Category Archives: Community Relations/Outreach

Frank description of what it’s like to work in communications in the UN

UNLogoI love working for the United Nations – except when I don’t.

The United Nations can do amazing work, and I’ve been honored to be a part of it on occasion, in Ukraine, in Afghanistan, and in various locations with UNDP/UNV. It can also stumble badly, and it can be painful to be a part of.

The reason for missteps by the UN, or perceptions of missteps, can be attributed to various things:

  • pressure from donor countries and host countries regarding messaging and action that’s out-of-step with reality,
  • profound misunderstandings by donor countries, host countries and the press regarding the challenges and needs related to humanitarian aid and development, such that they see what the UN is doing and find it lacking,
  • a fear by UN staff that reporting honestly about what’s not working will be seen as institutional failure or will cause donors to withdraw funds, host countries to withdraw support and the media and grass roots groups to attack,
  • a UN culture that recoils from any controversy and confrontation,
  • some people who end up in positions of power and are either unqualified for the position or deeply flawed in their motivations and intent for the position.

The excerpt below from a long article in PassBlue by Barbara Crossette from December 4, 2016 offers an excellent account of what happens when many of these challenges align – and they align all too often. The links are the article’s:

In 1999, Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general at the time, and his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, published media guidelines for UN officials that for the first time in the organization’s history introduced a formal policy of being “open and transparent in its dealings with the press.” The guidelines, initially devised for the peacekeeping department, gave all Secretariat staff members the right to speak to the media on subjects “within your area of competence and responsibility,” but to “provide facts, but not opinions or comment.” The guidelines are still in effect, according to the UN spokesman’s office, though they have languished and are disregarded repeatedly.

In no area has this unwillingness to listen to UN staff or allow them to do honest reporting been more harmful to the organization than in peacekeeping. Internal information on scandals of various sorts have been suppressed, ignored or shelved for unconscionable periods of time by higher-ranking people in a hierarchical system. Outsiders — in the media, nongovernmental organizations and sometimes courageous staff within the UN — make these scandals public, putting the organization immediately in a defensive position, as allegations fire up critics…

Every peacekeeping mission has a large public information unit dedicated to ensuring that the local population understands the mandate of the peacekeepers and to garnering international support for their operations. But lately, with shrinking newsroom budgets and the closing of international bureaus, news organizations don’t send as many reporters to cover far-flung conflicts that are only simmering, or cooling, when more dramatic stories compete…

In peacekeeping missions, communications officers are expected to sell trite “positive” stories to the media, while withholding comment on more complex or sensitive issues, from political negotiations to outbreaks of violence. Recent headlines — from attacks on civilians in South Sudan to sex abuse by peacekeepers in Central Africa and the cholera epidemic in Haiti — dominate in media, which give minimal coverage to other aspects of a mission, each one a complex operation taking more than tweets to explain fully.

Roberto Capocelli, a Fulbright scholar from Italy, worked as a human-rights public information officer with Monusco — the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the largest peacekeeping operation. The mission had been mired in bad news when a landmark human-rights trial took place in 2014, conducted by Congolese courts with assistance from Monusco and UN human-rights officials. A notorious war criminal, Bedi Mobuli Engangela, or “Colonel 106,” who had long terrorized communities in eastern Congo, was finally meeting justice.

Capocelli got to the trial ahead of the international media and with his deep knowledge of the issues, wrote up the story, stressing the UN’s contributions in logistics and protecting witnesses. He sent it for release to his superiors at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. It was published two months later, virtually unchanged but buried in an obscure part of the UN Human Rights website. A video he made on the event was never used.

“In the end, we are not journalists,” Capocelli said recently. “But everyone had been complaining about impunity and after a huge investment of time and resources, [the UN] managed to do something good, especially at the moment the UN was under criticism for child abuse, corruption and inaction. Everyone is aware of this dynamic, how much the bureaucratic process can stop you from acting. I had the impression my work was not really needed.”

Susan Manuel, a writer for PassBlue and an American journalist before joining the UN, worked in some of the most important and dangerous peacekeeping missions in the world, in addition to spending eight years in UN headquarters. During that time, she saw the relationship between UN missions and the media shrink from her first decade in Cambodia, South Africa, the Balkans and Afghanistan to her final posting in Darfur before retiring in 2012.

“In Cambodia, the UN peacekeeping mission, Untac [the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] was narrating the electoral process to a large international press corps,” she said in a written interview. “In the former Yugoslavia, I literally saw coverage of the UN improve after making an effort to get to know the local and regional journalists and provide them with concrete information. We told the story, even when the UN failed, even when the so-called UN-protected enclaves in Croatia and Bosnia were overrun. We public information officers were reporting these events in real time to media because these people were our responsibility.”

“In Kosovo we were narrating the growth of a new administration — with regular press briefings, interviews, guided visits for journalists,” she said. “We fed them constantly, and not with fluff, as these were discerning professionals, some of them veteran war correspondents.

