Twitter for non-profits, break through or break down?

On: October 13, 2010
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About Fei An Tjan
After finishing a Bachelor's in communications and Information I wasn't quite happy with, I decided to soak up some more life experience elsewhere before starting my Master. In Bolivia I worked for the newspaper of Santa Cruz (El Deber) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo de arte contemporáneo). After six months, I changed location to Costa Rica to do a media internship with a volunteer travel agency. Here I gained more practical experience in the blogosphere, social media, and design which all laid the basis for my newly triggered interest in New Media. When I came back in the Netherlands, I signed up for the MA New Media and hope to finish this one happily ever after.


During my time in the uVolunteer office I was asked to look for ways to improve the company’s online visibility. Because I was especially interested in other NGO’s and similar initiatives I was surprised by the way these companies made use of Twitter. Twitter seemed to have created a little world of its own where you could start up new initiatives, get in touch with people in the field and have immediate access of information all in the Twitter way. Therefore, I was, and still am interested in how Twitter changes the environment for Grassroots organizations.

Especially on the grassroots level, marketing seems to be an infinite stumbling stone due to a lack of money or expertise. In a blog post by Siena Anstis for the Worlbank, she points out how Twitter is a cheap and multi-way tool to publicize corporations. Twitter in that matter provides new ways to engage and cater to the right audience and at the same time also lets you reflect on your own business. You can update your audience immediately when changes are implemented, and at the same time, they can react and tell you when something is bothering them or give you advice. Especially for grassroots organizations and companies covering a niche work field, Twitter offers the possibility to find like minded people and discuss and compare problems. At uVolunteer for example, I was once putting up posts about a turtle conservation project. A member of another turtle conservation project then contacted me over Twitter with the request to work together. From that point on we kept in touch and managed to combine some services.

But engagement goes further than that. The uncultured project for example uses Twitpics to show the donors where the money goes and how it is spent. Twitter therefore also provides a way to maintain transparency between the organization and its donors. Other than for example the website, you can react immediately to projects and tweets and I believe that it possibly narrows the distance between donors and organizations.

Another way in which Twitter is used for the good is online donations. When the earthquake hit Haiti, the Red Cross was said to have smartly and successfully used Twitter  to draw attention to the cause. Like the case in Iran, lots of other media drew attention to the ‘revolution’ Twitter had brought about. By offering possibilities to donate online, support funds were said to have skyrocketed! The question we should ask ourselves here though is: compared to what? The red Cross in general only received 3,6 percent of their actual donations through online media in 2009. Not directly a revolution I would say. The act of donating seems to disappear compared to the amount of tweets and retweets on the matter. In her post: Why Social media is reinventing activism, Sarah Kessler mentions the term ‘Slacktivism’, “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.” Differently said, we tweet and moreover, retweet to feel better about ourselves and have the feeling we did in some way engage. Also, one of fellow students, Onur Yilmaz, criticized the impact Twitter really had on the so called revolution in Iran. Isn’t it all a setup? Are we all tricked into believing Twitter is the new kid on the block? On the other hand, new applications will continue to develop and Social Media specialist Beth Kanter already mentioned the Twitpay application where you can donate online in just one tweet. She is positive on the idea that Twitter can make a difference in for NGO’s on a marketing level and will hold the future of online donations in 2012. Although I agree on the idea that payments online are getting easier and perhaps even more popular, I think the same counts for scam. Most people are afraid to do payments online and who’s there to blame? The amount of fake fundraisers will grow once the online payment methods breach.

Maybe more interesting about this new way of engaging with your donors and partners is the effect of immediacy. The reason the Haiti campaign was so successful is possibly because all the information was immediate. People on the spot were tweeting and looking for interaction about the situation and putting up photos. Therefore, Twitter was probably a better provider of the situation than the regular news channels.

Concluding, I would say that Twitter provides a platform where grassroots organizations can build a new type of relationship with their beneficiaries, partners and critics. It offers a way to maintain transparency, but maybe more importantly immediacy. In disaster situations, it certainly helps when someone on the spot can tell you what’s going on. Unmediated and uncensored. Though using Twitter for non-profits as a way to raise money is still a little Utopian. There are new ways and of course it is always nice to have an extra source of income, but we should be careful in our enthusiasm to directly name Twitter the new donation machine. We are just not there yet…

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