Anti-social media?
Why NGOs should treat their supporters more like people

What’s the point of social media? Liam Barrington-Bush of more like people recently characterised the way third sector organisations answer this question with three crude (his word, not mine) categories.

In his own words, organisations see social media as:

1. The new fax machine. It’s a tool that gets given to a low-ranking member of staff to handle, with little-to-no autonomy or recognition of its significance. ‘One tweet per week’ kinda thing. Where lots of organisations were a few years ago, and at least a few still are… The point tends to be to keep up with the Joneses, ‘cause others are doing it. Nothing more.

2. The social engineering project. Highly specialised digital teams that add up lots of metrics and then conflate them with campaign success or failure. This tends to involve lots of assumptions about the people who support us, boxing them into demographic groups and feeding them lowest-common-denominator (clicktivist) actions based on those assumptions. The point to this approach tends to be bigger numbers, and that more = better. This is obviously true in many situations, but can be a misleading metric of success in many others, if it is a kind of involvement that minimises what people feel they are able to offer to a cause, to give people something that is likely to boost total figures.

3. The more like people organisation. Everyone who wants to tweets, blogs, shares, etc. The tone is less managed, the line between staff, members, beneficiaries, supporters, etc is blurred as freer conversations emerge within and around the organisation. There is an honesty and openness rarely found in many more traditional organisations. These conversations lead to freer collaborations and faster responsiveness, as important information tends to travel where it needs to more effectively through networks than hierarchies. The point becomes about nurturing stronger relationships, which lead to more resilient networks. This stuff is far harder to measure, but comes from a deep belief that if we aren’t building stronger networks amongst those who care about our work, we are making ourselves very vulnerable to a range of outside shocks that might make top-down campaigning models more difficult or impossible (laws, tech changes, natural disasters, etc). It also recognises that there is vast untapped potential within and around organisations, that our structures prevent us from realising, and which social media has the potential to open-up, through freer connections between people, ideas, and those needed to make them happen.

This last one is much closer to how social movements tend to organise, and I’d argue that it offers the most potential significance and impact for organisations, because it can start to model new ways of organising that move beyond the Industrial-era hierarchies most of our organisations have ended up adopting over the course of several decades, which have come at massive cost to the people and causes we champion.

What can this tell us about the values likely to be engaged in staff and supporters by these different approaches, and what are the implications? Read more

Common Threads, March 2014

  • Economics and greed – a round-up of research illustrating how the study of economics can push people towards selfishness and distrust of others.
  • The Big Picture at Friends of the Earth – A campaign that takes over large screens at Waterloo station and invites people to submit images of ‘What makes the world special to them’. Nice!
  • ‘Cash for the Cure’ – a critical look at Kohl’s breast-cancer campaign: encouraging consumption, fear and all things pink.
  • How can advocacy NGOs become more innovative? It may be a tired buzzword, but this Oxfam blog has some pretty good advice. We particularly like the suggestions for shifting staff culture, e.g. ‘give people a day a month to visit ‘the outside world’ with no greater agenda than to look and learn.’
  • On rising inequality – it’s deep-seated psychological impacts, and why it damages the social fabric of our societies. From the authors of the Spirit Level.

The special theory of relationships – or why you accidently called your teacher ‘mum’

The desire to understand and classify different types of human relationships isn’t new; we’ve been pondering it for thousands of years. What rules govern our interactions? And how do relationships shape us into the people we become?

The answers aren’t immediately straight forward, because the way we interact with each other is influenced by many things: how well we know and trust people, who’s got more power, the agreed understanding of reciprocation or exchange, and whether we converge around a common interest or selfish need. These things can be very fluid, too. Think about how you’d interact with a friend, a colleague, your grandmother, in a range of different situations. While you might see these people as being in different ‘categories’ of relationship, you probably have a rich variety of ways you interact with every one of them. Moment to moment, mood to mood, you’ll be laughing, arguing, teaching, ignoring or sharing with each other, although perhaps not in equal measure.