“There were incidents of exploitation and abuse of the local population by peacekeepers in those earlier missions –particularly Cambodia and Somalia,” Manuel said. “But they didn’t threaten to bring down UN peacekeeping. Journalists knew these were complex and largely vital enterprises, which they covered on a daily basis. Scandals weren’t the only headlines.

“In Afghanistan, the UN mission was the most credible voice during a long saga of conflict, peace processes and human rights struggles, and the media depended a great deal on it.

“But when I arrived in Darfur [in 2011], the international media were gone, local media were ignored and the conflict was invisible, even — to a large extent — to the peacekeepers. We weren’t saying much about it.

“Senior UN mission officials disdained the sole opposition radio station, Dabanga,” she recalled. “Sometimes it was only when a blogger, Matthew [Russell] Lee, who is based in New York, read out reports from Dabanga on incidents in Darfur at the daily briefing by the secretary-general’s spokesman in New York that we could convince the mission leaders to respond. Or, I would figure out ways to release information surreptitiously by embedding it in otherwise anodyne messages or op-eds from the head of mission.”

When she retired from the UN, Manuel wrote in her end-of-assignment report on Darfur — where hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed as Sudan’s repressive government battled a regional rebellion from 2003 to 2009 — that UN policy makers needed to decide whether the peacekeeping information offices are there to promote only the “good news” of the mission or to “get and disseminate clear factual information about the situation on the ground related to our mandate,” which, Manuel added, “could enhance our credibility and lead to realistic responses.”

“Is it our role to report publicly on the conflict, as part of the mission’s security and protection of civilians’ mandate, or is it ‘none of your business,’ as one senior official told me after repeated requests to be included in information on fighting and human rights abuses?”

The entire article is very much worth your time to read. It’s focused primarily on how the Trump Presidency will affect the United Nations.

Also see:

United Nations personnel system needs radical overhaul

Legacy of Early Tech4Good Initiatives (including UN initiatives)

My experience in humanitarian aid and development initiatives

My consulting services regarding communications and community engagement

Want to work internationally? Get involved locally.

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI get asked a lot about how to work in international humanitarian aid and development. I explain, over and over again, the importance of getting practical experience that would be relevant to work in other countries, and emphasize that ways to get this experience are all around you. I also say repeatedly, “You can’t expect to get hired to do something overseas that you haven’t done right in your own community.” I’m often met with skepticism and comments like “I live in a small town” and “we don’t have any refugees where I live” and on and on.

I’m often met with skepticism and comments like “I live in a small town” and “we don’t have any refugees where I live” and “what I want to do is completely different than anything happening here” and on and on.

I live in a small town 30 miles from Portland, Oregon. The population of my town was 21,083 at the 2010 census. The town right next door had a population of 11,869 at the 2010 census. We are surrounded by farm fields, wetlands and woods. The three wealthiest communities in Oregon are all in unincorporated areas of the county where I live.

And with all that said: opportunities to test and to continue to grow my skills as a consultant regarding international aid and development abound. The opportunities are all around me. Most are within walking distance. A few require me to take a 15-minute bus ride, and one has required me to drive:

  • I attend community meetings organized by the area’s state legislative representatives and US congressional representatives, where citizens communicate their concerns regarding public education, immigration, sustainability, respect for the environment, safety for minorities, foreign interference in our country’s affairs, transportation, and on and on – most of the same things you will hear at any community meeting anywhere in the world.
  • I attend public meetings by the police and sheriff’s deputies serving the areas where I live and frequent, to see how they communicate and collaborate with those they are supposed to serve.
  • I attend city council meetings whenever possible. Topics that have been discussed have ranged from a new plan for city parks to declaring the city a sanctuary city, affirming that the city will not act as agents of the federal government regarding immigration law.
  • I volunteer with a local group that helps the Latino residents, particularly the Latina residents, of the county where I live. I help them regarding volunteer engagement policies, volunteer recruitment strategies and social media strategies.
  • I joined the citizens advisory committee for my community regarding public safety. Once a month, we meet, review citizen concerns regarding safety, hear presentations by the police chief and fire chief, and make recommendations to the city council. As a result, I met with the local police officer in charge of community outreach to discuss some concerns I have regarding the unease of many in our city regarding the current Presidential administration.

Community engagement activities and community development meetings are what I have often been involved with and advised on in other countries, in Afghanistan or Ukraine or wherever. It’s been easy to find similar activities to get involved with here in my own community. If I lived in downtown Portland – and urban area with far more nonprofits and government programs – the opportunities would be even greater.

If nothing else, no matter how you feel about the current political situation in the USA, what’s happening now is providing a plethora of opportunities for anyone that works in international development to hone or to build his or her skills.

Is there an organization in your area that assists refugees? Or a program that educates people regarding HIV/AIDS? Or an initiative that educates young people about sexual health and how to prevent pregnancies? Or a nonprofit farm cooperative? Or a domestic violence shelter? Or a program that helps people develop marketable job skills? Or a program that brings people with and without mental disabilities together for friendship-building activities? Or a non-partisan organization that promotes voter registration? What is your local police department, your local library, or any government agency doing to reach out to people that aren’t a part of the ethnic or religious majority in your community? Identify these organizations, programs and initiatives, and then start looking on their web sites and calling to find out if they involve volunteers, or have paid work that you could apply to do. Volunteer, or work, and get experience.

