Irish NGOs and Social Networking: “Think Relationships, not Campaigns”

06/01/2012 at 11:24 pm 5 comments

Guest post by Jeanne Spillane and Ger Skerrett

The way we use the internet is constantly changing and evolving. The overwhelming amount of information available online means that what we see is often dictated by the search engines we use or the sites we access. In recent years, the explosion in the use of social networking and sharing sites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Stumbleupon, MySpace and LinkedIn has led many people to filter the information they receive through friends and followers via these networks. Where previously the average internet user might Google search a new person or organisation, now they are equally likely to search for them on Facebook or Youtube. The news articles we read or the causes we support are often those which friends or followers on Twitter or Facebook have shared with us.

The relevance of this to NGOs and Nonprofits is the subject of an ever-growing body of research in the United States. Reports like Idealware’s Non-Profit Social Media Decision Guide, the annual Nonprofit Social Networking Benchmark Report published by NTEN, Common Knowledge and Blackbaud and Blackbaud’s Annual State of the Nonprofit Industry Survey examine how and why US and international Nonprofits use various social networks, and what benefits and disadvantages they perceive from using them. Similarly, influential bloggers like Beth KanterKatya Andresen and Allison Fine provide practical advice and analysis on Nonprofit use of social networking in the US.

Related research in the Irish context is quite limited. A brief study of Dóchas members and their use of Facebook conducted as part of the TCD/ UCD Masters in Development Practice on Irish NGOs and Social Media yielded some interesting results, and highlighted an opportunity for further research in the area.

Of a potential pool of over 2 million Irish Facebook users, the 43 members of Dochas currently have only 85,000 followers between them, with the top three, Amnesty, Concern, and Plan Ireland, accounting for half of these.

This doesn’t even take into account the worldwide audience that they could potentially reach via the internet. Of those that do have a presence on Facebook, most seem to use it as a platform for broadcasting to rather than engaging with supporters. They also seem to lack a formal strategy in their use of it. Judging from much of the US research, a fundamental step for any organisation that wants to capitalise on the potential benefits of social networking is the creation of a Social Media strategy.

The ideas that need to be kept to the fore when formulating a Social Media strategy include community, conversation, engagement, transparency and influence. The marketing acronym SMART is useful when it comes to defining goals:

  • Specific: They need to be detailed enough to determine whether they’ve been achieved or not. At what point does an organisation finish “building awareness?”
  • Measurable: You should be able to quantify goals with a numeric benchmark.
  • Achievable: Make sure your benchmarks are realistic
  • Relevant: If they’re irrelevant to the mission, don’t measure them!
  • Time-Based: Define the timeframe over which you’ll achieve these goals.

The strategy should be integrated with any pre-existing plan on communications, advocacy and fundraising. Essentially, every NGO in Ireland, whether 2 staff members or 102, should have a clearly defined Social Media strategy, or run the risk of failing to benefit from a fast-evolving and effective tool for engaging in social change.

The success of an organisation in using a Facebook account for everything from recruiting new volunteers and event attendees to boosting website traffic is related to the amount of time devoted to updating it. Other strategies to recruit new members through Social Media include providing recognition for current volunteers, as they can provide motivation for others to sign up; linking what needs to be an informative and engaging website to these channels; promoting events through Facebook and Twitter both before, during and after their occurrence; and targeting Facebook ads towards the demographic want to engage with. Engagement comes up again and again as an essential goal for NGOs.

The ‘Ladder of Engagement’ involves five levels of support for nonprofits: beginning with ‘Happy Bystanders’ (blog readers, Facebook friends), on to ‘Spreaders’ (those willing to share information about the cause with others), then ‘Donors’ (those willing to contribute financially), Evangelists (who will reach out to personal social networks and ask others to give time and money) and finally ‘Instigators’ (those who create content, activities and events on behalf of the cause). Kanter suggests that the organisation must purposefully assist supporters to move up this ladder through relationship building. By encouraging conversation through asking questions, providing activities and demonstrating appreciation an NGO can create a connection with supporters that extends beyond their relationship with each other to capitalise on the supporter’s extended network. The word-of-mouth marketing created by people talking about and sharing campaigns content can be an invaluable way of engaging existing supporters and recruiting new ones.

Accordingly, while building a large community of followers and fans is a hugely important step in the social media strategy of any NGO, it is not an end in and of itself. In the recently published World Giving Index Ireland was found to be the second most charitable country in the world, after Australia. Irish NGOs need to recognise that Social Networking, used effectively, can enable them to build networks and develop constructive relationships. From here, the dedication and commitment of followers can be harnessed and translated into more tangible and measurable goals, ranging from fundraising to advocacy, to awareness-raising and beyond.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Beth Kanter  |  13/01/2012 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks so much for the shoutout and the thoughtful article!

  • 2. Nambafu justine  |  02/04/2012 at 7:56 am

    Its a good article.indeed net working is very curitical in the development of any organisation

  • 3. R Storey  |  02/08/2012 at 12:47 pm

    NGOs continue to project an image of “we are saving them”. There is little or no attempt at explaining aid in terms of right and justice. The NGO world here remains secretive and exclusive while depending on emotional / point of sale giving to hard fundraising.

    • 4. Dóchas  |  02/08/2012 at 1:31 pm

      R.Storey, don’t tar all NGOs with the same brush. There is a lot of change happening, and a lot of discussion internally in NGOs.

      (see our latest blog post

      Criticism of NGOs is good and useful, but is more effective if it doesn’t generalise, and highlights examples of what you consider good practice, or if the criticism is aimed directly at the NGOs (NB: under our Code of Conduct, you have a right to a reply from the NGO in question!).

    • 5. R Storey  |  02/08/2012 at 2:08 pm

      The whole piece was a generalisation and therefore it was proper to address the general. As a member of the public I would have a different view from those in NGOs who are inclined to think the best of themselves whether justified or not.
      Just look at the fundraising messages of any of the NGOs and you will see that my comments are broadly correct. It would not be beneficial to single out one or two because all are to a greater or lesser extent of dumbing down their communications on what they do.


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