In Nigeria, teenagers are learning about sex through cell phones--and it could be saving lives.
"Can the early signs of HIV show within a week of infection?” is one of the tens of thousands of anonymous SMS, or text, messages that have been sent in to the Learning about Living program, which is designed to spread education about sexuality and HIV/AIDS prevention. By providing answers to the questions teenagers would normally feel embarrassed or shy about through mobile phones, e-mail and a toll-free phone number, all at no cost, this program aims to educate teenagers through this mobile connection.
Projects such as this are becoming more prevalent around the world, as the use of mobile phones has jumped from 1 billion in 2005 to 3.5 billion currently. In 2005, Katrin Verclas saw an opportunity within the surge of mobile connectivity and helped create a hub of information to further connect non-profit and non-governmental organizations.
Enter Mobile Active, a global community for people who are using mobile technology for social change. As co-founder and coordinator, Verclas runs the Web site, manages its blog and helps plan conferences about the use of cell phones for social change. Learning about Living is one of the site’s featured programs.
“Mobile Active decreases the learning curve to inspire, to think creatively, provide resources and how-tos and break down those disciplinary fields,” she said.
Verclas, who is from Amherst, Mass. has been in the non-profit technology field for ten years and has a variety of different experience. Along with Mobile Active, she serves on the board of directors of the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), a membership organization of non-profit technology professionals focused on connecting non-profits with each other and educating them on the use of technology. She has a background in IT management, IT in social change organizations and in philanthropy and has led several non-profit organizations. Currently, she’s working on a publication exploring mobile use in civil society with the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Group. In addition, Verclas works as an independent consultant, working with non-profit organizations and foundations.
She has her hands full but has still managed to create this global community, depending on a variety of social media tools to keep it thriving. This is a feat that some non-profits have embraced wholeheartedly while others have struggled due to lack of resources.
Regardless, there is no denying that social media has played a major role in how nonprofits and social activists get their word out. According to a recent survey conducted by Eric Mattson and Nora Barnes at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, 75 percent of America’s largest charities were using some form of social media and 46 percent reported that social media is an important aspect to their fundraising strategy.
The study’s results were removed from the Internet as the link leading to the survey, which was posted on several Web sites, report that the file can not be found. However, numerous discussions about the results were found in Computerworld, a trade publication focusing on IT management for medium-to-large companies, Small Dots, a nonprofit technology blog by Beth Dunn and Global Neighbourhoods, a blog focused on how social media affects business and culture written by Shel Israel.
In an interview with
“A volunteer network is hard to maintain,” she said comparing it to the art of plate spinning seen in the circus. “It feels like you have to keep spinning the more plates and channels you have. Partly because we’re not funded, it gets a little hard.
This is precisely the problem that smaller non-profits such as Mobile Active face. Small budgets and small staffs create a limited amount of resources as well as a disconnection with the technology.
“Most non-profit staffs aren’t as tech-advanced as the audiences they’re trying to reach are,” said Dunn, who is also director of communications for the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod. “There’s a resistance in the staff to use technology because they think their audience doesn’t use the technology.”
Despite being the largest hunger-relief agency in New England and one of the largest food banks in the country, the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) has found its outreach outside of traditional methods to be restricted. Although the organization launched its new Web site in January, it doesn’t have any form of interactivity for its viewers or any plans to make it more interactive
"Here in the non-profit world, we’re lacking in manpower to keep up with that,” said Heather Robb, the organization’s marketing manager.
The GBFB is attempting to take a different approach by using a new local social media Web service known as good2gether.com, which is free for non-profits. Set to launch in April in six markets including Boston, New York and San Francisco, good2gether serves as a platform for non-profits to link their volunteer opportunities and events as well as donation requests alongside related articles on newspaper Web sites. Organizations create their own profile and then it is distributed through good2gether’s Do Good Channels which can reach across Web sites for major media outlets, on corporate intranets, at social networks and on college and university Web sites.
The idea for good2gether came to Greg McHale, the company’s CEO, after Hurricane Katrina. As he was looking on Boston.com for stories related to the storm, he noticed there were no direct links to non-profits that were helping victims. That’s when he figured that providing relevant information, such as volunteer opportunities to help victims of Katrina, right alongside articles talking about the topic could motivate more people to help while helping non-profits leverage free traffic, newspapers drive local content and ad revenue and sponsors deliver their message of commitment to social responsibility.