And go to public meetings by city, county and state officials, the police, the school board, or any other major public entity or significant public official. Watch how people interact with the speakers. Do people seem to trust the speakers? Is it a lecture or is there discussion? Do people understand the process they are witnessing? Is there hostility in the room and, if so, is it being addressed? Are answers clear and to the point or are they evasive? Are people attempting to dominate the conversation? Do you know if one-on-one meetings happened before the event regarding the topic at hand? How are representatives from the press covering the events you are attending? Learn from what you are seeing and hearing – it will all serve you well as you work in other countries.

Also see:

Is it really *impossible* to break into humanitarian work?

Isn’t my good heart & desire enough to help abroad?

Citizens academy – intensive community engagement – my own largely positive experience with the Washington County Sheriff Department’s citizens academy.

When “participatory” & “consultation” are just words

In defense of skills over passion

Misconceptions re: VSO, UNV & Peace Corps

Ideas for Leadership Volunteering Activities /

Ideas for Creating Your Own Large-Scale Volunteering Activity

Promises & Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering

Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer – one of the most popular blogs I’ve ever written

My CV and résumé consulting services for those wanting to work in international development

14 (was 13) things you do to annoy me on social media

handstopMore than a dozen things that annoy me regarding the use of social media by too many nonprofits, government initiatives and other mission-based programs:

1) You don’t post at least one item a week to your Facebook page.

2) You have created a gateway where everything you post to Facebook goes out on your Twitter feed. Never mind that every message ends up being truncated on Twitter, so that Twitter users see things like this: Join our staff, donors, participants, volunteers & allies as we march on Saturday to support the vital issue in our community regarding… with a link for more information. Most people will NOT click on that link to find out what in the heck you are talking about!

3) You don’t list every public event by your organization on the events function on Facebook, so that people can mark “interested” or “attending” and, therefore, receive automatic reminders of the event as the date approaches, or get an idea of who else is interested or who is attending. It also makes it easier for others to share those event details with others via Facebook.

4) You don’t have your organization’s full name in your Twitter profile. That means, if anyone wants to tag your organization in a tweet or wants to follow you, it will be difficult to find you, and they may even use the wrong Twitter handle, driving traffic to someone else instead of you.

5) You post only “one way” messages to Twitter and Facebook, rather than posts that encourage engagement, like questions, or posts that say “Tell us what you think about…”

6) On Twitter, you don’t participate in Tweetchats, you don’t respond to other organization’s tweets, you don’t retweet other organization’s messages – you don’t ENGAGE.

7) On Facebook, you don’t “like” or comment on the status updates of other organizations. You want them to do that for you, but you don’t do the same for them.

8) On Facebook, you don’t reply to or even “like” comments made on your status update. That means no one ever knows if you care that they’ve provided feedback on your activities.

9) You don’t thank people that share your Tweets or Facebook status updates.

10) On Twitter, you don’t spend any time reading tweets by others – you just tweet your own messages. That’s like going to a conference, shoving your brochure into people’s hands and walking away, never listening to them, never meeting anyone, never attending workshops.

11) You post far more messages encouraging donations than you post about accomplishments by your organization, things your volunteers have been up to,

12) You work with teens but don’t use Instagram.

13) You don’t experiment with GooglePlus or YouTube or Snap Chat, because you couldn’t figure out the value a year or two ago.

14) You have something awesome in your email newsletter and I want to share just that item via Facebook, but it’s not on your Facebook feed nor your Web site (except as maybe in a PDF version of your newsletter, which no one reads online) Feb. 22, 2017 addition

If you changed your ways regarding social media:

  • your donors and volunteers would feel more strongly about supporting you,
  • your donors would be more motivated to continue giving and volunteers would feel more motivated to complete assignments and take on more,
  • the media would be more inclined to contact you regarding a story or for your comment on current events,
  • you are more likely to attract new donors and volunteers,
  • your staff would become even better versed in talking about their work,
  • other organizations would be more inclined to refer others to you, to collaborate with you and to rely on you

Also see:

For an effort to be sustainable, volunteers & activists need a break

Many national and state legislators in the USA are reporting record attendance at their public meetings, and their phone lines are constantly busy and voice mail accounts are constantly full, as constituents call in record numbers. The largest series of protest marches that have ever occurred in the USA in one day happened on January 21, 2017, the Women’s March, and there has been a range of protests, big and small, ever since. People are holding legislative and editorial letter-writing parties at their house, for attendees to pressure legislators and the media regarding various issues. VolunteerMatch is reporting a record number of people visiting its web site and signing up to volunteer – according to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (it’s behind a paywall – can be seen by subscribers only), VolunteerMatch set a single-day record with more than 72,355 unique visitors on January 24, four days after the new president was inaugurated. VolunteerMatch’s second busiest day was November 10, two days after the election, with 69,318 visitors. January 25 and November 15 ranked third and fourth in web traffic.

