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The MyCharityConnects Conference – Social Media for Social Change

I Background
II Message from Zenia Wadhwani, Director, Program Development, Canada Helps
III Summary of Key Messages from the Conference
IV Conclusion

-- Submitted by Stephanie Lawrence

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I Background

The MyCharityConnects Conference was hosted by CanadaHelps in June 2009, with the aim to help charities learn about using online technology to improve their fundraising and marketing. Over 200 attendees from non-profits and charities all across the country gathered at the MaRS Centre in Toronto to connect with experts from the fields of social media, community building, web development, technology, fundraising, and marketing.

The technology gap between donors and charities is growing. Donors want to raise awareness and funds for their favourite causes – and they want to use new technology to do it. With limited financial and human resources, charities don’t always have the time and money to learn about changes and trends. The MyCharityConnects Conference helped to bridge the technology gap between donors and charities by providing charities with tailored information about online technology and the MyCharityConnects online resource centre for charities provides ongoing resources to charities by connecting them to the technologies they need to succeed.    
MyCharityConnects was part of Net Change Week at MaRS. Net Change was Canada’s first week-long, city-wide event designed to dissolve the divide between digital professionals and social change-makers.

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II Message from Zenia Wadhwani, Director, Program Development, Canada Helps

Charities are understandably overwhelmed by all the social media tools that are being used and spoken of today; there's a lot that falls under the heading of web 2.0 and it can be confusing. But charities are also curious and excited, and they should be. The potential that these tools have for charities is quite significant, both in terms of exposure and fundraising, and is the reason why CanadaHelps hosted the MyCharityConnects Conference and created the accompanying MyCharityConnects online resource centre.

In our efforts to share such information in an easy and encouraging way, we had three key messages for charities: 1) Don't be intimidated!  Test, try and learn, and don't be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, social media is as easy or easier than email, faxing and a whole range of other communications methods you already use.  2) Focus on the message – remember that social media tools are a way to get your message across. Social media tools, like the many other communications vehicles we use, are a means to an end. The story you tell is the same, the way in which it is told is simply different. And 3) Remember your audience.  Are they responsive to social media tools? Don't just use social media because other charities are doing it. Know what works for your audience and be sure you're good at the basics, e.g., a website with good design and content, as well as effective email communications, before diving into all that is web 2.0.

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III Summary of Key Messages from the Conference

Opening Remarks

Robin Cordozo, CEO of the Trillium Foundation provided the opening remarks, allowing he was not an expert about technology and poking a bit of fun at its language, with its wikis and its tweets. But he also provided some practical advice around the role technology can play in the non-profit world. Three things that really struck: make sure the technology supports your mission; be prepared to fail, learn, and change course; and the technology is only as good as the people who use it, so train and retrain.

Listen, Learn, Adapt: How the Globe and Mail Did It

Mathew Ingram is the online communities editor at the Globe and Mail. His presentation was thoughtful and though provoking, with illustrative and useful examples. He did not so much go through the left foot, right foot of how the paper has embraced social media, instead he relayed the information through interesting anecdotes, the way that journalists do.

One of the most telling moments happened during the questions and answers period at the end. Mathew had explained earlier that the Globe and Mail does not moderate the comments that appear on its website from readers in response to its stories. Unless a comment is really inappropriate, everything is left as is. One participant made the observation that just by virtue of these comments being posted on the site, does this not somehow imply credibility or at least give a comment more weight, and certainly more circulation, than it would otherwise? This allows completely uninformed opinions to be posted on the newspaper’s website alongside well thought out and well crafted pieces of journalism. And what about the crazies? Mathew’s response was that they had discussed this issue internally – the perception of credibility of posted comments, and how the process differed completely from that of letters to the editor, which are fact checked and their authors’ identities verified. The open field of the unmoderated comments is not perfect. There are swampy patches and dry, boring bits, but also flashes of engaged brilliance. And that thoughtful engagement can only happen in the open online conversation. Mathew confessed that some of the observations posted by readers have actually changed the way he thought about certain stories.

