Charity online

Charity is one sector that needs to be accountable in its communications, so it is unsurprising that it is a sector quick to adopt the internet’s ever-growing armoury of platforms to target philanthropic surfers.

This glut of new platforms and technologies is matched by a huge demand for innovation. However, many in the charity sector still share a profound lack of understanding of the nuances of social media.

While many charities are dipping their toes in the water, there is a desire for an approach that is both strategic and long-term. But what will the future hold for online in the not-for-profit world?

Online expert, and charity strategist, Rachel Beer still sees, “a huge need for the charity sector to get much better at online, aligning all their communications across different areas to help fundraising and campaigning.

“The online environment is a real challenge for lots of brands because it mashes up different audiences in one place, so all your messages have to be appropriate,” says Beer.

While she believes that we have yet to see a UK charity with a foolproof social media strategy, she has noticed “nice bits and pieces” from a sector that has only recently started experimenting.


Dogs Trust was one charity given praise for its canny use of micro-blogging tool Twitter ( The site, made popular by a diverse range of famous users like Britney Spears, Stephen Fry and Barack Obama, led to a dog being rehomed only seven months after the Dogs Trust profile launched. For Dogs Trust web editor Alex Goldstein, rehoming had always been one of the aims of her tweets: “We hoped that it would happen, but didn’t expect it to so quickly. I tweeted about the dog, linking to a picture of him, and someone who had never engaged with the charity before got in touch.”

“A simple idea that was tangible and focussed,” is how Beer sums up the Dogs Trust success. “2009 is the year of Twitter, and this is a fantastic example of how to use social media in a straightforward way.”

Dogs Trust currently has over 2,000 followers on Twitter, but that number grows daily. Since launch it has made over 1,600 updates, but Goldstein views Twitter as the least labour intensive of the social media platforms, estimating that she spends only a few minutes a day on her tweets.

The catch phrase, ‘Facebook is for people you used to know, Twitter is for people you want to know,’ also checks out, as Goldstein uses Twitter to contact “charity social media evangelists who are happy to swap ideas and retweet [or share] interesting posts with their followers,” as she adds.

While Dogs Trust is building online success on newer platforms, other charities are sticking to more familiar Web 2.0 technologies. With over 7,000 members the Talking Point forum on the Alzheimer’s Society website ( was originally established by a supporter of the charity.

Now it’s the only peer-to-peer support network for people with Alzheimer’s to be recommended by the NHS.

Said Dajani, head of new media for the Alzheimer’s Society, echoes the feelings of many charities developing the way they engage with supporters and beneficiaries online: “Charities were nervous of forums at first – online communities can be difficult to manage...but the penny has dropped, and now more and more health charities are jumping on the bandwagon.


“My advice to any charity thinking about setting up a forum would be: do it, but do it with your eyes open, and consider what’s right for you. Each charity has to find their own model, and their own rules.”

One charity that has taken the forum model and expanded on it is Macmillan Cancer Support who, after running forums for three years, have now expanded to What Now? (, a social networking site for cancer sufferers. Designed to offer “more freedom, variety, and options” for it’s 6,000+ users, the site offers private messaging, live chat, a full social networking profile with pictures and videos, groups, and blogs.

“What Now? members are able to give valuable experiential information about living with cancer that Macmillan staff could never contribute,” says Macmillan’s Thomas Muirhead. “It has has helped us increase our generic knowledge of our users, improving the services we provide. We are now more able to tailor the site to the needs of the people who join.”

With online comments a large concern for both charities and corporations it would be understandable if Macmillian were fazed by the possibility of user comments on medical issues. To the contrary, Thomas Muirhead is philosophical: “It is necessary to make a distinction between user generated content and what is from Macmillan.

“However, there is a wisdom in crowds. For example, if someone were to post that tea tree oil is a cure for cancer, others will post to correct this. Then, when another person searches for tea tree oil as a cure for cancer, they will be linked through to these informative posts.”

Losing out

Another problem faced by many charities is losing out to supporters when it comes to taking the tentative first step on a particular platform, and creating an online profile. Many charities will start this process on YouTube or Bebo only to find a well-meaning volunteer has got there first.

As Rachel Beer explains: “If there is a void, someone will fill it. Your supporters will set up profiles and generate content, storing up problems for later. People want and need head office leadership, and these people are going to be engaged supporters, who would welcome it.”

Fortunately, housing charity Shelter doesn’t have this problem, as their support for social media goes right to the top – CEO Adam Sampson, author of Adam’s blog (

“I find it relatively easy to churn out 300 words or so,” confesses Sampson, who pens the regular posts himself on issues as diverse as his own media appearances, the internal operation of Shelter, and homelessness both at home and abroad.

While his posts are monitored internally and he is occasionally asked to change what he has written, he relishes the chance to “trespass across different areas and talk about the trivial [when] we do tend to be a bit serious in this sector.”

The decision to show a different side of an organisation through the opportunities of social media is one that’s shared by all the charities at the forefront of this new wave of online development.

Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s marketing and communications manager Sally Otter sees the charity’s Facebook page as crucial to the development of the charity’s social media presence, as well as the expanding demographic being targeted: “Facebook is free marketing and enables immediate interaction with a broad range of supporters.

“In the past we had to correspond with people by letter but that type of communication doesn’t engage younger supporters. We want to increase our reach as much as possible as muscular dystrophy affects children and adults of all ages. The internet is the best way to appeal to younger people, as they grow up online nowadays.”

However, with so much of this happening on free-to-use channels, is there a chance that online agencies will be cut out of the loop? Beer thinks not: “We are in a period where people are starting to use these channels themselves in-house because it’s free. However, the technical and strategic thinking is something they will still need input on. External input is required if charities are to use online to their full potential.”

Charities are keen to take further steps in the online arena, however they still rely on agencies to show them the way. As Ben Supple, marketing and communications manager for animal rehoming charity Scottish SPCA puts it: “I don’t doubt that Bebo, Facebook, Twitter and more will start to play a significant role in how we talk to our supporters of today and tomorrow. The key from our perspective is to be guided as to best practice.”

While not yet established on social networking channels, Scottish SPCA currently runs viral video campaigns in its eNewsletters. With open rates reaching over 80 percent, this approach demonstrates the importance of utilising online video in marketing collateral. The obvious next step is the creation of a YouTube channel, as demonstrated by charities like Friends of the Earth (, who with almost 2,500 subscribers are the top non-profit UK channel on YouTube.


Friends of the Earth’s web manager Chris Graham believes the three key benefits from YouTube are, “debate, campaigning work, and agenda. YouTube is not just driving traffic back to the Friends of the Earth site. It is a form of outreach, engaging with those who are not necessarily expecting to hear from us, and getting our message across in a different way.”

The use of video by charities online increased over 2008 with a growth in video channels, and phone applications. And the iPhone will continue to power this growth.

This growth could be fueled by 12 seconds (, a micro-video application that limits the length of movies you can upload to 12 second clips (because, according to the site’s creators, “anything longer is boring”) while working in tandem with your mobile phone.

A first step for organisations new to social media could be as simple as setting up an RSS feed from their website to a Twitter account, however for some charities it’s about finding “the next exciting things to emerge online” rather than choosing easy options.

“We are entering a period of consolidation in terms of the variety of platforms available,” Rachel Beer says. “There has been an explosion in microblogging services, and there’s still a huge amount of fragmentation with new ones launching all the time and others dropping off. The biggest growth [in 2009] will be new functionality in existing platforms.”

By far the most important development could be an increase in connectivity within social media strategy. Perhaps surprisingly, Rachel Beer looks to Africa where one small charity is putting integrated digital solutions to much better use than some of its bigger Western counterparts.

Mara Triangle ( in the North-Western part of the Masai Mara game reserve, Kenya, has next to no team or budget. However they integrate Twitter, Flickr, video channel Vimeo, and blogs into their website. They use these tools together to tell great stories of the area’s wildlife and people, while raising vital funds: an ideal model for charities striving to meet the challenges of the online world.

By Jo Kerr, at tictoc

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