News analysis: Time to master the art of blogging

Most charities have yet to embrace this cheap and innovative way of communicating, says John Plummer.

Blogging has captured the imagination everywhere, it seems, except in the voluntary sector.

In business, General Motors shareholders can follow the thoughts of company vice-chairman Bob Lutz online. In politics, Labour's Tom Watson, the first blogging MP, regularly shares his feelings online. "I feel like I'm really, really back at work instead of just pretending," reads his post-election entry of 20 June.

But charity supporters and campaigners are far less likely to find the diaries of their leaders on the internet, or to record their own.

The sector's reluctance is curious given that blogs - online diaries on which readers can post comments - are cheap, provide a new way of communicating and can give a voice to many of the marginalised people charities exist to support.

The Hansard Society, the NCVO, ePolitix and Crisis will urge charities to get up to speed at a seminar they are jointly organising in London next week. Mark Flannagan, director of communications and campaigning at Crisis, which became one of the first major charities to embrace the new medium when it set up a blog for homelessness campaigner Jamie McCoy in the run-up to the General Election (Third Sector, 6 July), says having a weblog should be a "no-brainer" for charities. Yet few have set them up.

Attitude change

There are, however, signs of a shift in attitudes. The Make Poverty History campaign marked something of a turning point as non-governmental organisations recognised the opportunity blogging presented to get their messages across to supporters and to make them feel more involved.

One of the most ambitious blogs is run by Panos, a media charity that brought seven African journalists to the UK to share their views on the G8 summit. The site attracted 1,300 hits in the first three days and also generated considerable publicity. "BBC online provided a link to the site and a lot of the journalists were commissioned to write for other media," says Sameer Padania, blog editor at Panos.

He says people enjoy the relaxed style of blogging but wonders whether some voluntary organisations are wary of ceding control of their message like this.

The Overseas Development Institute, which set up a blog as part of its 2005 communications strategy, allows contributions only from a panel of its experts, although anyone can respond. "We felt we needed to be a bit more engaged with debates," says project consultant Peter da Costa. "We wanted a blog based around the overseas development agenda and thought it would be a way of getting our experts to engage with people on an ongoing basis rather than just through their research papers.

"ODI experts are in huge demand. We figured we could use that pull to make the blog. We measure its popularity not by the number of comments but by the number of viewers, and we have had as many as 400 for one topic."

A communications group meets at 9.30am on Mondays to discuss the news agenda and decide suitable subjects for blogging. Five posts a week is considered the maximum.

"We do still have to harass people to do it, but it is gaining momentum," says da Costa. He adds that getting time-pressured experts to submit blogs isn't a good use of every charity's resources: "Don't do it because it's fashionable - it requires a lot of work, and you need to have some knowledge and expertise."

Jack Cumming, e-commerce manager at the Association for International Cancer Research, is torn over the value of blogging. "It's a big commitment to put something up on a daily basis, particularly as we have a small staff team and no one can really spare the time to do it," he says. "There is nothing worse than going to a site and seeing that no one has written anything for four or five weeks. And let's face it, an awful lot of blogs are complete rubbish."

Yet he thinks the benefits are irresistible and the charity will soon succumb. "We're starting to make inroads on online fundraising and, because we're an international charity, blogging is a good way of keeping in touch with supporters around the world," he says. "When people feel part of something, they are more likely to keep on donating."

The big charities are beginning to concur. "Blogging is likely to be an effective campaign tool in the future," says a WWF-UK spokesman. "We are developing something, but I'm not in a position to tell you about it at the moment."

Supporters of Greenpeace blog on boats and at events such as the Glastonbury Festival. "Some organisations are petrified about getting into trouble," says press officer Ben Stewart. "We believe in accountability but also in trusting staff."

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