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Social media brings opportunities and challenges to charity sector

Whether we like it or not, social media is an integral part of everyday life, and charities, like all other organisations, should be considering the impact social media can have, and incorporating it into their objectives and longer term strategies.

Considered by some as “slacktivism” - an exercise that appears to do good while achieving very little - there is little doubt that social media can be a powerful tool in the sector. In 2014, £8m was raised for Cancer Research UK in six days, thanks to the No Make-up Selfie Campaign, and in the same year, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised more than $115m for the ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) Association.  

Ultimately the outcome of the ice bucket challenge was the discovery of a gene variant associated with motor neurone disease, by a scientist funded with the proceeds of that initiative.

Twitter’s mission statement is “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers”; Facebook UK’s is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. The potential impact that social media can have is huge for charities, allowing them to share snippets of information, engage in a short exchange of views and gauge whether a particular issue is important to audiences.

According to a report published by Grant Thornton in 2016, 72% of the top 100 charities in England and Wales are active on all three of the main social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn); only 6% do not use any. Their Twitter accounts average 196,000 followers, more than twice that in 2015, when the figure was 94,000. The trend continues with charity CEOs; 43% of the top 100 charities’ CEOs have a Twitter account, with an average following of 2,400.

From a governance perspective it is vital that charities and their boards consider the risks and opportunities involved with social media. Trustee’s should be considering the following; what part does social media play in our strategic plan; who reports to the board about social media strategy and outcomes, and what is their level of experience; do we have guidelines for those staff and volunteers using social media and how do we encourage use while mitigating risk; what resources have we allocated to social media projects and how do we measure our return on investment; and can we use social media to reach new beneficiaries?

Whether it is seizing opportunities as part of the next viral campaign, or tweeting a new press release, social media is one of the most crucial and visible channels for charities, and it can be a cost-effective way of self-promotion and attracting of new stakeholders and beneficiaries. Charities should ensure that social media is high on their agenda, identifying benefits and potential risks, to help support the charity achieve its objectives.