Non-profits Take to Social Media Like Ducks to Water

Social Media
Wednesday, 28 October, 2009 - 17:02

By the time the 2009 SANGONeT "ICTs for Civil Society" Conference, held in Johannesburg and Cape Town, ended at the River Club in Observatory on 21 October 2009, there were more non-profits excited about the potential uses of social media in their work than when we began.

By the time the 2009 SANGONeT 'ICTs for Civil Society' Conference, held in Johannesburg and Cape Town, ended at the River Club in Observatory on 21 October 2009, there were more non-profits excited about the potential uses of social media in their work than when we began. While the scepticism which many began the conference with remained, organisations had begun the important discussion about what strategic use of social media means for them and their beneficiaries.

As the programme officer of the Citizen Journalism in Africa (CJA) project, which is now in its third year, I was invited to share lessons learnt during the implementation of the six-country project. I began my presentation in the social web session emphasising the many open source tools that NGOs can take advantage of and which we use in the CJA project. Using free online and offline applications is one of key strategies of the CJA project which aims to improve the capacity of selected African civil society organisations to use ICTs in their advocacy, information and networking activities and interaction with their constituencies.

An important lesson for us – which I shared with participants of the session – relates to the value of using formal, informal and personal networks to get our messages out. This reflects one of the findings of the 2009 "State of ICTs in the South African NGO Sector" research project conducted by World Wide Worx, which was launched during the conference. The study shows that for the first time NGO decision-makers are becoming adept at cutting edge tools like mobile applications and social networking services. Mostly, these are being used in their personal capacity, with half of all respondents using local social networking services, but only six percent of them using it in pursuit of the goals of their organisations.

A key feature of social media is the integration of different platforms as well as the ability to direct different kinds of content and formats to particular spaces. Recognising this, at the beginning of 2009 we integrated social networking applications – specifically Facebook and Twitter - into the dedicated CJA portal.

The experiences of the CJA project are shared by many NGOs in South Africa and Africa broadly, as they struggle to involve their audiences in online discussions and projects. Participants at the session said that in South Africa, people are either not interested or they do not have access to the Internet. The issue of access, while not overtly discussed during the conference, certainly did occupy many lunch time conversations as delegates critiqued the disconnection between the obvious potential of social media for their work and the reality for the majority of people they want to reach. Internet access remains unaffordable for the majority of South Africans.

Another key lesson learnt was that people are using social media mainly for fun. Two key questions can be asked before engaging organisations on social media; who do we want to reach and what kind of conversations do we want to engage in?

In relation to the latter, a screen shot of the CJA Facebook profile and page was shown. The Facebook profile reposts only articles and blogs on general social issues while the page covers the fun side of the programme.

A great highlight for me was receiving positive feedback after the live chat via Skype with WOUGNET’s Information Officer, Maureen Agena, in Kampala, Uganda. This chat emphasised the great extent to which social media can be used in the workplace.

At the social showcase, participants were introduced to social media tools such as Twitter, Flickr, Wikis, MXit, Betavine and Virtual World. SANGONeT NGO Pulse editor and manager for the Civil Society Information (CSI) Programme, Janine Moolman, and the CSI Programme Assistant, Nicolle Beeby, held a practical session on the use of MXit, a popular instant message chatroom used on cellphones. Moolman and Beeby stressed the fact that MXit is an inexpensive way of communicating and discussed the potential of NGOs using MXit in their work. They dismissed the notion that MXit is only for teenagers in South Africa. 

It appears to me that most of us have heard about social tools but still have to realise its potential in our personal and organisational work.

In conclusion, social media is a great tool that organisations, especially NGOs, can use to communicate with their audience, market their services, communicate with their networks or improve the way they work. Many fascinating discussions, debates and presentations came out of the conference. These can be found on the conference website and Wiki  that was set up by SANGONeT and the African Commons Project.

- Adam Mukendi, Project Officer, Citizen Journalism in Africa Project


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