‘Put social networking to work for social causes’

American new media guru tells Israeli NGOs they must get online if they want to stay relevant.

Computer technology keyboard 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters/Catherine Benson)
Computer technology keyboard 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters/Catherine Benson)
Israeli non-profits and social action groups need to get online and get plugged in to social media or risk becoming irrelevant.
This is the message of author, blogger and general social media guru Allison Fine, who is visiting Israel this week under the auspices of the US Embassy’s Office of Public Affairs.
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“NGOs fear they will lose control of their message or be criticized if they go online, but the irony is that both those things already happen,” Fine, a native of New York, said in an interview on Tuesday.
“Organizations spend too much time talking about the prospect of those things happening, but if you put a message out to the world using any type of media, the likelihood is that it has already been mashed up by someone else or your organization is being criticized, you are just not online to realize it.”
She added: “I understand the fears NGOs have [about social media] and I know I am asking people to work very differently, but there does not seem to be a choice other than to move in this direction, because the outcome of not doing this is irrelevancy.”
Fine, who has authored two best-selling books on how non-profits must use social networking for social causes, said it was time for Jewish charities to “switch from a fortress mentality where everything looks scary out there and everyone is a competitor or you don’t have enough resources, to becoming part of a network and encouraging others to work with you.”
Speaking to representatives of local non-profits at the American Center in Jerusalem, Fine said there was no right or wrong way of making your cause or charity more interactive but urged: “Sometimes it’s a good idea to hire a young, savvy tech person” or to emulate what other organizations are doing with social media.
As well as giving examples of digital campaigns undertaken recently by Greenpeace and the Royal Opera Company in London, Fine emphasized that being successful “requires leadership to provide staff time to do this, and support for it.
“Organizations must not see [social media] as an add-on in the corner, it has to be integrated into everything the organization does,” she said, adding that NGOs must ask themselves, “Who do we want to have a conversation with and where do we want to have that conversation? “An organization must prepare its staff to go out and talk to people online, it must accept that there might be mistakes but the sky will not fall,” said Fine, highlighting that staff usually are dedicated to the organization’s cause and that volunteers can be used to spread Twitter and Facebook messages.
Fine cautioned NGOs to “stop thinking about social media in terms of a “financial return on investment” but rather as “a return on engagement that can broaden their network by reaching more people than they ever could have through broadcast and deepening relationship with core of their network.”
She listed five main forums that NGOs needed to familiarize themselves with – online video clip site YouTube, blogging, social media forums Twitter and Facebook, and more standard digital media form e-mail. She cautioned that newsletters and mass emailing lists were too static and quickly becoming passé.
“Anyone who thought social media was a fad can now put that idea to rest because the last few years have shown us that these formats are here to stay,” she told the audience.
Fine, who was inspired by the power of social media after observing Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic Party presidential campaign, added that for organizations to be most successful in harnessing social media they had to be transparent and interactive.
“I think that when [organizations] pretend to only be successful it puts them at a distance from their people,” she observed, adding that it is important for NGOs and philanthropic foundations to connect on a human level, to say “this is what we are doing, this is what we are learning and this is where we need help.”
A former evaluator and adviser for non-profits and foundations, Fine said that social media could be extremely beneficial to Jewish philanthropy, which is at a critical point following the global economic crisis and the changing sensibilities of the international Jewish community.
“Many Jewish foundations are ‘sunsetting,’” she said, explaining that large foundations that have put a huge amount of capital into Jewish and Israel causes are in danger of dying as we move to a new generation of young Jews.
“There is a huge generation shift between the parents and grandparents who created these large foundations; their children are either not taking over or the foundations are no longer giving to Jewish causes or to Israel,” she said.
“The only way to invest in the younger generation, however, is to start having conversations with them in their territory.”