By Jeffrey Martin, Senior Associate Director of University Communications & Bill Wolff, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, Saint Joseph’s University
One of the benefits of social media is that it gives a voice to everyone. No matter how niche your interest, you can find a community talking about it. But just as easily, bullying, intolerance and meanness can and do find places to thrive on the internet. Many have turned to the log-out button to avoid the negativity. Others are swimming against the tide, doubling down on positivity and using social media as a catalyst for change.
Among the latter group, you’ll find Beautiful Social (a.k.a. B:Social), a research collaborative at Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) that offers local and national nonprofits free consulting and content creation to make their digital presence stronger and more effective. Originally conceived by SJU Associate Professor of Communication Studies Aimée Knight, Ph.D., what was once a single free elective course has grown into an organization and an integral part of SJU’s communications studies department, with an annual budget, its own building, a dedicated faculty director, four paid undergraduate fellows, and more than 40 student consultants per academic year.
Through the program, students enrolled in one of two courses — “Social Media and Community Engagement” or “Nonprofit Communications” — work with nonprofit and community-based organizations in semester-long, team-based new media projects with social justice themes. These student consultants conduct research to help clients build sustainable social media strategies for a variety of platforms (including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blogs) and create content that clients can use immediately. Students learn open-ended interview techniques, how to set up professionally lit photo and video studios, and how to create digital stories targeted for specific online audiences and platforms.
“At Beautiful Social, we believe students have the ingenuity and vision to create positive social change for nonprofit organizations and their clients in the Philadelphia area and beyond,” says Bill Wolff, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies at Saint Joseph's and director of Beautiful Social. "The consultants see the immediate results of their work when clients add B:Social-produced videos to their social media feeds, as [Philadelphia-based organizations] Alex’s Lemonade Stand’s Lemon Society and Fair Food Philly have done, or when they start using a website we’ve designed specifically for them, [such as] Project 440 [or] Jax’s Labrador Retriever Rescue.”
More than 60 clients have worked with the program, including the American Cancer Society, the Ronald McDonald House of Philadelphia and the United Spinal Association. Smaller nonprofits and community organizations, which have more limited staffs and budgets, get a significant return by collaborating with B:Social. For example, in Fall 2016, student consultants created two stunning artist feature videos for The Soapbox Community Print Shop and Zine Library, an all-volunteer nonprofit in Philadelphia that provides "resources, equipment, and instruction in printing, binding, and related self-publication arts."
And in Fall 2014, B:Social helped Birchrun Hills Farm in Chester Springs, PA, launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to outfit a “cheese cave” to help staff make cheese on the premises. The campaign raised $33,000 — $8,000 more than its original goal.
“In class, I always tell students the work they do for B:Social will change people’s lives for the better,” says Wolff. “That’s our entire reason for being here: to use our skills and our time to build relationships and help make a better society.”
In Spring 2016, B:Social partnered with five clients, including their first out-of-state client, The Texas Council of Child Welfare Boards (TCCWB), which tapped B:Social to help promote its new media campaign, “Fostering Brighter Futures.” The goal of the campaign is to spread positive messages about foster care, which often carries a negative stigma that discourages people from becoming foster parents or adopting children from foster programs.
Because TCCWB was starting the project from scratch, the student consultants developed an interactive online style guide for all of their social media needs. The website explained best practices, outlined optimal posting times and defined unique terminology for a variety of different social platforms. The B:Social team also provided TCCWB with video tutorials and examples from successful campaigns. In Fall 2016, a team of B:Social consultants traveled to TCCWB’s headquarters in Wichita Falls, TX, and conducted eight 45-minute interviews over two days with foster care parents, adults who had gone through the foster care system, and community leaders. They produced one three-minute video for Facebook and several shorter videos for Instagram. B:Social will be working with TCCWB again this spring.
Carly Montecalvo, a sophomore communication studies major, says that her experience working with TCCWB opened her eyes to new opportunities to do good in the world. “I now see how much needs to be done in the realm of foster care and challenging the stigma that is associated with it,” she says. “I could not be more grateful for experiencing all that I have this semester. I was privileged to participate in something larger than myself and beyond the world of my hometown and campus.”
Beautiful Social is supported in part by the John Cardinal Foley Program for Digital Media and Civic Engagement. The program, launched through the generosity of an anonymous donor, honors the late Cardinal Foley, an alumnus of Saint Joseph’s (1957) and former Vatican chief communications officer. It provides scholarships for up to four Foley Fellows, exemplary students who have been in the collaborative for at least one semester and are selected after an extensive interview process. Foley Fellows play a significant role in the administration of the organization, with responsibilities ranging from overseeing B:Social’s online and social media presence; facilitating all communications between student teams and clients; and organizing B:Social-funded campus-wide events. In Fall 2016, the fellows organized a visit to campus by nonprofit pioneer, Jena Lee Nardella, co-founder of Blood:Water Mission, who met with students, attended a class and gave a university-wide talk.
"Being a fellow for the Beautiful Social Research Collaborative has challenged me to grow as not just a learner, but a professional,” says Victoria Lydon, a senior communication studies major. “I’ve been able to get hands-on experience working with non-profits while at the same time act as a global citizen in furthering their causes. This isn't just another communications course — this is helping better our world."