This article first appeared in the Technology Sunday supplement of the Times of Malta.
Social networks are as old as human society. Families, schools, clubs and groups of friends all contribute to our social capital. What’s changed in recent years is a wave of two-way technologies known as web 2.0 or social media. From videos, blogs and wikis to podcasts, tweets and social networking sites, social media enables people to easily communicate with and act on existing personal and professional networks, and forge strong connections with new ones. An internet connection provides a potential link with any number of people online, irrespective of geographic distance, and access a greater diversity of perspectives. The read-write web where everyone can potentially publish what they want to a global audience has also triggered deep social changes and a fundamental shift in the way that people think, form groups, and work.
NGOs were quick to recognise the new media’s potential for their business models. In 2009, a US study by Dartmouth showed that the Forbes Top 200 non-profits were adopting social media faster than Fortune 500 companies. This is not entirely surprising: NGOs typically have to work with limited resources, so technologies that accelerate the sharing of information and drastically reduce the costs of participation and coordination were inevitably going to be of interest. But NGOs also increasingly have to operate as ‘social businesses’. They recognise the opportunity to market products, raise money and frame or re-frame awareness on a raft of issues. Organisations who previously had to rely on intermediaries for media exposure, found a new direct, democratic channel for engagement with target audiences, with the same opportunity as mainstream journalists to talk about the issues that mattered to them most. There also have fewer vested interests in the mainstream PR and marketing models adopted by the business world, less resistance to embracing a two-way channel with target communities. By engaging in a more informal, personal manner, social media-savvy NGOs are able to identify and connect with online opinion-makers, raise awareness of their operations and enhance their brands in the process.
Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are now been embedded in the work of many NGOs. Fundraising events like Twestival are on the rise. Facebook’s Causes Birthday application encourages an individual who is a member of a cause to use their birthday as an excuse to raise money for a non-profit organization. Social apps with a conscience, such as SocialAction.com, offer even more creative ways for supporters to self-organize and take action around causes. Non-profits such as Oxfam and Amnesty International offer opportunities and resources for high school and college aged students to become informed on issues pertaining to poverty and human rights, take action for a cause and fundraise on behalf of the NGO.
Social media also facilitates collaboration across institutional boundaries quickly and inexpensively. NGOs collaborate with supporters by crowdsourcing ideas, feedback, and content for programs. The Lights, Camera, Help Film Festival makes extensive use of the social web to promote films-for-a-cause. We Are Media is a wiki project where over 100 non-profit technology professionals have pooled knowledge resources and developed training materials to help non-profits learn how to use social media effectively.
In Malta, NGOs are primarily embracing social media by setting up a presence on Facebook: there are now over 167,000 Maltese users of the social networking site. Nathan Farrugia, CEO at Inspire, puts it succinctly: “We represent people who are undervalued in society. Any opportunity we identify for self-advocacy, for people to gain a voice will be explored. We believe social media offers us several opportunities to engage with our online communities, and we intend to put the new technologies to good use.” Andy Towler, webmaster and committee member of the LifeCycle Challenge, has developed a sustainable strategy around a social website built on the open source WordPress platform. “We wanted to raise awareness and encourage donations and support from as many people as possible. We use a mix of regular articles and targeted information on the site and manage this in conjunction with our Facebook page, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr accounts to reach the largest possible audience and encourage viral distribution of information. On our Facebook page, participants tag photos and share links and updates to all their contacts, giving LifeCycle a much bigger reach than would otherwise be possible if we used traditional media”.
There are many challenges for NGOs to address to maximise their operations on social media. Many users confuse social media with a ‘free’, quick route to operating and funding success, and set up a presence on social networking sites without either a strategy or a trained team in place to develop content and manage interaction with third parties. The social web is littered with inactive pages, blogs and YouTube channels. Some simple rules apply for NGOs to maximise their participation in the social web:
As social networks are built on trust, they will succeed only if they allow time for individuals to build authentic working relationships. NGOs cannot operate as faceless organisations. In the same way that every donor and volunteer has to be engaged, people are more ‘invested’ in the lives of the real people that they follow on Twitter than an actual brand, even if it belongs to a respected NGO. Many NGOs encourage their employees to use their personal social media accounts to cross-promote social campaigns online and become online ambassadors.
Engagement means encouraging the online community to become the NGO’s multiplier. Social media always works better if others shout about an NGO and its cause, of their own free will. Smart NGOs encourage link-building via bloggers, video artists and people running Facebook pages. People who are part of an event often want to promote their participation, encourage the public to purchase tickets and share their status as being part of the select few.
Social media has to be used to make it easy for people to donate. Information on the NGO’s social media touch points therefore need to be simple, clear and user-friendly: the less information to be supplied by a potential donor, the better. This runs counter to the traditional view that as much contact information on donors has to be procured as possible.
Creative, original, content is vital. The ‘noise level’ on Facebook and Twitter is high, making it difficult to get an NGO and its campaigns noticed. A keyword optimised blog on WordPress will generate traffic immediately. It is not an accident that some of the most original viral campaigns on YouTube have been developed by NGOs. With transparency becoming the norm for social businesses, NGOs are also obliged to use blogs and video to demonstrate how they deliver a return on the donor’s investment. Having a website is no longer enough, as the NGO needs to be engaging wherever its target online users happen to be – be the blogs, Twitter or YouTube.
It doesn’t hurt to listen. NGOs can learn quickly by using tools such as Twitter and RSS feeds to observe how competitors and potential partners are operating online. The Case Foundation, for example, has its Make It Your Own Awards site to offer people an opportunity to submit ideas for improving their communities, serve as reviewers, and then vote on the best ideas for the foundation to fund.
Social media is not a silo, and can be implemented in parallel with more traditional marketing and PR channels. A monthly online newsletter can still be effective, if it contains compelling content. Local reporters can still be engaged using social media sites and using hash tags on Twitter to draw attention to a campaign or an issue.
The tools are simply a means to an end. NGOs have to begin first by defining the problem that needs solving, and then identify the tools that can help solve it, not the other way around. Once the goals are clear, NGOs can focus on how to accomplish them – the kind of network approach to best support the end goal and the tools to be used.
Combine top-down and bottom-up approaches. Wikipedia is an excellent example of how NGOs can mix user-generated content, such as comments on Facebook or membership of a community site, with various levels of top-down control. The challenge is to find ways to tap the generative nature of the network, while still maintaining oversight, checks, and balances to ensure appropriate direction.
NGOs who successfully lever on social media as a new engagement channel understand that it’s not just about using new technologies. Just because someone is young and has grown up with social media does not necessarily mean they have any clue how to represent an entity online or engage with various audiences in a strategic manner. NGOs, like any other business, have to increase leverage and effectiveness by thinking and working in new ways. It’s about reimagining social change with a network mind-set.