Rachel Hawkes: Charities shouldn't use social media just to talk about themselves

Creating and maintaining a thriving social community takes time but is a highly effective way to build a bigger supporter base, says our new online columnist

Rachel Hawkes
Rachel Hawkes

In the past five years, there has been an enormous shift in how people interact with businesses. In its very crudest explanation, social media is about conversation.

Today, we are overwhelmed with adverts and messages pushed at us from every which direction, and so we tune out. As a charity, you are not immune from this behaviour. In fact, the potential impact of people not listening to you is more of a challenge than it is for commercial organisations.

Even if people tune out from all advertising they see about shoes, cars, estate agents, lawyers, there will come a point that they will eventually need to purchase or employ one. 

But no one ever needs to make a donation or support a charity. That’s something they choose to do. It’s therefore arguable that it’s even more important for charities to be engaging with people in the right way.

Charities - larger ones particularly - have historically relied on more traditional forms of marketing to raise awareness and funds such as direct mail, face-to-face fundraisers, advertising and PR in print, radio and online.

Times have changed.

The attitudes and expectations of the people we need to reach have moved on and tried and tested approaches are no longer as effective – if they are at all.

Getting the attention and support of a mass audience is no longer the exclusive domain of those with deeper pockets. Social media means that even smaller charities with limited marketing and PR budgets have the potential to reach thousands and millions of people. 

To be successful in social media, you must understand and embrace that you need to be open and transparent – about the good, the bad and the ugly.

Unfortunately, the third sector doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to transparency, and adapting and thriving in the social space can be a difficult (and scary) cultural shift. The charities that do well are those that recognise they cannot control that space and that look at it as an opportunity to deepen relationships with supporters.

It’s this massive shift that demands that we undergo a behaviour change as well. The majority of charities will already be engaged with social media, having a Facebook page and tweeting.

Those charities that are finding it challenging to engage their followers and supporters are typically those  using social media as a different way of broadcasting, talking about themselves and continually asking followers to reach into their pockets and donate.

That’s not to say that social media cannot be used for fundraising; in fact it has huge potential, and has delivered amazing returns for charities when leveraged in the right way and the charities' own audiences are engaged and encouraged to do the same with their own networks. We can talk more specifically about fundraising through social media in a future article.

You should always be looking to identify who your supporters and influencers are on each channel, and showing their appreciation.

General rule of thumb: you can’t say ‘thank you’ enough times,  and supporters aren’t just people that donate money. They are also influencers and people that share content via email, word of mouth, email, re-tweeting, posting to a Facebook newsfeed.

I mentioned charities using social media to talk about themselves. It might appear a bit of a nonsensical comment at first, because of course you need to talk about the work you do and the good you provide. You can and should do this, but it needs to be framed differently.

It’s about the people, the animals, the environment or the other causes that you exist to support and the people that enable you to do it.

Creating and maintaining a thriving social community (through various channels, such as a blog, Facebook and Twitter) can be a time-intensive task. However, there’s no more effective way to encourage action, raise funds and build a bigger base of supporters. 

Rachel Hawkes is an account director at communications consultancy Elemental. This is the first of  series of columns

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