chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
August 19, 2016 Dialogue

A Case for IOLTA Social Media Engagement (If You’re Not Already There)

By Amy Dunn Johnson

IOLTA programs have long been relatively invisible to the public, save for the practicing attorneys, banks, and legal aid organizations that are connected to their work as a matter of regulatory compliance or a grantor/grantee relationship. Despite its low profile, the IOLTA community is uniquely situated to build a culture of engagement around the value of access to justice and civil legal aid.

For more than three decades, IOLTA programs have established themselves not just as major funders of legal aid, but as thought leaders in the delivery of legal services to the poor and the broader access to justice movement. IOLTA programs typically have statewide or regional reach and multiple grantees, affording them a bird’s eye view of the civil justice ecosystem, complete with supporting data and stories.

As grantmakers, IOLTA programs can speak credibly to other funders about the powerful role that legal aid can play in correcting bad policy and in advancing efforts to combat poverty, improve health outcomes, and reduce homelessness, to name a few. Many have working relationships with leaders in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of state government and with their federal congressional delegations.

In short, IOLTA programs can be influential messengers that raise the visibility of—and financial and volunteer support for—civil legal aid.

However, if the IOLTA community is to play a role in catalyzing the kind of engagement that will advance access to justice and greater support for civil legal aid, its members must be part of the public dialogue. So many conversations around these issues are already happening—and with greater frequency in recent months through the efforts of Voices for Civil Justice—on social media.


Social Media as a Tool, Not a Goal

In this age of social media ubiquity, a majority of IOLTA programs do not have a social media presence. According to a 2015 survey conducted jointly by the National Association of IOLTA Programs and the ABA Commission on IOLTA , only 38% of IOLTA programs use social media—a stark contrast to the overwhelming majority of other nonprofits that use Facebook. Most cite lack of staff capacity as a barrier, while half are unconvinced that social media would be beneficial. This article explores how social media can be an effective tool for accomplishing their goals, as well as tips for IOLTA programs that are considering making the leap.

To be clear, “Everyone else is doing it,” or, “I’m afraid we’re going to get left behind,” are not good reasons for any IOLTA program to establish a social media presence. Social media is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Before delving in, it is important first to reflect on which of your program’s goals can be advanced by broader dissemination of information.

Chances are, you already have other established means of communicating with your target audiences:  a website, newsletters, annual reports, donor recognition, news releases, program updates, grant announcements, volunteer awards, or a bank “honor roll” program. Your reasons for creating and distributing such content is often tied to specific goals:  acquiring donations, increasing IOLTA revenue, educating potential supporters, or cultivating allies who hold sway with politicians who vote on appropriations for legal aid. If you are already making these contacts through more traditional means to advance your program’s goals, social media can enhance your efforts by offering another channel for gaining exposure.


Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, Oh My!

Twitter and Facebook are no longer the only games in town. A variety of platforms are now out there, with new ones coming along on what seems like a daily basis. YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Reddit are among the other popular choices. So how does a program go about deciding where to establish a presence? And how can one expect to keep up in an ever-evolving social media world?

For most nonprofits, the two primary mainstays are still Facebook and Twitter. Both have been around for more than a decade and are the dominant “microblogging” platforms geared toward the distribution of news, photos, events, and other content that nonprofit organizations are most likely to want to share. If your program plans to put itself out there, starting with one of these platforms—and focusing your efforts on doing it well—is a manageable way to get started without spreading yourself too thin.


Why Social Media?


It’s where your target audiences are.

A 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that 76% of all adults with internet access use social networking sites. Saturation is even higher among millennials (ages 18-29):  a full 90% use social media. Banks, corporations, attorneys with IOLTA accounts, grantees, politicians, and journalists are also active on social media. For many, it is a primary news channel:  61% of Millennials, 51% of Gen Xers, and 39% of Baby Boomers get news about politics and government from Facebook.

It’s free (or inexpensive if you advertise).

Instead of spending handsome sums of money to produce paper newsletters, brochures, or general solicitation mailers, social media can be a low-cost way to keep your community of supporters updated on developments happening with regard to your IOLTA program, your grantees, and access to justice in your state. Social media accounts cost nothing, although Facebook and Twitter do offer relatively inexpensive and targeted advertising options—which can be particularly helpful as you are working to build a base of support. Printed materials and mailers can still have a place in your overall communication strategy, but you can save money and avoid waste by targeting those more strategically.

It requires a small investment of time if you already have a good base of existing content that can be readily shared.

If you are spending time writing press releases, newsletters, blog posts, annual reports, or thank-you letters, you already have shareable content. Want to thank the sponsors of your annual gala, or the law firms that volunteered during National Pro Bono week? Looking for a way to give a shout-out to a grantee organization that has scored a major victory? Planning to announce grant awards or advertise for a staff position? Social media can be an easy way to share those posts or announcements; it’s as simple as posting a link with a one- or two-sentence explanation (or 140 characters or less if you’re on Twitter). Also, you will find that there are plenty of like-minded organizations at the state and national level that have timely, relevant articles and posts that you can share and relate to the work of your program or your grantees.

You can measure engagement and adapt accordingly.

Both Facebook and Twitter have analytics that allow you to gauge the effectiveness of your posts and, in turn, tailor future posts to gain maximum reach. You may find that certain kinds of stories have more legs than others, or that certain days or times reach more people. Look at what has gone “viral” and what has flopped. For posts that did well, figure out what you did right, and do more of it. If you are tracking your website analytics, you can see where social media is driving your web traffic. Looking to promote your bank honor roll program? Knowing the number of page views your bank honor roll page has and how much of that traffic came from social media can help you make a pitch to prospective honor roll banks.


I’m Ready to Roll. What are Some Tips for Getting Started?

  • Get yourself a personal account to learn the ropes, then lurk. If you do not already have a personal social media account, that is often the best way to get your feet wet. Use your personal account to see what other nonprofits—including your grantees and IOLTA colleagues—are doing on social media and what is working for them. Learn the platform’s community etiquette.
  • Create a “handle” or page name that is unique to your organization and readily identifiable to the casual observer. Acronyms are often unwieldy and meaningless to anyone but insiders (@AATJF vs. @ArkansasJustice).
  • “Like” and “follow” people, companies, and organizations that you’d like to have following you. Find pages that regularly curate content that relates to your organization’s mission and share it with your own “spin.” Voices for Civil Justice, Shriver National Law Center, and Talk Poverty are just a few examples of excellent sources of timely, relevant content.
  • Make your posts about the issues, not just about yourself. There are a variety of recommendations for the appropriate “mix”:  for example, one-third of your posts should be about your organization, one-third curated content on topics that relate to your mission, and one-third conversations with your audience. If you use social media only as a megaphone, it will be hard to keep, much less engage, followers.

Social media has been a key tool in raising greater awareness of the essential role that civil legal aid plays in a fair, democratic society. IOLTA programs can be an influential voice in these conversations—as long as they show up to participate.

Amy Dunn Johnson

Executive Director, Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation and the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission

Amy Dunn Johnson is the Executive Director of the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation and the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission. You can follow her work on social media at or on Twitter at @ArkansasJustice.