Never has it been so easy for charity leaders to speak to the world. Online journals, known as blogs, enable them to bypass traditional media and give their unedited views to donors and beneficiaries alike. But do they make the most of the opportunity?
We took a look at the blogs of four of the voluntary sector's most prominent leaders and asked Chris Arnold, Third Sector columnist and executive creative director of ethical marketing agency Feel, to rate each one.
So what makes a good blog? Arnold, who has his own blog, says there is no right or wrong way to do it: the style and content depends on who you are targeting and the message you are trying to get across.
"A good blog has to come from an individual," he says. "The beauty of a blog is being able to read one person's views. I hate corporate blogs - they always sound as if they are written by the PR department. They are so fake, and they feel like a cheap sales pitch."
Bloggers, he says, adopt a variety of styles. Some write chatty, diary-style accounts of their days that combine personal and professional views. Some try to educate, or even lecture, while others aim to provoke readers or expose issues. "Good bloggers express themselves and are not afraid to upset people through honesty," says Arnold.
Clarissa Baldwin, chief executive, Dogs Trust
Title: Clarissa's Blog
Web: address http://clarissasblog.dogstrust.org.uk
Baldwin, who famously coined the much parodied phrase "a dog is for life, not just for Christmas", sticks mainly to pet advice and news updates, such as announcing the winners of the charity's Doggy Oscars. Almost six months elapsed between blog entries last year. Since then, however, the site has been updated on average once every six weeks. A small head-and-shoulders picture of Baldwin adorns the top of the page and the occasional photograph of a canine appears among her musings.
Best line: "There is much talk of offering amnesties to people who bring their 'pit bull types' into the authorities for destruction. Whilst I don't doubt the sincerity of those who propose this measure, it is utter madness and should be avoided at all costs."
Arnold's view: "You can't knock the Dogs Trust - it is a fantastic charity. This blog tries to be chatty, but reads like it is written by the PR department or a copywriter who writes letters for charity direct mail packs. Then again, Baldwin used to run the charity's PR department. It's all a bit too considered.My advice: add more personal feeling. It tries to be chatty but feels unnatural and needs more emotion. And replace that cheesy PR picture."
Verdict: 6 out of 10
Stephen Bubb, chief executive, Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations
Title: Bubb's Blog
Web: address www.bloggerbubb.blogspot.com
Bubb promises "to reveal the inside track of a third sector leader influencing in Whitehall, championing professionalism and causing a stir". There is certainly no shortage of mischief-making - Bubb pokes fun at the "boring" tie sported by work and pensions secretary James Purnell, for instance. He talks candidly about his recent diagnosis with diabetes, and mysteriously dedicates his 7 June entry to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, "who I hope will battle with the puritans in her department". The blog is regularly updated and includes some pictures.
Best line: "The Pope has not yet sent a message to me about meeting, but I expect one any minute. And you will, of course, be wondering what tie I have."
Arnold's view: "The title of this blog means I am expecting great things. It's full of typos, so I guess it wasn't written by the PR department; but blogs are allowed to be imperfect. In fact, it is what makes them feel so true. It's interesting in places and reveals his day in an ordinary way. This is probably a good example of a diary-type blog. He tells it as it is: simple, honest and to the point. The design is clean."
Verdict: 7 out of 10
Adam Sampson, chief executive, housing charity Shelter
Title: Adam's blog
Web: address www.shelter-hosting.org.uk/adamsampson
Visitors to Sampson's blog are greeted by a large, smiling picture of the man himself with a drink in his hand, which creates the impression that you have just run into him at a networking event. Sampson updated his blog frequently until March, but since then it has lapsed into monthly offerings. He blogs about everything from an attempt at stand-up comedy to the tribulations of this year's strike by staff over new working conditions at his charity. Sampson admits to being unsure whether he should write about the strike before concluding "it would be entirely disingenuous completely to ignore the subject and witter away about something else".
Best line: "I don't find the experience of having my morality questioned by the Wormwood Scrubs branch of the Prison Officers Association that upsetting."
arnold's view: "I really like this blog. It feels very much like something from The Independent or The Guardian. It's factual but with opinion; challenging and interesting. And I like the picture. It shows Adam holding a glass. I don't know why he is, but who cares? It makes it look more natural. The site is well designed, too."
Verdict: 9 out of 10
Babara Stocking, director, Oxfam
Title: Director's Cut
Web: address www.oxfam.org.uk/applications/blogs/director
Stocking's blog says it will give her "unique perspective on Oxfam's work to alleviate poverty and suffering", but the site was last updated more than a year ago and has since floated like an abandoned ship in cyberspace. There was a flurry of daily blogs in January 2007, when Stocking attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, but afterwards it flickered only briefly. Her most recent entry, from March last year, includes a poem she heard on a visit to Kibera, the slum area of Nairobi in Kenya.
Best line: "Funny how things come together in life. On Tuesday night, I was at the premiere of Blood Diamond (a film that focuses on the diamond smuggling that fuelled the civil war in Sierra Leone) in Leicester Square. This morning I had breakfast with De Beers at Davos."
Arnold's view: "I found this a missed opportunity, and plugging what Oxfam does seems unnecessary - surely most people visiting this blog are supporters. It was factual rather than personal, and certainly not a unique perspective. It felt like it had been bashed off. Good blogs need to feel personal and considered. The blog featured a poem - interesting, but it's not really blogging."
Verdict: 4 out of 10
How to blog
A beginner's guide for sector leaders, by Helen Barrett
1. Ask yourself whether you should blog at all
Senior staff may be tempted to publish their ramblings regularly on the organisation's public-facing website, but would a blog written by a volunteer or a beneficiary be more compelling? Ask yourself whether what you have got to say is fresh and interesting enough to make supporters return to your blog.
2. Check the competition
What are your peers blogging about? Visit their blogs and copy their best ideas. Then consider how your voice will fit into the charity blogosphere.
3. Pay attention to presentation
A lot of bloggers write essays rather than punchy blog posts. Short chunks of information work best, so space your paragraphs and introduce sub-headings into posts.
4. Blog regularly
Updating your blog regularly gives you a greater chance of appearing high up in the results of a Google search on keywords related to your cause, which will encourage traffic. Add links to your other favourite sites and ask them to link to your blog.
5. Get help
There is plenty of online advice out there. A good place to start is www.masternewmedia.org/news/2005/04/26/how_to_write_a_successful.htm.