Farah N. Mawani is co-founder and director of social media at Free the Hikers, an organization that recently reached its mission to free hikers Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd from an Iranian prison. Recently, Farah founded Farahway Global, a social media, public engagement, human rights and mental health agency.

Since our Free the Hikers social media campaign achieved its primary, seemingly impossible, objective of freeing my dear friends Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, I have received numerous requests to share our secret. Political prisoner campaigns, human rights organizations, mental health organizations, and even businesses, want to know how we built the global movement that it took to free them. They want to replicate our success in building a large, very engaged global support base that takes action to help them achieve their key objective(s). For political prisoner campaigns and non-profit organizations, a key objective is fundraising to enable them to pursue their mission. They want to know how we used social media to fundraise. Many of the campaigns and organizations that have sought my advice have the misconception that I can share our “secret” in a brief phone call or e-mail message, that they can replicate our success in a few minutes or hours/week, and that social media work starts with posting on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

Our secret runs much deeper than the surface of our Facebook wall or Twitter feed. It took us two years and two months of intensive, unwavering work to build a 31,000-strong community on Facebook. It would take me two years and two months to share what we did and what we learned along that long, traumatic journey.

I would like, however, to share three key recommendations I can offer based on my experience building and directing social media and global engagement for our campaign. Although the connections may not seem direct, I strongly believe that the strategies I am outlining below are the core components of our success in consistently growing and deepening global engagement and achieving our ultimate goal of freeing Josh, Shane and Sarah. They are core components of my approach in Farahway Global, the non-profit organization I’ve created, inspired by my Free the Hikers experience, to engage the global public in action for human rights and mental health.

Incorporate Fundraising into Your Overall Engagement Strategy

Focus your time and energy on developing and implementing a progressive engagement strategy that leads to fundraising, rather than tacking social media onto your existing fundraising strategy.

Our Free the Hikers core campaign team focused intensive time and energy on building global engagement through a highly integrated diplomacy, media and social media campaign. Those efforts resulted in our community of supporters coming together at critical points in our campaign and taking initiative to donate and raise funds without any requests from us.

Rally.org was quick to understand this phenomenon in a presentation Josh’s brother Alex Fattal and I gave to them in October 2011, a month after Josh and Shane were released. Nick Warshaw at Rally shares:

The incredibly poignant Free the Hikers story showed the power of community organizing over social media. Rally.org is designed to help organizations like FTH share their story and raise money. We want to help groups raise valuable funds while also communicating with their supporters.

I have just created a Rally page for Farahway Global that I have already started integrating into our overall global engagement strategy.

Build Relationships

Invest considerable time and resources in building relationships with supporters through social media platforms, rather than focusing simply on gaining increasing likes and followers.

Increasing likes and followers are certainly indicators of success, but they should not be considered the key objectives of an engagement strategy. Our core Free the Hikers campaign team and our social media volunteers put a great deal of time and energy into building relationships with individual supporters within the tens of thousands we communicated with on a regular basis. I have maintained strong, positive relationships with many of those supporters, with whom I have only ever interacted online. They have become supporters of my work with other campaigns and organizations. One of them contacted me recently with the following request:

“Hi Farah,
I’ve been searching for a link (or even a snail mail type address) to send Farahway Global a little cash. No luck. If you can give me the info, I’d love to make a donation.”

Strive for Integrity

Perhaps most central to our success was our commitment to integrity throughout our campaign, no matter what lack of integrity we were faced with.

In keeping with my commitment to engagement by seeking and learning from the perspectives of our supporters, I asked my Facebook friends and Twitter followers, “What does integrity mean to you?”

Here are some of the responses I received on Twitter:

@AskBigQs (US) Being honest with yourself and others. The golden rule, treat others how you want to be treated.

@madame_lei (Johannesburg) It means not being a hypocrite, trying to be loyal and outright and respectful to other humans even when it doesn’t further you

Here are the responses I received on Facebook:

Perseverance, respect on all sides, humble success…

Consistency, wholeness.

“don’t look down on anyone unless you are going to help/raise them up”

Be consistently true to your beliefs no matter what.

One Free the Hikers supporter went on to say:

“Like I have said many times in the past, there was anger and frustration but you were able to keep control of that and steer supporters in a positive direction. Made for good energy. Your whole campaign was peaceful and you discouraged any outbursts…that’s why I really respected it.”

That provides a strong example of how closely our social media campaign was aligned with our values and of how visible that consistency between our actions and values was to our supporters. That same supporter recently explained her support of the Free Jason P campaign, that I have done some work for through Free the Hikers and Farahway Global:

“I am behind any cause you are.”

That brief statement captures our success in developing long-term relationships by maintaining integrity and investing in engagement. The rewards are clearly priceless.

I feel very fortunate to have so many people and organizations, who supported Free the Hikers and myself during such an unimaginable nightmare, supporting me and my ongoing work now. Learning firsthand about the extreme power of online movements, I am compelled to share what I have learned with people, campaigns and organizations who share my vision of a peaceful, just, inclusive world. The more I work with such people, campaigns, and organizations, the more I become aware of how valuable our Free the Hikers learning is. I also become more and more convinced of the powerful global community we can build together, with increasing power to realize our vision.

“For to be FREE is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” ~ Nelson Mandela


To learn more about Free the Hikers and/or Farahway Global, please contact Farah at [email protected], follow @farahwayglobal on Twitter, like Farahway Global on Facebook, and support Farahway Global on Rally.

This column originally appeared on the website of the Foundation Center. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.