“It’s an incredible opportunity as you’re reading an article about Katrina, Darfur, cancer and in each one of those stories is an opportunity for you to get involved,” said McHale.
This is what the GBFB hopes good2gether will do for its cause as it is always in need of more volunteers as well as money and food donations. Robb noted that the organization alone doesn’t have the ability to reach out in that capacity but a platform like good2gether is a useful tool to implement.
Another interesting aspect is the effect it could have on newspapers which are trying to get more traffic to their Web sites.
"There’s not a single newspaper in the country that’s not looking to go local,” said McHale. “Newspapers are desperate for local content and this makes their news product more useful.”
Dunn, who recently wrote about good2gether in her blog, sees a lot of promise in a business model like McHale’s and said it is a win-win situation for non-profits.
It seems like it would be foolish not to get involved in it for a non-profit,” she said. “It is an interesting concept to be able to offer people the opportunity to take action right away.”
Just as McHale has found a way to use new media to help non-profits adapt, another non-profit organization has been steadily adjusting in its attempt to shed light on human rights issues. Long before streaming online video was even a twinkle in the eyes of tech-geeks everywhere, Peter Gabriel, singer for the now defunct band Genesis and now a solo musician, understood the power that video can have. In 1992, he launched Witness, an international human rights organization that uses video and online technologies to expose human rights violations.
Using a video advocacy model, Witness provides human rights groups with the technology, equipment and training to create successful video campaigns. It also helps human rights groups devise a strategy to reach out to its targeted audience usually consisting of policy and decision-makers within local governments.
Now, with online videos within everyone’s reach, it made sense for Witness to move its campaign videos online but the organization also saw an opportunity for expansion. Last November Witness, launched The Hub, a global platform for human rights where anyone can upload videos, audio or photos and find ways to connect people to resources, advocacy groups, campaigns and actions. Serving a much broader audience than Witness, the site had 5 million hits within the first two months of launching.
“It’s sort of an acknowledgment of a continuance of our video advocacy model,” said Matisse Bustos Hawkes, communications and outreach coordinator for Witness. “It’s not about being a YouTube model for human rights. It’s to create more open space.”
Bustos Hawkes, like Verclas, has a vast amount of experience in the non-profit field. Based in New York, she has seven years under her belt developing and implementing communications strategies specifically focusing on campaigns led by the use of visual media for social change.
While online video has been used for shallow, pointless causes such as Chris Crocker’s cry for people to leave disheveled pop-star Britney Spears alone, it has the potential to do much more, especially in terms for international coverage.
“When [online] video was up there at first, it was a big deal. The amount of international coverage has diminished since the 2,000s and even the late 90s. It’s opened a window to the world,” said Bustos Hawkes.
Whether an organization is trying to open a window to the world or just shine a little extra light in their corner of the world, blogs are the perfect place for non profits to get a hold on understanding how to use social media, said Dunn. More than a third of the charities in the UMass Dartmouth survey report using blogs and 62 percent of respondents say they are very familiar with it.
But before writing a blog, it’s necessary to start reading them first.
“It’s really important to be a listener first—to be a consumer first of the media,” said Dunn.
She also suggested starting out at Web sites such as the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN).
Other considerations, she noted, is for non-profits to not invest in social media as a brand but rather as an individual. For example, people don’t want to see the American Red Cross with a Twitter account; said Dunn. They want to see a person affiliated with the American Red Cross. There’s a level of personal connection needed.
The intimidation of technology can easily overshadow the benefits of using social media tools, especially when a non-profit is pitching them to its board of directors. Dunn suggests focusing more on the objective and outcomes of using such tools instead of the tools themselves. By more clearly identifying how these online instruments can further the cause, it’s more likely that the board of directors will actually get on board with the organization.
Verclas is still busy spinning all of her “plates,” managing the blog and wiki, aggregating content and networking through social media sites such as Facebook, Orkut (a popular site in Brazil) and Twitter. Not to mention she’s currently planning a conference in South Africa.
Not everyone involved in the non-profit sector may have the technology experience Verclas has, but there are plenty of resources to help organizations choose which tools are right for them.
Verclas can be the first to testify that after figuring out what works best, it’s just a matter of balancing them all:
"You have to keep them spinning in order for them to be effective."