Posted by: alexswallow | September 22, 2013

How small charities can get big benefits from social media- 5 tips from me


Image courtesy of basketman/

People who know me know how passionate I am about social media and how much I care about supporting small charities too. Well, this is a post about how those interests collide.

Visceral Business have done some great recent work about social media and charities.  Their report, the 2013 Charity Social Index can be downloaded from their website. The Guardian has interpreted the results to show the advantage that smaller charities can have in this area. This certainly isn’t a new topic- here is the Guardian again two years ago, for example. Here is a post on the Institute of Fundraising’s page. Here is a superb guide from Social Misfits Media, which includes contributions from Meg Garlinghouse at LinkedIn and Claire Diaz-Ortiz at Twitter. Here is CharityComms great comprehensive guide too,  written by Vicky Browning and Matt Collins. Finally, here is a joint project between Google, Media Trust and Charity Technology Trust to help smaller charities thrive online. Some of the many people I enjoy following online to help me understand more about social media and charities are Rachel Beer, Jude Habib, Zoe Amar, Nisha KotechaKirsty Marrins, Paul Darigan, Scott HarrisonRhammel Afflick, Leon Ward  and many more!

Plus the absolute world guru in this area, is Beth Kanter.

I think that there are a number of important reasons why social media can be particularly powerful for small charities. The first is that I think social media, if used properly, is a way to start leveling the playing field. I can see lots of small charities who punch above their weight on social media in a way that their budgets would never allow them through traditional advertising and communications. I also think that social media is an excellent learning resources for smaller charities. For example, if there is an issue that is particularly interesting the charity sector one week, by going on Twitter and looking at what organisations I respect are saying, I can pick up a lot more than I could from the papers- for free! Social media interactions can stop small charities from being ‘closed’ organisations and can introduce support and ideas from around the world: who could fail to be excited about that?

So my own top tips, in no particular order are:

1- Make that first step – As with pretty much any endeavour, the hardest step is the first one. When I joined Twitter, I didn’t see the point of it. It seemed full of inane celebrities babbling about a life beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, or people telling me they had Weetabix for breakfast. Over time thought, I began to see the value it had. Through Twitter I’ve now heard of new charities and initiatives, been inspired, read new research papers, made new contacts, shared some of my ideas and discovered a lot more about how the social sector can work more effectively around the world. When you first get involved with social media in any form, there is no reason to post/tweet/contribute a lot yourself (although once you start doing so it is likely to be a more rewarding experience). Take your time, listen and learn.

2- Don’t feel pressured – Sometimes it seems like the move towards social media puts people under a lot of pressure. You should be getting involved because you want your charity to be visible and you want to learn more, not because ‘everyone else is’. Similarly there are many forms of conflicting advice around things like how often you should tweet or what is the correct way to do things. Social media is new and is fluid and the rules are changing all the time. Be who you  want to be.

3- Be authentic – Related to the point above, I see people all the time who tweet things that are more interesting than the things I tweet, or who are really funny, or who post amazing photos. But social media shouldn’t be about competing with others, it should be about doing the best that you can and speaking with the voice that you want to. Also being authentic reduces the pressure. It doesn’t matter if your posts and updates are different, that’s because  you are different and your organisation is different. It’s great to learn from others but you should believe in the things that you want to say. Remember that you are an expert on your own charity and your own life.

4- Don’t treat the online world and the offline world as two different things – This is the one that really baffles me. Some people are caustic online, meek offline. Others don’t seem to get the connection between the words that they see on the screen and the real people behind them.  It’s a good rule of thumb not to say something that you wouldn’t say to a person’s face. It’s also worth thinking about the fact that any connections that you make ‘in the real world’ will enhance your online experience. Many of the people that I interact with most on social media are those who I have already had a coffee or a pint with. For the ones I haven’t, I’d like to one day! Also, think creatively about how it can help you build relationships. In the past, if I went to an event I enjoyed I could send an email (or, considering that I am getting older, perhaps pen a letter delivered on horseback) and unless that organisation asked me if they could use a quote from me for publicity purposes, they would get no public benefit. Now, if I go to an event I can tweet my thanks so that all my followers can see it and the organisation in question can retweet it to their own followers- all in seconds.

