Five mistakes international organizations make when using Twitter

1. Using it just for press releases. People don’t follow you on Twitter for generic organizational announcements. They follow because they want to feel a personal connection with what you do. They want to become friends and allies. Write your Twitter updates in less formal language, and tweet little things, too. Not just press releases. Welcome new employees, for example, or tell them a little bit about one specific project.

2. Only asking for money. Constant calls for funds will bore people and cause them to unsubscribe from your Twitter feed. Ask for money no more than once a week, and when you do, tie it to something you mentioned that week.

3. Not following back or replying to others. As an organization, you should automatically follow back anyone who follows you on Twitter. People don’t want to be broadcast to; they want to be part of a conversation. Following people is the first step; the second step is paying attention. Use Twitter search to monitor mentions of your organization. Reply to those mentions. Periodically read the postings of people you follow. You don’t have to read every post, but check in from time to time, and reply if you have something interesting to say.

4. Forgetting the global audience. Twitter has a worldwide user base. This includes people in the countries where you work. It may include potential donors and beneficiaries in other countries. It will definitely include your own staff. When you write about events in, say, Rwanda, assume Rwandans will be reading. Are you still comfortable with your post?

5. Not having a Twitter strategy. There are things to think about before you post your first tweet. Do you want to encourage all your staff to have organization-linked Twitter accounts, or just a single account to represent the whole organization? What aspects of your organization do you want to highlight? What kind of expertise do you possess and can showcase? Who will update the Twitter account, and will all postings need to be approved first? These are issues that can be resolved with some planning, and can go very wrong on you without some advance thought.

Great link on CARE’s social network

APP+FRICA has a great post up about CARE’s new social network. This is exactly the kind of constructive criticism and innovative thinking that NGOs need.

Social media presents an amazing opportunity for international NGOs to tell their stories in a detailed, authentic way. But to use this opportunity well, they need to take social media seriously, and use it like the new form it us. They have to be brave.

Responsible Marketing

I’ve seen a lot of interesting discussion on blogs today about responsible marketing. Drew McLellan weighs in, talking about Barry Bonds, as does the responsible marketing blog. Both are discussing how easy it is to end up with a permanent asterisk next to your name. I discussed marketing and reputation in my American Apparel post; these guys take it farther and lay it out really well. Neither is talking about NGOs, but the lessons are the same.

Telling better stories

Once, at a restaurant, I ordered “Crispy potato wedges with sweet and sour dipping sauce” as an appetizer. What I got was French fries and ketchup. The description on the menu was true, but not honest. I didn’t feel like I could complain to the manager, but it left me feeling disappointed and vaguely deceived.

Too much of our communication about international development is true but not honest. We boil complicated situations down into simple ideas. We pretend there are easy answers to problems so difficult there may be no answers at all. We use emotional impact and compelling photographs to avoid detailed discussion of the challenges of doing good development work.

And we need our stories, because our stories are what bring us funding. Whether it’s a government agency, a foundation, a corporate partner, or a little old lady putting a five dollar bill in an envelope, the people who give us money respond to stories. The government calls it reporting, corporations ask for success stories, and regular people just want reasons to give their cash, but they are all asking for stories to explain what we do and why we deserve their money to do it.

For a long time, were stuck with our oversimplified, easily digested stories. Our true-but-not-real stories were all we could get out to the world. Three minute spots on the evening news and press releases don’t leave much room for nuance. Even reporters from respected media outlets rarely have the time or expertise to research and relay a complicated article about the realities of international development.

The world has changed. We have now have a huge selection of social media tools we can use to shape our own messages and communicate directly. And – we can do more than just put a message out there in an electronic bottle and hope someone finds it. We can have conversations about what we do, how we do it, and how people can be part of that. We don’t have to spoon feed people easy ideas because we’ve got the time and space to talk about the hard stuff.