The amount of civic participation in the USA right now is staggering. But it’s also unsustainable. People will need a break. They will also need to be re-inspired at some point. Those are critical points that those supporting and managing these activists and volunteers need to keep in mind.

I’ve been more politically active since November than I’ve been in more than 20 years, and I’m exhausted. So, a week ago, I wrote on Facebook “Sometimes, you have to cash in some privilege and go to the beach….”  and posted photos of me, my husband and our dog at a beach. One of my Facebook friends got upset, affirming that just because you can go to the beach, you aren’t privileged, that lots of people of various ethnicities go to the beach, etc.

In my computer’s dictionary, the word privilege is defined as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. And, therefore, being able to go to the beach amid green cards getting canceled, families and children living in terror for fear of some members being deported, millions of people realizing they won’t have health insurance after 2017, women’s health care choices being restricted, people’s water supplies threatened by pipelines and dangerous amounts of lead and an upswing in racially-charged language, is, indeed, a privilege.

wizardMy colleague and friend, Erin Barnhart, was one of the people organizing the Oregon members of the January 21 March for Women in Washington, DC.  I’ve no doubt her fellow organizers were so thankful for her extensive volunteer management knowledge and highly sensitive nature, especially her incredible sensitivity to difference. I also know that she’s exhausted and needs a break! She wrote the following on her Facebook page and, with her permission, I’m sharing it here:

There’s a concept in volunteer management that I and others like to call “stepping forward, stepping back.” Here’s how it works: volunteers collaborate as a team and, as life obligations interfere or energy is depleted, people are able to step back from the work for a time while others step forward to carry the load. When they return to the team, they then make it easier for others to temporarily step back from the circle. It’s a great way to keep projects going while also making appropriate space for people’s needs. This model is on my mind today.

Specifically, I’m aware of my privilege as I post photos of a sunny vacation while, around the country, people are still protesting, filing legal briefs, fighting for their and other’s civil rights with everything they’ve got. While I enjoyed a walk by the beach, camps were being cleared at Standing Rock. The fight continues and the work hasn’t stopped. Indeed, in many ways, it’s only just begun.

My goal this week is to enjoy time with my mom and to engage in some much needed self care. There’s a long battle ahead and I intend to be in it. That said, as I step back knowing that others have stepped forward, I will also do my best to stay aware and engaged, bearing witness and signal boosting where and when I can.

The takeaway from this self-aware post is, I hope, this: Step back as needed, folks. Take care of yourselves if and how you can. You are needed and valued and we will step forward to cover you. Thank you to everyone doing the hard work this week so that I can step back myself.

Remember that your volunteers and activists need to step back and take care of themselves sometimes. They may need a break. And you, the lead volunteer or lead manager of volunteers, may need to tell them that, explicitly. And you may need a break yourself! Don’t feel guilty; refresh, reboot, recharge.

You also need to help re-inspire your volunteers and activists. Don’t just focus in your messages to them on things they need to be doing to support a cause – give them reasons to celebrate sometimes. You might need volunteers who are focused specifically on identifying the impact of activists’ efforts.

See you out there – or at the beach.

Also see:

Facebook use to organize Women’s Marches: lessons learned

Being emotionally ready to volunteer – or to continue volunteering

Sympathy for one group – but not the other?

I had a conversation this week and, in trying to make a point to the person with whom I was speaking, these two narratives popped into my head, almost fully formed before I even wrote them down:

muslim and police woman

I am a Muslim. I love being a Muslim. So much of my identity is based in being a part of Islam. I love the camaraderie and fellowship of other Muslims. I make no apologies for that.

I understand that many people are afraid of me. That makes me sad, and, at times, very defensive, even angry.

It is completely unfair that people assume all Muslims are bad because of the violent acts of a small minority of Muslims in the USA. The vast majority of Muslims are good people who care deeply about their communities, they want to contribute positively to such, and they want all people to live in peace. Yes, there are Muslims that do not respect human rights and that have done horrible, violent, reprehensible things in the USA, like:

But I should not have to publicly condemn such acts of violence over and over and over. The assumption shouldn’t be made that I support these events just because I’m a Muslim.

We’ve seen social media posts and videos of Muslims, some of them considered leaders by other Muslims, celebrating or trying to justify these violent acts. But I shouldn’t have to apologize because an Iman with thousands of followers excuses or even promotes these violations of human rights. I want to be judged by my character and actions, not those of others.

I’m proud of my hijab, and when you see me in it, please don’t automatically assume that I am a bad person and that I am your enemy. Please talk to me. Get to know me. I welcome the conversations.

I am a police officer. I love being a police officer. So much of my identity is based in being a police officer. I love the camaraderie and fellowship of other officers. I make no apologies for that.

I understand that many people are afraid of me. That makes me sad, and, at times, very defensive, even angry.