5- Find allies – The key here is ‘social’ media. Unless you think about how you work with actual people you won’t get the results you want. Do you want people to share your posts? Think about sharing theirs once in a while. Is there someone asking a question that you can help with? Take 30 seconds to try. Over time you will see who posts similar things to you and who likes what you post. Remember, however much you think that your cause is the fundamental thing that the world should care about, others see their own causes as more of a priority. If you can find some common ground between you, you are more likely to have success. Another thing worth thinking about is what really matters to you- just simply promoting your organisation or championing the causes of others who help to make the world a better place. I get the greatest satisfaction for example in promoting others, as I am in this piece, who I think that people who follow me would also enjoy learning from, or whose efforts I think should be better known.

I hope these and the other resources that I have shared are useful, and I really encourage you to follow the people that I’ve listed to learn more. Look forward to hearing some of your own tips if you would like to share them.


  1. […] bit written about how charities can use digital to ‘punch above their weight’, such as this excellent post by Alex Swallow. But exactly who is doing it well at the […]

  2. Agree with most of what you say about the benefits and low cost marketing opportunities. The only downside is that it can become very time consuming if you are not careful!

  3. Thanks Karen- that’s true but it is something that volunteers can very easily provide support for, so that can help.

  4. […] Charities Coalition CEO Alex Swallow has shared 5 tips to help small charities get big benefits from social […]

  5. […] media is something that CEOs of charities of all sizes should be involved with, whether big or small.  It should not be an optional extra, it should be part and parcel of your organisation. Engaging […]

  6. Re your reply to Karen mentioning using volunteers for your social media presence – I would strongly caution against that, in general, unless the volunteer is fully versed in your org’s approach to issues, your policies, and your thoughts in any given area (former staff member, for instance). Same is true of using interns. Your social media presence is too important, and too easily damaged, to leave it to someone who cares about your organization, but isn’t fully in tune with the public face you want to put on things.

  7. Thanks- I’d politely disagree. If there is someone in your organisation who has a passion and interest and the skills to take on your social media output, that’s wonderful and I think that’s a much better idea. However:

    – the vast majority of charitable organisations either have a sole member of staff or no staff at all. In this case unless a volunteer starts a social media presence for the charity (or, unless the charity pays someone to do it- and of course many small charities don’t have lots of money), the charity won’t have a social media presence at all.

    – secondly, even if a paid member of staff has experience in certain areas of social media, a volunteer may be able to give them a start on areas they are less familiar with or don’t have the time to focus on initially. For example in my previous job I knew about Twitter and Facebook (I was the only comms person for the charity and it was less than a third of my role) but I didn’t know about blogging at the time so I brought in a volunteer who helped greatly with that. The volunteer set up the blog and filled it with the things that we wanted, under direction. In time as we got to know them more and they knew the organisation more, we gave them more power over content, approach etc.

    – thirdly, and related to the point above, using volunteers to help with social media doesn’t mean simply handing over social media to a volunteer- which I would agree might be dangerous. It could be something as simple as a volunteer helping to find interesting articles related to your work for you to post on social media, or a volunteer taking photos at events for a portfolio to use on social media, or many other things which would be helpful.

  8. […] I’m very pleased to see a mention for Stepney City Farm – I’ve explained how I think they are great in a previous post. It’s really good to celebrate the work of small charities in general and on social media in particular. It is a very cheap and easy way for them to start getting their voices heard. […]

  9. […] How small charities can get big benefits from social media (Alex Swallow) […]

  10. […] have already written about how I think that small charities can get a lot out of social media. I was very pleased that many of the ‘top’ Execs are from smaller charities and hope […]

  11. thank for this blog. it thought me that charity means not to help them by money only .we can also help needy by social media also by make aware of people about them.

  12. […] might also like my more general post about small charities and social […]

  13. […] are some LinkedIn tips for people who are involved with charities. Also, here are some more general ideas about how charities, even the smallest ones, can use social media to their advantage. Here is a […]

  14. […] Read more […]

  15. […]           as retrieved from… […]

  16. […] I left the conference feeling so inspired. It wasn’t just that the speakers were so good- and they were amazing- but that my fellow participants were clearly really passionate about these topics too. As I am at a small charity, I don’t often have the chance to specialize in any one area as I am juggling so many things at once. But anyone who knows me will know how passionate I am about digital communication and how I think it is something that all charitable organisations should think about, even the absolute tini…. […]

  17. […] 1- Small Charities and Social Media […]

  18. […] you haven’t yet read it, my blog post ‘How Small Charities Can Get Big Benefits From Social Media- 5 tips from me‘ is my most viewed post ever. I hope you find it useful and wish you a fantastic […]

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