NGOs and Social Media - Challenges and Opportunities

Wednesday, 20 May, 2009 - 12:52

The power of social media is transforming the way in which non-profits accomplish their missions. Although some local NGOs have started to experiment with social media applications, the uptake is still limited and in most cases not part of a broader strategic approach. However, traditional NGO activities such as fundraising and advocacy will directly benefit from the availability of a wide range of affordable online services and applications.

The development of technology solutions and services in support of the work of NGOs is a rapidly expanding international field of operation. This is particularly the case for social media and web-based applications.

The world continues to experience dramatic technology innovation and changes which impact on every dimension of human and organisational behaviour and activities. As a result, the strengthening of NGOs’ capacity for service delivery, networking and advocacy activities increasingly requires that attention be given to their ability to implement and integrate technology as part of their core activities.

From 26-28 April 2009, SANGONeT participated in the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) in San Francisco. Organised by the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN), this event attracted more than 1 400 participants from the non-profit sector and other stakeholders actively involved in supporting non-profit organisations with technology solutions and services in the United States (US) and other parts of the world.

The majority of participants in the NTC have a keen interest in how social media could strengthen the work of non-profits, especially in bringing about social change. They represent an important new ‘community’ within the larger US non-profit sector which will no doubt grow in influence and impact as more non-profits start to benefit from the impact of technology on their work. The ‘community’ affect of the NTC is further demonstrated by the planning and preparations for the event, with the majority of conference sessions organised by NTEN members and the participants themselves.

From a South African perspective, given the size and scope of the US non-profit sector, and its exposure to technology trends and innovation, the annual NTC provides a strategic opportunity to gain insight into new developments in the non-profit technology field that might be of relevance to the local NGO sector.

The NTC started with a Science Fair; an exhibition where more than 80 companies and non-profits displayed their specific technology offerings aimed at the nonprofit sector. The issue that dominated this year’s Science Fair was online fundraising, with the majority of exhibitors promoting and displaying solutions in support of this activity.

The main event consisted of a number of plenary sessions and more than 100 breakaway sessions, organised according to 8 ’tracks’, including Affinity Groups, Communications, Fundraising, Ignite Sessions, IT Staff, Leadership, Product Spotlight, and Programmes.

One of the highlights of the event was the opening keynote presentation by Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Reflecting on how organisations engage with technology based on how they have done things in the past, Shirky argued that it will require more than simply adding technology to an existing operating model to fully embrace everything the Internet has to offer.

Twitter is one of the 'new big things' in social media' and Shirky has embraced it. Rather than just give great sound bites - which he does - he also gives great 'twitter' memorable quotes in 140 characters or less.

According to @cshirky “organisations of all kinds no longer have monopoly on organising or coordinating”, online social media is here to stay and that it is both powerful and scary. By embracing social media, your members and supporters will be able to talk to one another without you. Is there still a role for organisations? Well, maybe. @cshirky states “Internet is good for short sharp shock organising, institutions can provide continuity”.

Shirky suggested a few tips on how to experiment with social media:

  • @cshirky: fail informatively, don't spend more time talking about its potential than it would take to just try it in the first place.
  • @cshirky: poll your constituents; they're already on Facebook.
  • @cshirky: don’t hire a consultant; speak to your own 23 year old in your organisation (crowd: amen!).
  • @cshirky: find that person in your organisation with the one big idea and get her out of the room until she comes back with 50 medium sized ones.
  • @cshirky: to get to a large and good system, start with a small and good system.

The power of social media is transforming the way in which non-profits accomplish their missions. Shirky’s advice is that while it may take a redesign of an organisation’s operating model to truly make it worthwhile; do not be afraid to give it a try.

The ubiquity of use of social media was apparent throughout the event. The (mainly fundraising sofware) exhibitors all boasted of integrating these tools into their products, and in all the sessions, presenters highlighted their increasing relevance to the work of non- profits. Although this was a technology conference, no one talked about social media in a technical way, but just how it can be harnessed. Shirky had a smart take on this too - and again in less than 140 characters:

@cshirky: “tools get socially interesting when they get technologically boring”.

The evolving role of social media in the work of non-profits was further demonstrated by the release of the ‘The Nonprofit Social Network Survey Report’ during the NTC. Conducted in March 2009 by NTEN, Common Knowledge and ThePort, the survey polled non-profit professionals about their organisations’ use of commercial social networking sites (e.g. Facebook), as well as their own hosted social networking communities. It confirmed that social networking has become an integral part of non-profits’ online strategy. Of the 929 respondents, 74.2% have a presence on Facebook, and 30.9% have one or more social networking communities on their own website.

The exciting social media trends in the non-profit sector witnessed at the NTC ultimately raises questions about their relevance to NGOs in developing country environments such as South Africa. Already, South Africa ranks in the top 10 users of Facebook while millions of South Africans are users of MXit, the local mobile social networking platform. With South Africa’s high mobile phone penetration, as well as the eagerly awaited increase in local broadband capacity in the next few years as a result of the arrival of the Seacom and other undersea cables, South Africa might be on the verge of an exciting period of growth and development in social media uptake.

Broadband is an issue of specific interest to the NGO sector in South Africa. Access to increased and affordable broadband will no doubt result in more NGOs investing in their ICT infrastructure and skills, and as a result, strengthen the scope and impact of their work. Traditional NGO activities such as fundraising, networking, advocacy and information-sharing will directly benefit from increased emphasis on, and the availability of a wide range of affordable online services and applications.

Although some local NGOs have started to experiment with social media applications, the uptake is still limited and in most cases not part of a broader strategic approach.

In response to this challenge and to create greater awareness amongst local NGOs about the potential of social media, the 2009 SANGONeT Conference, to be held in October 2009 in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, will be dedicated to the use of social media in the NGO sector. The conference, as well as SANGONeT’s other activities in this regard, will also be informed by the release during the conference of “The State of ICTs in the South African NGO Sector 2009” research report, a joint initiative of SANGONeT and World Wide Worx.

David Barnard is SANGONeT’s Executive Director and Matthew de Gale is the ICT Services Manager. They attended the 2009 NTC in San Francisco.

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