As social creatures, our experience of relationships is a huge part of how we develop. Our values, personalities and tastes are strongly influenced by our interactions with our parents growing up, with our colleagues at work, with the natural world. And this influence goes both ways. Not only do our values inform the types of relationships we seek, but our values also change over time as a result of our relationships. By understanding this feedback loop a little better, we gain useful insights into social and environmental problems.

Relationship theory is a tool to guide better ways of talking to each other, organising our workplace, and supporting campaigns or causes. Read more

From single issues towards systemic change: Tearfund’s ‘Project Doughnut’

This blog was written by Lara Kirch and Micha Narberhaus at Smart CSOs.

As we have experienced in the Smart CSOs community over the last two years, changing an organisation to work on system change is far from an easy task. Most civil society organisations are deeply entrenched in the current system. We might irritate partners and constituencies if we don’t fulfil their expectations and we have a reputation and trust to lose. Most available funding schemes are far from supporting the type of uncertain work needed for long-term system change. But the most difficult part is to change the organisation’s culture, its structure and way of doing things. It requires a change in mindsets and developing the right capacities.

Maybe it is not a surprise that recently some church and faith-based organisations have been among the most progressive pioneers in starting to promote and communicate an alternative vision for a socially and environmentally sustainable global society that is based on sufficiency, solidarity and community. They are grounded on exactly these values.

The advocacy department of Tearfund, a UK Christian relief and development agency founded in 1968, has recently embarked on a change process aimed at aligning its strategic focus and internal structures with a vision of an economy that works for people and the planet. Sarah Anthony and Tom Baker from Tearfund’s advocacy team have told us how they have approached this challenge and what they have learned so far. Read more

Common Threads, February 2014

  • NGO sitcom! – Kenya’s first mockumentary takes on the NGO world. Worth a watch: “In Episode 2, their task is to come up with an acronym before figuring out what the grant’s about”.
  • Climate change and equity: whose language is it anyway? – In his winning entry for the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay Competition, Sydney GP Tim Senior argues that language, and different ways of knowing, have been getting in the way of action on climate change.
  • Facebook’s ‘dark side’: study finds link to socially aggressive narcissism – Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a “socially disruptive” narcissist. The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.
  • Foundations should become the change they want to see in the world – A great piece by Jo Confino: “By not sticking with programmes over the long-term, they fail to give the opportunity for projects to mature. Development, as we have all discovered can take at least a generation to embed. Foundations have the potential to be powerful change agents in our society. But they will only be able to take on that mantle if they recognise that the approach they have taken over the past 40 years has not led to the changes they were hoping for.”
  • The Evolution of Empathy – Jeremy Rifkin’s animated talk about empathy’s impact on our our society.
  • The Nature Moral – We love Project Wild Thing, but it has to be about more than access rights and the provision of green space…

Common Cause training in June

In June, we’re running a Common Cause training course in the beautiful hills of mid-Wales.

It will comprise an exciting three days of participatory learning, exploring creative, values-based tools for social or environmental change.

Find out more here.


Common Threads – January 2014

Interesting things we’ve been reading, watching or listening to this month:

  • Empathy vs. sympathy – connection vs. disconnection. Empathy is “I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone.” Sympathy is “Ooh. It’s bad, uh huh. Do you want a sandwich?”
  • The status quo is not values-free – ‘realism’ is a value-laden position. ‘We have lost faith in any of the large available understandings of how structural change takes place in history, and as a result, we fall back on a bastardised conception of political realism, namely that a proposal is realistic to the extent that it approaches what already exists. This false view then aggravates [our] paralysis. What hits you like a hammer is that word “realistic” – it’s the thing people say when they actively don’t want change. It’s the avoidant atrophy of the miniscule reform, the circularity of entitlement – “Who decides what’s realistic?” “Me, because I’m in charge.” “Why are you in charge?” “Because I’m so realistic.”’
  • Paul Piff: Does money make you mean? – A great TED talk on the psychological impacts of getting rich, even with monopoly money. How does temporary wealth make people behave? (Hint: badly). Includes gem research headlines like “people who feel wealthy are more likely to steal sweets from children.”
  • Climate change & stealth denial – A new report from the RSA: ‘The point is not so much to change values, as to strengthen those already latent values that are most useful with respect to dealing with climate change’.
  • Materialism in children’s books – Has risen over the past 15 years…
  • New Progressive Development Forum Charter – “The organisations and institutions that we work for, with and through in the UK and worldwide must take on a more critical analysis of power and engage in political processes to tackle the inequalities of power, wealth and resources that create and maintain injustice and poverty.”