This is my challenge to you:

Think seriously about what social media can do for you. Don’t just use your Twitter account for mini-press releases; use it for genuinely new information as it happens. Imagine a country director in Darfur tweeting as he travels to a refugee camp. Imagine a collaborative blog by your HQ staff, talking about what backstopping actually entails. (People would be a lot more likely to pay overhead if they knew what overhead was.) Imagine your Sri Lanka country team posting their photos to Flickr and their videos to YouTube. Imagine your website as a portal to all of that, a place people go to get deep knowledge about what your organization does. Imagine turning all your donors into passionate advocates who encourage others to give too.

Better stories can do that for us, and we finally have a way to tell them.

Photo Credit: Miranda July at Modern Times, taken by Steve Rhodes.

Why I am not giving to Myanmar yet (and some thoughts on social media)

Beth Kanter is one of my heroes and she’s one of the reasons I am on Twitter. Today she asked me to blog or tweet about the BlogHer Myanmar giving effort. And I didn’t. And I felt like a total jerk because, dude, it’s BETH KANTER. And she’s amazing.

But it’s too soon for me to give any money, or ask others to do so. Global Giving has not chosen a recipient yet for Myanmar funds. If you look at their Myanmar page, there is no recipient listed. I confirmed by calling them. Eventually they’ll pick out a recipient organization who’ll provide aid to Myanmar, but there is no chosen organization yet. If I give now, my money will just sit with Global Giving. I might as well have it sit with me while I review NGOs and not pay the 10% fee to Global Giving.

There is another reason not to give money too soon. Some disaster relief NGOs will collect money for an emergency in a location where they have no established presence and if they receive enough, they will start an operation there. If they don’t receive enough money, they’ll just donate the money to another NGO. (Usually after taking their own overhead). It’s a pretty standard practice. If you go to the list of NGOs accepting donations for Myanmar, you’ll see that many of them have no current presence on the ground.

So, by donating now I am at risk for moving it through two pass-throughs – Global Giving and a second NGO before it goes to a group which is operational in Myanmar. (To be fair, I don’t know what Global Giving’s rules are – they may not allow a non-operational organization to receive money. Their website doesn’t make it clear.) [Edited to add: The COO of Global Giving commented on this post, and linked to their due diligence policy, which explains their criteria for selecting organizational partners.]

The best way to give, in my opinion, is to check out NGO websites until you find one that already has a presence in Myanmar, and give to them. I suggest World Vision. Yes, they are faith-based to a somewhat creepy degree, but they have been in Burma since 1958. I’ve worked with them in several locations, and they are very professional and run excellent programs.

(Oh, and here’s my social media thought: turning down a request like Beth’s from someone you respect is nearly impossible. I have work to do tonight, but I had to put this blog post up first, just to live with myself.)

How to wreck your image in one easy step

Jennifer Baumgardner, a feminist artist and documentarian, produced a t-shirt which says “I was raped.” It is intended to raise awareness help women end the shame they feel when raped. It’s a delicate topic, so I’ll send you to Scarleteen for background information.

The t-shirts are controversial, and they’ve led to a lot of discussion. I noticed an interesting theme in the comments at Jezebel. The very first commenter says, “If these are printed on American Apparel tees, I will shoot myself in the head.”

American Apparel has gone from being viewed as an important, ethical company to a sleazy demeaner of women. In about four years. Because of the advertising and marketing choices the company has made. (Yes, the CEO is also controversial, but I bet no one would notice if it wasn’t for the racy ads.) They’ve lost a ton of respect from the kind of ethical consumers who they need the most.

I wonder how many NGOs undermine themselves the same way, obscuring their good work with poverty-porn pictures that demean the communities where they work.

Lesson: Your marketing should be worthy of your programs.

on research and donor funding

This nice summary of BDI logic models does two things. It 1) gives you an overview of a model for behavior change that actually takes into account the complexity of human decision-making and 2) tells you how to market it to potential donors. It’s very savvy, and it makes me kind of sad. I see useful public health research go unused all the time because it’s too complicated for non-experts, and donors are rarely experts.