article banner
Not for profit

Charities must bridge the education gap in social media

Mark Oster on the ways that charities can master social media through improving knowledge at every level


How can charities hope to master and benefit from social media unless they understand its full potential and risks? Our new report, ‘Growing communities: How charity leaders govern social media globally to thrive online’ , reports on our interviews with charity CEOs from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and the US. We found that for many nonprofits there is a knowledge gap between executives and staff when it comes to understanding social media. This gap means that decision makers are not always fully aware of how social media can best be leveraged.

Social media is both immediate and interactive. It forces change: people must learn to operate in a new environment under a new set of guidelines. Charities that master the power that social media brings to relationship management will gain the attendant rewards; those who don’t will be left behind.

The interviews we conducted for the ‘Growing communities’ report revealed that education and training are largely provided to a few key team members who are tasked with delivering social media output.

What they learn is valuable, but every level in the organisation could benefit from a systematic approach to social media training. From volunteers to senior management, education at every tier of the structure will mean that social media is being used to fulfil the goals of the charity. For example, reverse mentoring programmes, such as those used at Charity Finance Group in the UK, pair senior and junior staff so that social media knowledge can be passed between levels.

Social media also blurs the distinction between work and personal communication, which can present challenges and risks to the organisation. While general guidelines and training for staff do help in this regard, social media can still end up being used inappropriately. The majority of our interviewees admitted they do not yet have definitive social media policies, and those who do remained wary of the risks of self-moderation without adequate and ongoing training. Setting guidelines for social media use and providing training on those guidelines must extend beyond the professional staff to include volunteers, as they can be perceived to be representatives of the organisation, even when they are communicating on a personal basis. Similarly, Trustees should also know what the social media policies are.

Charities that embrace social media can be engaged, dynamic and experimental. Nonprofits could learn a lesson from LEGO. Senior management at LEGO are encouraged to take social media exams following a one day theory and practical training course leading to a special qualification. The course culminates with a status update post on LEGO’s four million-strong Facebook page. “You see the nervousness around the room when they see they need to communicate with customers,” said LEGO’s global director of social media, Lars Silberbauer at a 2013 Marketing conference. “But when they get 500 likes, that’s when they realise what social media’s all about. ”

Mark Oster is National Managing Partner, Not for Profit and Higher Education Practices, Grant Thornton US.