DONATE” button. Several weeks after the launch, we changed the call to action to a more specific request: DONATE $5. The increase in donations was immediate and significant. People are willing to help, but you have to make it easy.


If we had tried to build SPENT with an uncommitted team, it would have been a failure. Same thing goes for an organization’s Facebook page, Twitter account, or any other social media presence. It takes a lot of time and commitment to make social media efforts pay off. Too often, initial enthusiasm fades quickly and the project withers and dies. Find the person in your organization who is most passionate about any given social media effort and trust that person to make it a success. Their passion will shine through and give your organization the honest, human voice it needs.

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