It is completely unfair that people assume all police officers are bad because of the violent acts of a small minority of police officers in the USA. The vast majority of police officers are good people who care deeply about their communities, they want to contribute positively to such, and they want all people to live in peace. Yes, there are police officers that do not respect human rights and that have done horrible, violent, reprehensible things in the USA, like:

But I should not have to publicly condemn such acts of violence over and over and over. The assumption shouldn’t be made that I support these events just because I’m a police officer.

We’ve seen social media posts and videos of police officers, some of them considered leaders by other police, celebrating or trying to justify these violent acts. But I shouldn’t have to apologize because a police union with thousands of members excuses or even promotes these violations of human rights. I want to be judged by my character and actions, not those of others.

I’m proud of my uniform, and when you see me in it, please don’t automatically assume that I am a bad person and that I am your enemy. Please talk to me. Get to know me. I welcome the conversations.

These two groups are so similarly demonized, but I never realized it until the morning of the day I originally drafted this. Both of these groups can say the same thing, almost word-for-word, about how they are negatively perceived by many people.

There are going to be people who are going to read one column and totally agree – and read the other column and be outraged. There are those that believe all Muslims are potential terrorists because of the acts of a minority, but would never believe all police are potentially racist because of the acts of a minority of members. And vice versa.

If you read this and felt sympathy for one group, but not for the other, I hope you will think long and hard about why that is.

Comments are welcomed, unless such use what I consider misinformation or hate-based language.

Also see:

Facebook use to organize Women’s Marches: lessons learned

womensmarchThe women’s marches on Saturday, January 21, 2017, may have been the largest single day of marches in US history. Somewhere between 3.3 million and 4.6 million marched in cities across the USA, according to political scientists from the Universities of Connecticut and Denver, who are compiling a mammoth spreadsheet listing turnouts, from the roughly half a million that demonstrated in Washington to the single protester who picketed Show Low, Arizona. There were also marches around the world.

Facebook was an essential tool in organizing women’s marches all over the USA. Most everyone I know personally who was a part of a march got their information from a Facebook group set up specifically for their city’s demonstration.

I joined two of the online groups, for Portland, Oregon and for Washington, DC, and it was fascinating to watch how the groups were used. Some things I learned observing the online organizing:

  1. March organizers realized that they needed a web site or public google doc associated with the group, because group discussions quickly became unwieldy – there needed to a place to find all of the essential information, without having to scroll through what seemed an endless stream of Facebook group messages. It also mean that people that were not on Facebook could access the basic information.
  2. Constant facilitation and moderation were essential. FAQs are great and absolutely necessary, but there will always be people that don’t read them and ask the same questions over and over. Also, a quick, even immediate, response to rumors and misinformation was essential, and it took more than just one post to counter such.
  3. Rumors and misinformation were posted *regularly*. There were people posting that march permits were denied, that the marches were canceled, that the starting point had changed, that bus parking was being denied, that mass transit was going to be canceled that day, and on and on. Not sure if it was people just thinking/wondering out loud (many posts began with “I heard from someone that…”), if it was individuals trying deliberately to disrupt, or if it was people part of an organized effort to disrupt.
  4. Constant updates, often several times a day, were essential, particularly in showing response to criticism and questions.
  5. Facebook created a written record of the behavior of organizers. If they made a misstep, it was there for all to see. If they did things right, it was there for all to see. It was forced transparency for organizers.
  6. Deletion of critical comments was often NOT a good strategy. In November, Portland, Oregon March group moderators began deleting comments, even entire threads of conversation, that they deemed as critical of the march, such as those by people that felt the march was too focused on the experiences of white women, and did not address the unique challenges and perspectives of other women. Many people didn’t just want inclusiveness; they wanted specific statements regarding the particular challenges of black women, Latino women, Asian women, and transgendered people. Deleting those criticisms made people angrier. At one point, major allies such as Planned Parenthood and the NAACP Portland chapter decided they wouldn’t participate. Constance Van Flandern, an artist and activist in Eugene who was the Oregon’s official liaison to the national Women’s March on Washington, said in this article, “These women were overwhelmed by people coming to their Facebook page and asking about issues of diversity. It was just delete, delete, delete.” So Van Flandern started a new Facebook group for the march and invited nine women who had been complaining to her about the lack of inclusion on the other page to join. The page quickly replaced what had been the official page, and the march was saved – in fact, at 100,000, it was the largest march in Portland’s history.
  7. These marches weren’t at the initiative of paid staff at large organizations; they were started at the grassroots level, and powered by independent, spontaneous volunteers, who took on high responsibility roles and recruited and managed other volunteers, mostly through Facebook. And by all accounts, they managed brilliantly – not perfectly, but show me an event managed perfectly by paid staff! I also think their organization and popularity caught a lot of traditional women-focused organizations off guard, and they had to play catch-up. Often, grassroots folks are far ahead of traditional groups in taking a stand – and I think this is going to happen more because Facebook makes it so easy for any group to start getting its message out.
  8. Facebook played a significant role in getting the word out about these marches. But the reason these marches were so well attended, far exceeding predictions in terms of crowd size all over the USA, including DC and Portland, wasn’t just because people knew about the marches. I hope people don’t start thinking all they need is a Facebook group to get lots of people to attend a march.