Communication is Conservation

I was told an inspiring story by a colleague from a conservation organisation involved in the Common Cause for Nature project recently and thought that was worth sharing.

He said to me that for as long as he had been in the press team he had often regretted not doing a more practical degree so that he could have done proper “on the ground” conservation. However, since his involvement in the Common Cause for Nature project, his increased understanding of psychology meant he could see that his work was conservation – he now understood that communication is conservation.


The Common Cause for Nature report shows that both experiences and communications are important in influencing people’s motivation and therefore key to achieving a future better for wildlife. In other words, communication is an important component in delivering wider public support for conservation.

In the report we recommend the following with regard to communications:



  • Talk more about how amazing nature is and use inspiring pictures to reinforce this
  • Talk about caring for other people
  • Give members and supporters active roles  – encourage them do their own thing and be creative
  • Be clear about both what the problems are and what solutions are needed
  • Make solutions proportionate to the problem, if the ask is something small show how it relates to the bigger change needed.


  • Overemphasize threat – threat is important in raising awareness but over using it can make people feel helpless
  • Ignore the problems or the solutions – both are needed to make it clear why action is important
  • Appeal to the desire for power and money
  • Don’t appeal to conflicting values at the same time – avoid using intrinsic and extrinsic values together
  • Portray your organisation as a lone superhero – we cannot succeed on our own, messages should emphasize how members and supporters are part of the solution.

Although incredibly important, communication is only one thread. We need to bring an understanding of values into all areas of conservation work. The report outlines recommendations for other work areas as well as ways in which organisations themselves can adopt working practices to strengthen their own values.

Read the full report here to find out more.

Common Threads – November 2013

  • Rusty (and Golden) Radiator Awards – Best and worst practice in development campaigning – from ‘too poor for words’ (unbelievable) through to the empowering and creative.
  • The adverts we deserve? – A great piece on the all-consuming power of marketing. “Satire has long been acknowledged as a paradoxical crutch for a society’s existing power structures: we laugh at political jibes, and that same laughter displaces the desire for change. As such as Chipotle’s — which express our concerns about the failings of globalisation in a safe space before packing them away — are surely an equivalent safety valve for any subversive rumblings. We all like to think that we’re above the dark art of advertising; that we are immune to its persuasive powers. But the reality is that, though we might have been immunised, it is not against ads: it is against dissent.”
  • Rewind and Reframe – A platform for young women to speak out about sexism and racism in music videos.
  • Changing behaviour – how deep do you want to go? – Nice piece challenging ‘behavioural insights’ approaches and the myth of apathy. “Those asking which forms of behavioural insight are best suited to create a more sustainable world should ask themselves the following difficult question: what kinds of practices, values and feelings are embedded in the work we do, and is behaviour, as such, ever really the issue?”
  • The Pope – On inequality and out-of-control capitalism. Would be much stronger if he was also willing to talk about gender equality (and he’s also still sitting on a gold chair).
  • Change:How – Transactional politics, why public apathy really is a myth, and how change can happen in a broken system… Whether or not you’re going, Compass’s pre-conference reading is long but excellent.

Understanding the state we are in

Examining The State of Nature report from a values perspective.

The State of Nature Report certainly hit the headlines and managed get a large amount of coverage.

However, the extent of coverage is only one way to measure the impact of this report. A more important question to answer is what impact the report and its associated coverage have are likely to have on the motivation on the people who saw the coverage. In the following case study we attempt to assess these likely impacts.

To get the most out of the following analysis we suggest that you read the CCFN practitioners guide first or read this first.

For ease of understanding we have split up the report and associated coverage into the following sections:

  1. The Launch Video
  2. The Main Report
  3. The Executive Summary
  4. The letter to Cameron
  5. Social media coverage
  6. General press coverage
  7. Iolo Williams talk at the launch Read more
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