5 lessons from the ways charities use social media

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Mary Mitchell is Content Strategist at White Fuse Media and a PhD candidate working with social media and interactive documentary in protracted refugee crises. She’s on Twitter at @mary_mitch.


Internet scholar Clay Shirky has argued that we’re living through “the largest increase in expressive capability in human history” in which social media is less a source of information and more a place of coordination. It’s helping to enable “the creation of collaborative groups that are larger and more distributed than at any other time”.

At the forefront of this movement are organisations gathering people around a mission or a cause.

Last month, IBT released a report that I co-authored investigating how international development charities are using social media. Based on interviews with 11 freelancers and digital communications staff at NGOs, the report identified 5 trends and techniques for charities to focus on, which I’ve listed below.

1. Message and audience first; platform second

Make sure you target your audience sensiblyCharities with large audiences have discovered that consolidating their presence on Facebook might not be as useful as developing a campaign on Snapchat if they’re targeting a young audience, and that changes to the Facebook algorithm can alter everything.

Tom Allen, Global Campaigner at ActionAid says, “The thing I’ve learnt is don’t think about the platform. The results will follow as long as you ease the passage or break down the barriers between the different platforms. There’s a temptation to use the latest technology, but unless the people you want to reach are using that, they won’t see it.”

Focusing on message, then audience, then adapting messages to your audience’s platforms helps to create a cross-platform campaign that maximises social networks.

2. Move from broadcast to dialogue

Don't just broadcast - converseWhile it’s easy to use social media as a means of broadcasting one-way messages about campaigns, events and other information, the best campaigns promote dialogue and participation. The campaigns #findmike and #nomakeupselfie show the principle of participation in action.

In October 2014, Dan Stewart, Humanitarian Communications Manager at Save the Children UK, carried out a Q&A through social media on the Ebola crisis in which people asked a range of questions from the availability of help for orphaned children to whether all the money donated will actually reach the charity.

It’s encouraging to see leading organisations being proactive in creating space for dialogue.

3. Measure against internal benchmarks to drive innovation

Measure against yourself on social campaignsCharities are increasingly measuring against themselves rather than looking at other charities’ successes or targets for numbers of followers or likes.

There are significant insights available from means testing data on social campaigns, which make a continual cycle of measuring and improvement  possible. As Nic Secton of Greenpeace explains, “If someone doesn’t agree with an idea, we take a segment of the audience and test it out. It often gives you the opportunity to try new things. You have to learn from your mistakes and not be afraid to make them.”

4. Listen actively

Make sure you listen to conversation onlineWhat’s a conversation without listening? Adopting active listening can help organisations find out what others are saying about them, find out what other charities in the same sector are saying, and find relevant conversations to join in with. Ideally, campaigns should feed information that informs high-level operational decisions to charity decision makers .

It’s worth pointing out that the hugely successful #nomakeupselfie campaign was only possible because Cancer Research UK were listening on social media and noticed people engaging with and adapting novelist Laura Lipmann’s tweet on the 5th of March.

5. Prioritise new voices

Global communication is now possibleCharities engaged in the developing world have an additional opportunity to work at the forefront of social media by tapping into communication and connectivity changes worldwide.

Access to social media is becoming a reality across much of the developing world thanks to programmes like Twitter Access and Facebook Zero, creating opportunities for NGOs to ensure that beneficiaries’ voices are heard through social media.

Charities are doing this in unique ways. ActionAid used social media to link some of its UK supporters with survivors of acid attacks in Bangladesh.

“Messages were exchanged via social media and supporters were able to express their solidarity with the women. It proved to be a very emotional, engaging and uplifting experience for those involved”, reports the Action Aid Transparency Report 2014.

Charities are uniquely placed to grapple with the potential of social media, and analysis of how some are doing so provides useful lessons for others in the sector. As charities adapt to the new social-driven landscape, be sure to look out for how these 5 trends develop.

Find out more and download the report here



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