What lessons did you learn in watching Facebook be used as the primary organizing tool for the women’s marches? Share in the comments below.

January 30, 2017 update: New York Times article, The Alt-Majority: How Social Networks Empowered Mass Protests Against Trump.

vvbooklittle The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, by Susan J. Ellis and myself, is our attempt to document the best practices over the more than three decades virtual volunteering has been happening, in a comprehensive, detailed way, so that the collective knowledge can be used with the latest digital engagement initiatives to help people volunteer, advocate for causes they care about, connect with communities and make a difference. It’s a tool primarily for organizations, but there’s also information for online volunteers themselves. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. Bonus points if you can find the sci fi/fan girl references in the book…

Also see:

The dark side of the Internet for mission-based organizations

handstopOnline criticism – criticism of you, or your organization, is unavoidable. Even if your organization or program foolishly decides not to use any social media at all, in a futile effort to avoid criticism, others WILL talk about your organization online, some to criticize it, and perhaps even to spread misinformation. Your organization, no matter how small, needs to know how to address online criticism.

NTEN has a good blog on addressing online criticism and trolls: Navigating Naysayers: Managing Difficult Social Media Interactions, by Charrosé King, Senior Social Media Specialist, American Psychiatric Association. “Social media can feel like an incredibly dark place, but don’t let hate silence you or your organization’s messages that other people need to hear.”

My own resource: How to Handle Online Criticism / Conflict. How a nonprofit organization, government office or community initiative handles online criticism and conflict speaks volumes about that organization or initiative, for weeks, months, and maybe even years to come. It can even cause discord offline, among volunteers and employees. There is no way to avoid criticism, but there are ways to address criticism that can actually help an organization to be perceived as even more trustworthy and worth supporting. An organization MUST be able to honestly and openly deal with online criticism, particularly from supporters and participants. Otherwise, the organization puts itself in a position to lose the trust of supporters and clients, and even generate negative publicity — and, once lost, trust and credibility can be extremely difficult to win back.

And it brings to mind a thread I started on TechSoup called It’s not always Tech For Good. The first story is about how a VSO Volunteer from Britain working in Kenya persuaded two leaders from the Maasai tribe, a seminomadic people living in Western Kenya, to do an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. To persuade the village chiefs to do the interview, the volunteer said that people across the world wanted to know more about the Maasai community and may even be willing to offer help. Sadly, the online event got hijacked by porn pushers. The next post, also by me, is about how location services on a smartphone can be grossly misused by others, such as an anti-abortion campaigner that uses such to push services to reach women who check-in at fundraisers for pro-choice events. the thread is still open and additional stories are welcomed.

And on a somewhat related note: Yes, Nonprofits Get Scammed, Too: Security Tips to Avoid Phishing, Pretexting, and Baiting is worth your time to read and share with your staff. “While the technology we depend on has changed over the years, people’s social behavior hasn’t. This leaves us at risk of having our goodwill exploited. In security circles we call this scheming activity social engineering. It’s an attempt to acquire sensitive information for malicious reasons through deception… Awareness and vigilance will go a long way towards protecting yourself.”

Also see:

Measuring social media success? You’re probably doing it wrong.

logoA nonprofit buys billboard space on a major highway. Thousands of people drive by the billboard every day. After a week, the marketing director declares the billboard a huge success because of the number of people that are driving by the billboard. However, there is no significant gain in donations, volunteers or clients by the organization.

Does this sound like a ridiculous way to measure the success of a marketing activity? It is. Yet, that’s how I regularly hear people measure the success of social media use by a nonprofit, government agency or other mission-based initiative.

If your nonprofit is an animal shelter, or a farmer’s cooperative, or a community theater, or a health clinic, or any other nonprofit that serves a geographically-specific clientele, having thousands of Twitter followers is not an indication that you are having social media success. So what? That’s the same as the billboard out on the highway. It’s just a number, and if it’s not translating into something tangible, it’s a waste of money and effort.

For online activities to translate into something tangible, online action must create and support offline action or behavior. What could this look like?

  • An increase in the number of volunteers providing service to your organization
  • An increase in the number of volunteers who stay with your organization over a longer term
  • A greater diversity of volunteers providing service, with greater representation from under-represented groups
  • Greater numbers of donors
  • More repeat donors
  • New donors
  • Greater attendance to conferences, workshops, etc.
  • Greater attendance to events with an entrance fee, which creates greater revenues
  • Greater numbers of downloads or purchases of a publication or other product
  • Greater numbers of clients or people served
  • More repeat clients
  • A greater diversity of clients receiving services from your organization
  • Larger numbers of people writing government officials, corporate representatives or the media regarding the cause your organization promotes
  • Larger numbers of people filling out surveys that you will use in creating proposals, reports and publications regarding your organization’s work
  • More feedback from volunteers, donors, clients and the general public regarding your work
  • Volunteers and clients reporting a perception of greater support from your organization
  • Volunteers and clients reporting a new / changed perception that relates to your mission (for instance, those you engage with online reporting that they are no longer prejudiced against a particular group or community) or a change in behavior or practice that relates to your organization’s mission (for instance, if you were an organization that promotes recycling, and those you engage with online telling you they are recycling more)
  • Volunteers, clients, staff, the general public and/or the press reporting a perception of greater support from your organization, an improved perception of the organization’s impact, an increased awareness about the cause an organization promotes, etc.

