The role of digital for international charities

Published on Resource Alliance, by Jason Potts, Newsletter Sept. 2009.

… The opportunities and the challenges:

.Digital media offers great potential for all charities to cheaply and effectively engage with huge numbers of people around the world. I think we can all pretty much agree on that one, or at least I hope we can! The incredible speed at which this can happen is both exhilarating and bewildering, especially for us old-timers who were used to a nice comfortable six to eight week time lag between sending out our direct mail packs and getting any kind of response, and of course at least a three month production schedule to craft, approve, debate and perfect said mail pack. 

No such comfort blanket now – we live in a different world! A world where the NSPCC can build a community of 40,000 people in four weeks with a Facebook application; a world where UNHCR can get half a million people following them on Twitter in a matter of weeks; a world where 50,000 people can vote to take down an ill-advised Daily Mail online poll (the question being, ‘Should gypsies be allowed to jump the queue at the NHS?’ Yes or No) in five hours.

With huge power, comes huge responsibility. This amazing engagement potential is cheap, convenient and at your fingertips, but it comes at a price. The price of internal co-operation, the price of encouraging and responding to genuine and often deep levels of engagement with financial and non-financial supporters and the price of perhaps having your lovingly crafted messages re-interpreted by others who are not on your staff.

It’s complicated:

Even if we want to wait to get policies and procedures in place to make sure all this stuff is as buttoned down as our offline material, the world isn’t hanging around and nor are our consumers. No sooner is Facebook the next big thing, it already been usurped by Twitter as the cool place to be and be seen. Fads perhaps, but fads that come with amazing instant rewards. How much would it have cost, and how long would it have taken to build a warm list of half a million semi-interested contacts, in the olden days – the 90s, I mean? A lot and a long time.

Many global non-profits are embracing the opportunities that digital presents and have highly motivated staff at all levels who think this stuff is cool, see the potential and are in the main getting on with it. They are adopting the policy of ‘its better to ask for forgiveness than permission’, given that asking for permission might involve asking some pretty fundamental organisational strategic brand related questions to someone who hasn’t got the faintest idea about what you are going on about!

So, getting on with it and engaging, seizing the day and pushing your organisation out into the interwebosphere, that’s a good thing, yes? We are either in the game or not, you need to buy a ticket to win the lottery, right? Of course, and you guessed it, here comes the but… but how do we fit all this into what we are all fundamentally about – delivering the maximum value to our organisations, beneficiaries and the good folks out there who are kind enough to engage with us … (full text).

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