Tips, Tools and Tricks for Building and Managing an Online Community

Sarah Prevette offered the conference goers tips, tools and tricks for building and managing an online community through the example of Twestival Local, the biggest Twitter fundraising event in history. In February 2009 202 cities around the world banded together to raise awareness and funds for safe drinking water, resulting in funding for 55 water projects. Twestival Local encourages local groups of Twitter users to host events in aid of their favourite charities. Sarah was one of the organizers of TwestivalTO attended by 600 people and raised over $10, 000.

The lessons learned on why the event was such a success can be applied broadly to building an online community around social change. She stressed the important difference between a message and an experience, similar to the difference between a billboard (provides a message) and a person (who provides a story). Social media is the conduit for people to evoke change and is a tool for helping build relationships. The strength of a social network is proportional to the quality of content that network is fed. You need to connect, engage and nurture. To empower individuals in your network to spread your message you need to be prepared to let go of some control and allow people to communicate the message or story in their own words.

Sarah’s guidelines for building communities include:

  • Be amazing – do something worth talking about.
  • Be accessible.
  • Be authentic.
  • Provide real value.
  • Respond and participate – even to the naysayers as it can be more important to address dissidents than evangelists.
  • Be honest and transparent

E-Advocacy – Click for Change

Eric Squair, in explaining online advocacy reminded participants that the driving force behind advocacy campaigns is communication, not technology. A successful campaign allows people to become part of the change they want to see, and it does this by offering a set of solutions they can adopt. A web presence in an advocacy campaign should be based on a clear understanding of what you offer your visitors, answering the following questions:

  • What do I want to say?
  • What do I have to offer?
  • How can I keep the conversation going?

Born to Blog

Blogging basics for non-profits were shared by Archana Sridhar, co-founder of the South Asian Philanthropy Project. Blogs offer a venue for sharing information of substance, marketing, outreach, fundraising and building community. The pros for organizations in blogging include instant publication of information with an opportunity for feedback and comments. Blogs are searchable, archive information automatically and can include incoming and outgoing links. Some of the drawbacks include a possible lack of authority or control, too much information and staff time requirement.

Before setting up a blog for your organization it is important to think through the purpose and strategy as well as outline some guiding principles. Think about the following:

  • What is your organization’s goal in starting a blog?
  • Who will manage the blog and who will write on the blog?
  • What are the topics to cover?
  • What other blogs could serve as examples or links?
  • Whose buy-in / approval is required before getting started?

Once you get started, a few blogging tips to keep in mind:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Write informally and often.
  • Entertain while being informative.
  • Expand into other social media.

A Tale of Two Websites

Tonja Terterian of XT+M and Stephanie Lawrence of the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check program took participants through the process of a complete rebuild of the national, bilingual, multi-audience Health Check website. The top lessons learned include:

  1. Everybody has an opinion. If you ask your team members for feedback throughout the process you will get lots of input.
  2. Assign a point person and record and track all decisions. These are basic project management principles, but important to put in place at the beginning of the project.
  3. Web architecture differs in concept and in reality. You can look at an outline (or what the developers refer to as wire frames) but until you actually see the website itself it is difficult to fully understand how it will work for your audiences.
  4. Review as a group. Review again. Make sure everyone on your team has the chance to review the site together to really understand how you want it to work and make decisions together.
  5. Nobody needs to know everything, but somebody needs to know something. No one person needs to be responsible for all the information on your site, but there should be at least one content expert for each section of the site.
  6. Resist the urge to say everything on every page. Stick to a few main messages at a time.
  7. Nobody knows your organization’s audiences like you do. Stay in charge of your messages.
  8. Nobody knows website development like website developers. Benefit from their expertise.
  9. However long you think it will take to completely rebuild your site, it will take longer.
  10. What’s in it for them? In everything you do on your website, don’t forget your audience.

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IV Conclusion

And the big learning, from every single session and keynote, was an easy one, but also one that is easy to forget: Communicating is always about relationships. As Zenia pointed out – social media provides the tools, but you have the message. There are thousands of conversations going on out there – be part of them.