A few hundred Twitter or Instagram followers may not sound impressive, but if most of those followers are in your geographic area, if there are lots of public officials and other nonprofit representatives and local people served by your organization among those followers, you’re doing well. If you are a nonprofit serving teens, and most of those followers are teens, you are doing VERY well. It’s not about the how many, it’s about the who.

How can you measure social media success ? I talk about that on my web page Evaluating Online Activities: Online Action Should Create & Support Offline Action & Results. For most nonprofits, measuring is not a matter of a software choice; it’s going to take a more person-to-person approach, involving surveys and interviews. In other words, engagement.

Quit celebrating how many people have “liked” your organization’s Facebook page. Are discussions happening on that Facebook page? Are people asking questions? Are individual status updates being liked and shared? Celebrate engagement.

Also see:

A plea to USA nonprofits for the next four years (& beyond):

speak upAttention nonprofits: stop believing that you automatically have some kind of magical, wonderful reputation because you “do good.”

Your organization’s future over the next four years depends on your organization rapidly becoming a much, much better advocate for its work as well as the work of the entire mission-based sector.

Over the next four years (and beyond):

Please dramatically improve how you communicate why your organization is necessary. Define it well, and say it repeatedly, in a variety of ways – in press releases, on your web site, in every speech you make, on your Facebook page, etc. Ask the spouses and partners of people that work and volunteer for your organization, people who have NOT volunteered or worked there themselves, to come in for coffee and donuts and a short discussion – and ask them why your organization exists, why it is necessary. Be prepared for them to have no specifics, just a possible, general idea. Use their feedback to create a plan to improve your communications, internally and externally, and to make sure it is clear to anyone and everyone why your organization is necessary. Make it a priority for the next four years to constantly and dramatically improve communication about what your organization does and WHY it exists.

Please dramatically improve how you communicate as to why there is poverty, or domestic violence, or homelessness, or unemployment, or a need for live theater, or whatever it is your nonprofit is concerned with addressing. Please don’t just ask for help for an issue without explicitly saying why the issue exists. And please say so more than once. This is another good opportunity for a focus group to find out just how much you need to improve regarding your messaging. This should also be a top priority.

If your organization does not address a critical humanitarian issue, then you must be even more explicit about why your mission is important. You cannot assume people know why a theater organization, a dance organization, a community choir, an art museum, a history museum, a chalk art festival, a historical society, a cultural festival, etc. is important to a community. Have hard numbers ready, in terms of economic impact, on what your organization contributes to your city or county. Have data on the impact of performing arts on health, school grades, crime, and any other quality of life issue and think of ways to get that data out there, repeatedly, via your web site, social media, press interviews, and on and on.

Make sure your volunteers know why your organization is necessary, even volunteers doing just one-time gigs or micro volunteering, and including your board of directors. Every volunteer, even those coming in for just a few hours as part of a group effort, must be given at least a short introduction to why your organization exists. All volunteers, past and present, microtasking volunteers and long-term volunteers, should be invited to public events. You must turn volunteers into advocates for your organization and nonprofits in general to their friends, family and colleagues.

Please correct volunteers and donors, even very large donors, who misspeak about your mission, or why the issue exists that you are trying to address. For instance, if your nonprofit helps the homeless, and a donor says that people are homeless because they are lazy and do not want to work, correct him and her. Make a list of myths about the issue you address, and the counters to those myths, and go over those myths with all staff, all board members, all leadership volunteers, and all long-term volunteers, at the very least.

If your budget is going to be cut because of actions by the President and Congress, you owe it to your community and to all you serve to say so. And you owe it to those same people to say how these cuts are going to affect your programs and, in turn, the community and those you serve. If cuts are going to hurt your clients, say so. This isn’t being political – this is being factual.

Stop talking about volunteer value primarily in terms of their hourly monetary value. When you do that, you justify a government saying, “Cut your paid staff and just get volunteers to do that work.” Governments HAVE done this, and it’s very likely the incoming USA federal government will do it too, and that this thinking will trickle down to state governments as well. When you talk about volunteer value primarily in terms of an hourly monetary value, you are saying that their PRIMARY value is that they work for free.

Use your web site to be absolutely transparent about who runs your organization, what it does, how much money is in its budget, where the money comes from and how it spends the money it gets. AND KEEP IT UPDATED. And be proud of it – no apologies for paying competitive salaries, for having offices that have adequate parking and lighting, for having clean offices, etc.

Make sure politicians know and appreciate your organization. Have a representative from your organization at every local public meeting by your state’s US Congressional Representatives and US Senators, and send those officials press releases about your organization’s accomplishments and impact. Invite representatives from their offices to every public event you have. Here is more advice on how to get a Congressperson to listen to you, which notes that posts to social media are largely ineffective because they are so easy to ignore, that paper letters are more effective than email, and that phone calls RULE. You need to do similar outreach with your state legislative representatives and senators – in fact, they should be much easier to meet with, in-person. Go in front of your local city council at least once a year to speak during the public comment: announce a new program, remind the council of something you are doing, tell them what a budget cut is going to do in terms of how it will affect your clients, etc. You have about two minutes: use it.

Make sure the nearest weekly and daily newspapers, and the nearest CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox affiliate TV stations know why your organization exists, what it accomplishes, and the underlying issues it addresses. And when they get a story wrong about the causes of homelessness, addiction, unemployment, domestic violence, poverty, etc., CALL THEM and SAY SO. Volunteers can help you monitor the media and look for opportunities for correction.

During the 2016 election, a worldwide audience, not just the USA, heard repeated disparaging remarks by the two main Presidential candidates about each other’s philanthropic bodies. Regardless of the truth or not of their attacks, many people have been left with the impression that all philanthropy – all nonprofits, all charities, all NGOs – is corrupt and conducted primarily with the goal of achieving more power and a good public image, rather than a genuine desire to improve people’s lives, improve communities or help the environment. Every nonprofit has to keep that in mind as it looks at the financial information on its web site and annual report, as well as in addressing the aforementioned communication issues.

Henry Berman said, in an article for an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “We must tell our stories and the stories of those who benefit from our philanthropy, lest we allow the unchecked rhetoric of the campaign trail to define who we are, what we accomplish, and how we operate.” I couldn’t agree more.

You will not have your nonprofit status revoked for doing any of the above. Do not let anyone threaten such a thing. The aforementioned is all mission-based work. You aren’t endorsing a politician or a political party, and you are not directing people on how to vote, things that are strictly forbidden for 501 (c) (3) nonprofits.

Also see

“Every nonprofit organization and nonprofit cause or mission that relies on federal regulation, executive orders, or other non-legislative approaches to implementation is at risk of profound change or elimination when Donald Trump takes office in January.” An excellent warning from the Nonprofit Quarterly.

It’s Day One of the Trump Era: Let’s Defend Philanthropy

How Will Trump Presidency Affect Humanitarian Aid & Development?

My consulting services (I can help you with your communications strategies!)

January 6, 2017 update: Forbes has this excellent article on how corporations should have a crisis communications response in case Trump attacks them. It is a step-by-step guide on what that planning should look like. Have a look and think about how your nonprofit or government agency should create a similar guide for your mission-based initiative. If your mission has a focus on LBGTQ people, on helping immigrants, or helping women access abortion services, or is affiliated in any way with the Clinton Foundation, or has any Islamic affiliation, or works to help refugees, or has any other focus “relevant to the president elect’s hobbyhorses,” your organization REALLY needs to read this Forbes article.

February 27, 2017 update: With aid under attack, we need stories of development progress more than ever – from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

Folklore, Rumors & Misinformation Campaigns Interfering with Humanitarian Efforts & Government Initiatives

gossipUPDATED:

Preventing Folklore, Rumors, Urban Myths & Organized Misinformation Campaigns From Interfering with Development & Aid/Relief Efforts & Government Initiatives

Folklore, rumors and contemporary myths / legends often interfere with development aid activities and government initiatives, including public health programs – even bringing such to a grinding halt. They create ongoing misunderstandings and mistrust, prevent people from seeking help, encourage people to engage in unhealthy and even dangerous practices, and have even lead to mobs of people attacking someone or others because of something they heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. With social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as simple text messaging among cell phones, spreading misinformation is easier than ever.

Added to the mix: fake news sites set up specifically to mislead people, as well as crowdsourced efforts by professional online provocateurs and automated troll bots pumping out thousands of comments, countering misinformation efforts has to be a priority for aid and development organizations, as well as government agencies.

Since 2004, I have been gathering and sharing both examples of this phenomena, and recommendations on preventing folklore, rumors and urban myths from interfering with development and aid/relief efforts and government initiatives. I’ve recently updated this information with new information regarding countering organized misinformation campaigns.

Anyone working in development or relief efforts, or working in government organizations, needs to be aware of the power of rumor and myth-sharing, and be prepared to prevent and to counter such. This page is an effort to help those workers:

  • cultivate trust in the community through communications, thereby creating an environment less susceptible to rumor-baiting
  • quickly identify rumors and misinformation campaigns that have the potential to derail humanitarian aid and development efforts
  • quickly respond to rumors and misinformation campaigns that could derail or are interfering with humanitarian aid and development efforts

And, FYI: I do this entirely on my own, as a volunteer, with no funding from anyone. I update the information as my free time allows.

Also see: