Category Archives: Voluntary Sector

YouTube’s Nonprofit Program now Available in Canada

February 22, 2010 may go down as a game-changing date for media savvy nonprofits in Canada. Today the popular video-sharing platform YouTube announced that its Nonprofit Program is now available to organizations operating north of the 49th parallel.

This is really huge news. YouTube is the industry leader in online video, and the premier destination for watching and sharing videos with family, friends, and co-workers. In 2005, its first year of operation, YouTube had approximately 2.8 million viewers; a year later it had 72 million viewers. Today, there are a more than 100 million viewers around the world. There are other very good video sharing platforms (Vimeo, DailyMotion, etc.), but none of them match YouTube’s reach.

What is the value of YouTube for Nonprofits?

Nonprofit organizations work very hard to get people to join their emails lists, to attend events, to volunteer their time, to sign petitions, and to become donors. Video can be a great way of engaging people, but organizations need to think carefully about the plan and purpose of their video, and then develop a distribution strategy from there. I have seen so many compelling videos by nonprofit organizations that go nowhere – and it’s not because the videos are no good; it’s just that the strategy is either wrong or non-existent.

In 2007 YouTube launched its Nonprofit Program to assist charities and other voluntary organizations with outreach and fundraising. The international development NGO Charity:Water reports that it raised $10,000 in the first day of its campaign. That’s a remarkable achievement.

The major benefits of participating in the YouTube Nonprofit Program include:

1. A “Donate Now” button allows organizations to solicit donations directly from its YouTube video link

2. Enhanced uploading capacity

3. An ability to network with media professionals who may be able to help your organization through the YouTube Video Volunteers Program

4. The ability to overlay your video with a call-to-action and other annotations that will drive traffic to your website and help amplify your broader advocacy, fundraising and capacity building activities

See3 Communications is a Chicago-based communication consultancy that specializes in the nonprofit sector. It is recognized as one of the world’s top video strategy agencies for nonprofits and NGOs, with an impressive client list, including Amnesty International, The Center for American Progress, The Sierra Club and the American Cancer Society. Its CEO, Michael Hoffman, is a passionate and engaged advocate of video in service of social change. Listen to him explain the real value of this program for nonprofit organizations.

Until today the YouTube Nonprofit Program was available only to organizations in the U.S. and Britain. Kudos to Google Inc. and the folks at YouTube, particularly those involved in its Nonprofit Program, for expanding the benefits to the nonprofit sector in Canada.

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Social Media and Nonprofits: Some Preliminary Research on Use and Evaluation

The most common question I hear from organizations that are considering whether social media is right for them is, “what does the research tell us?”  It’s a question I love, not only because I believe in the importance of evidence-based practice, but because it also suggests that the organization asking the question is thinking critically and strategically.

For all organizations (nonprofit, corporate, government) it’s important to think about the value and payoff in developing a social media strategy. In a social media workshop I delivered to Ottawa-area nonprofits last weekend, I wanted to go beyond just a “show and tell” about the latest “shiny new objects” in media technology: my hope was to stimulate some reflection and to generate a discussion about what exactly is ‘new’ in the new media environment while noting the importance of staying ahead of the curve. There is no question that the nonprofit sector will be transformed by changes in media technology and the new forms of social organization they engender–it’s equally true that these technologies will continue to change as nonprofits and other organizations demonstrate their full potential. The real issue is about the tension between capacity and timing.

Getting back to the question of the “evidence base” for social media, the answer is simply that it’s too early to know because we are dealing with very new technology for which there isn’t enough research. However, two recent surveys of social media adoption in the nonprofit sector may shed some light on the emerging evidence.

The first study is by the global PR firm Weber Shandwick — the results are from a phone survey of 200 nonprofit and foundation executives and senior communication officers. A key finding is that a clear majority (89%) of nonprofit organizations are already experimenting with social media, yet only half of them (51%) self-describe as “active users”. The major impediments to taking fuller advantage of social media appear to be lack of capacity and uncertainty about payoff. Here is the slide deck for a fuller account of the findings and their implications.

The second study, by Philanthropy Action, focuses on mid-sized nonprofits and raises important questions about evaluation metrics for fundraising and volunteer recruitment. Although it supports the findings of the Weber Shandwick survey which point to widespread experimentation in social media use, it is less sanguine about the known benefits, especially for mid-sized nonprofits. The study reports that there is a “mismatch between perceptions, motivations, results and investment,” and concludes that despite the potential and promise of social media, the outcomes to date have been disappointing. A majority of respondents (70%) indicated that they either raised very little money or had no idea how much money their social media site helped them raise. The figures for attracting volunteers were about the same. Nevertheless, the survey also reported that “despite the lack of results, most respondents indicated they planned to increase their investment in social networking over the coming year.” In other words, the survey participants recognize that social media will be important to their organization’s work moving forward–they just haven’t figured out how it can best be used and measured.

Confronted with these findings, how should organizations proceed?

My advice is to keep in mind the principle of relentless incrementalism: don’t replace, change or transform your current communication activities overnight, especially if they are delivering at least modest results (if they are totally ineffective, then be more experimental). The answer is not to pretend the world around your organization isn’t changing but to figure out how it is changing, what its implications will be for the work your organization does, to monitor the research environment, and to sort out how you can manage the challenge of of committing enough resources to effectively produce meaningful results without going radically off in all directions.

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Back to the blog

After several months away it’s time to get back to blogging – it’s not that I’ve been lazy or disengaged, just distracted by other things. Here’s a summary of what I’ve been up to since (gulp) my last post in February.

In late May, I was the conference program co-chair of the Association for Nonprofit and Social Economy Research (ANSER), which met during the 2009 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities. The build-up to the meeting was particularly intense with more than 200 conference participants from academia and the voluntary sector — we had Canadians, Americans and conference participants from as far away as Australia. The keynote address was delivered by Michael Edwards, formerly of the Ford Foundation and now with progressive think tank Demos in New York City. I also hosted an event to celebrate the publication of my latest book, Surveillance: Power, Problems and Politics (UBC Press, 2009), which I co-edited with my long-time friend and collaborator Sean Hier from the sociology department at University of Victoria.

I spent most of my summer enjoying holidays with family in beautiful British Columbia and at our cottage in Algonquin Park. Vancouver was especially nice in late July where the temperature stayed consistently in the low 30s and the sun was always shining (quite in contrast to the misery of Ottawa, where it rained the entire time we were away).

I did get some writing finished this summer, including the final touches on a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication on public relations, co-edited with Graham Knight from the communication studies and multimedia department at McMaster University. This project was a long time coming, starting way back in 2008. See the  TOC here and check out the editorial and research paper I contributed. I am very pleased with how this issue turned out – lots of excellent contributions by scholars and media professionals from Canada and abroad on such timely issues as risk communication, journalist/PR relations, political campaigning, PR education, professionalism and nation branding, among many others. Post your comments below or send me a note if you have a chance to read any of the articles or reviews.

Toward the end of August I did a little bit of consulting, working with some local public health and housing advocates to help them deal with a particularly thorny NIMBY problem. My involvement in this case piqued my interest in further exploring the literature on communication ethics, deliberative democracy and theories of “public consultation”. It was clear from this experience that communities, politicians and social service providers all operate with different understandings of what consultation really entails and how it can be achieved. All cities (large, medium, even small) face important challenges in dealing with poverty, homelessness, addictions, mental illness and other structural social problems. These are not, as C. Wright Mills describes them, problems of the individual milieu – they are structural issues that require both structural and community solutions. Yet too often the stakeholders in these debates speak around or, more to the point, shout over one another – it becomes a battle geared toward winning rather than achieving mutual understanding. Communication researchers can play an important role in identifying the means and ways in which power relations operate in and through the language community stakeholders use to frame understanding of these issues, and in facilitating a process by which they can, at minimum, agree on the terms of their engagement if not on the outcomes.

It’s already October and I can’t believe the fall term is a month old. I was appointed to be the supervisor of undergraduate studies in our program and for the final weeks of August and the first few weeks of September I was very busy dealing daily with student registration issues, attending recruiting events to entice the country’s best and brightest to come to Carleton, and in getting my own course (MCOM 5204: Media, Culture and Policy) up and running. It’s a graduate level seminar that introduces students to key issues in the study of communication and public health policy (our substantive focus): theories of public policy; media advocacy; impacts of ‘new’ media on the medical and health professions and on health promotion; audience segmentation; risk and crisis communication; framing; and program evaluation. So far it’s going very well – I have a group of 8 really engaged MA and PhD students and we are “collaborating” again this year with the city of Ottawa’s public health department on some of their current and emergent issues.

I have also been actively promoting From Homeless to Home, a film I co-produced about homelessness in Ottawa, first to a meeting of academics, then a coalition of housing and other service providers, and later to the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat, a division within the federal government. I understand the film will be screened by Cinema Politica in Montreal sometime in November. When I know the details, I’ll post them here.

In December I’ll be attending the UN Climate Change Conference to examine how environmental activists and NGOs are using traditional and ‘new’ media to campaign for a new international deal to confront the problem of global warming. This is part of a larger project which you can read about on the blog’s Projects Page. I’ve never been to the Scandinavian countries so intend to take a little time for tourism and site-seeing while I’m there. Anyone with “must do” recommendations for my time there, please leave me a reply below! I’m also getting ready to head off to Atlanta at the end of October where I’ll be participating in a crisis and emergency-risk communication training session at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I was just awarded a small amount of funding to look at how public health agencies in Canada and the U.S. engage the nonprofit sector in emergency planning and response, particularly their means and methods of ‘consultation’. The trip to CDC will be informing some of that research (again, see the Projects Page for more details).

On a personal note, I love this time of year. The colours have turned very quickly and the green of summer has given way to beautiful hues of gold and red. We were recently at the cottage where my family convenes every Thanksgiving and had a stunning drive through Algonquin Park. The smell and sound of falling foliage always puts me at peace. I’m gearing up for a last outing of cycling this coming weekend in Prince Edward County with some good friends. It’s our last grasp of a season we know has already passed us by. I realize that winter is not far off. The episodic flecks of snow encountered this past weekend appear to have followed me home, even if they made only a brief appearance this afternoon. Writing now in my home office, with the dogs at my feet and a steaming cup of coffee, I don’t seem to mind.

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The Janus Face of the Financial Crisis

There is a temptation when crises hit to turn inward: marshal the troops, focus on the immediate needs of your organization or sector and weather the storm. This applies whether the crisis is localized (e.g. accusations of malfeasance) or more global in context — major natural disasters, massive outbreaks of food borne-illness or disease, and dramatic economic downturns are good examples. With the global financial meltdown we are firmly in the throes of such a crisis.

Despite the gloomy predictions crises are not intrinsically negative forces in society. In fact, the research on crisis provides evidence that crises can sometimes lead to positive outcomes. In a recent book about crisis communication, Robert Ulmer, Timothy Sellnow and Matthew Seeger (all recognized leaders in public relations and organizational communication) argue that crises are opportunities for learning and development. While a crisis is a “dangerous moment” it can also be a moment of decisive intervention, providing opportunities for organizations to be stronger than they were when the crisis hit.

In this context, a recent NCVO survey of UK-based charities found that although the vast majority of leaders in the charity sector expect the economic situation to worsen over the next year, slightly more than one-third of them “are staying positive and have identified new opportunities and areas for growth … choosing to see the current economic decline as an opportunity, either to focus their organisation on their mission or to play a vital role in supporting their local areas.”

Rather than focusing on the constraints before them, leaders in the charity sector plan to increase their activism and service provision. While there is no question that we are all experiencing heightened levels of risk and uncertainty, the contingent nature of the present situation can also create opportunities for those who are in a position to seize them.

It is not surprising therefore that many voluntary sector public relations officers (PRO’s) are advising their executives to increase their public and media visibility throughout 2009. As reported in Brand Republic, it is expected that spending by voluntary organizations on advertising and marketing will decline; yet the need to communicate strategically by delivering high levels of on-message, targeted editorial content will only become more important.

This is especially sage advice at a time when funders and donors are expecting greater levels of adherence to norms of accountability and transparency. According to Sarah Miller at the Charity Commission, the economic situation will lead to greater scrutiny of the voluntary sector: “It is vital that charities are absolutely clear in their communications about what they do, how they do it and how they use their money. That’s the basis for increasing public trust and confidence in the sector at a time when funders and individuals may reassess their giving.”

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The market meltdown and voluntary sector: News media beginning to take notice

In a previous post I criticized Canadian news media, key government departments and leading non-profit organizations for lagging in their reporting and public commentary about the impacts of the global economic slowdown on the voluntary sector. Although not all have begun to speak publicly, kudos to those that have done so. Among news media, the public broadcaster and Globe & Mail have reported in remarkable synchronicity this week on how the market meltdown is impacting charitable giving across the country.

Looking just to the CBC and Globe coverage some interesting patterns may be starting to emerge. Last week the Salvation Army in Ottawa reported a “jump” this year in demand for its services, while donations have dropped by $80,000. Fuel costs have also doubled for a number of agencies. The Salvation Army’s national office reports paying $1-million extra in fuel nationwide this year over last year. Meanwhile donations have not kept pace, dropping approximately $100,000 from this time last year. This news is especially troubling for charities serving communities in remote locations that depend on air or ocean transport of donated goods.

In British Columbia the situation is even more dire. The Vancouver Foundation, Canada’s largest community foundation, reports having lost $100 million to the global financial crisis and will have to reduce between $10-$15 million of funding for Vancouver community initiatives, affecting everything from youth ballet programming to blood services. The Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society, which feeds 25,000 people a week has also been hit hard – it reports a 20 percent drop in donations over the summer, which is threatening its ability to meet a likely increase in demand for the coming year. “We will never deny food to anybody and we hope we never reach that point,” said Arlene Kravitz, the society’s director of communications. “However, if the donations keep going down, we won’t have enough. We’ll have to cut.” 

In other communities, the news is not quite so bleak. Local charities in Kingston, Ontario, report that private donations have been “pouring in” despite the wider woes in the economy. According to Bhavana Varma, president of the local United Way, her charity has raised $1.6 million so far this year, more than 50 per cent of its goal and far more than it had at this time last year. In part, Kingston’s relative stability has to do with the fact that it is a small city by comparison with Vancouver, Ottawa or Toronto, where the pinch has been far sharper; but it also benefits from a stable local economy, with large public sector employers that include a university, a hospital and a military base, all of which will be relatively immune from the big job losses that are hitting large cities and those with a manufacturing based economy (at least in the short term).

The factors underlying this shift in how the national media has reported the effects of the slumping economy on the charity sector are likely mixed: we have finally moved from the single-mindedness that defines election campaign coverage, meaning that news organizations are starting to focus again on matters of greater importance than bird poop and accusations of political plagiarism; non-profit organizations are also likely becoming more proactive in their public communication activities, increasing production of information subsidies (economic updates, reports and other media releases) that are staples of the news business; and the realists among us may even argue that only now the impact has begun to finally emerge (ontological questions aside, why we are weeks behind the Brits in addressing the implications of the crisis remains unexplained). 

Regardless of the reasons for why this story is now starting to be told, it’s incumbent upon all leading social and political institutions to develop immediate solutions for tackling the problem. These should include short term actions in the form of one-time transfer payments from all levels of government to targeted charity organizations in the most affected regions and serving the most vulnerable people; long term actions that include increases in core funding by governments for the voluntary sector should also be addressed.

Canada’s voluntary sector is the second largest in the world – it engages more than 12 million volunteers, generates upwards of $112 billion in revenue, and contributes almost 7% to the Gross Domestic Product. Failing to address the impact of the crisis on the sector not only makes for bad economic policy, but it’s almost certain to intensify increased demand for charitable services, longer lineups at food banks and more people requiring the support of emergency shelters in the coming months and beyond.

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Silence in Canada as International Charities Feel Market Crunch

In June 2008, Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), a London, UK-based international development charity, issued a media statement urging City employees to “swap their six figure salaries” for voluntary work in the developing world. Citing looming prospects about labour market uncertainty, VSO argued that volunteering in the poorest parts of the world will deliver more than just a meaningful experience and personal reward – it will also enhance professional development and one’s marketability to prospective employers. With several years of economic downturn predicted, the organization has been encouraging the upwardly mobile to take a two year sabbatical overseas and return after market conditions improve.

The Times Online reports today that job market fears and mortgage pressures have combined to produce a perfect storm in which VSO now finds itself scrambling to fill several hundred positions in the next five months. VSO volunteers typically help developing countries to build their education and health systems and the capacity of community organizations in areas such as human rights and income generation. A sign of the volatile times, VSO states that 55 people with backgrounds in teaching, law and management recently withdrew from its recruitment process because they feared they would not be able to find a job after returning from their time abroad.

It’s unclear what impact the global credit crunch will have on international development organizations based in Canada. Throughout the current federal election campaign Prime Minister Harper has been arguing that the economic fundamentals in Canada remain strong, despite indications of a recession in the U.S. and shaky markets overseas. Earlier in the year his finance minister Jim Flaherty stated much of the same in a speech to the Economic Club of Toronto, and he argued that the Conservatives had created “a tremendous stimulus for charitable giving in Canada.”  These rather more positive assessments stand in marked contrast to statements coming out of the business and finance sectors. Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, argues that the country’s leading politicians appear to be in denial about the financial crisis. “It’s clear that something profound is happening,” he is quoted as saying in a CBC report, “yet the politicians up to now have wanted to talk about everything else.” Doug Porter, with BMO Capital Markets, is even more dire in his assessment: “At this point, if this kind of volatility keeps up, I think we’re looking at a much more serious downturn than a mild recession that most of us are talking about.”  

Yet what is clear is that despite indications the economy may be veering toward a recession, leaders in Canada’s development and charitable sectors have been silent. VSO Canada, which recently announced a merger with Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO) to become the largest volunteer-based international cooperation agency in Canada, has been quiet on the matter. CIDA, Canada’s lead government agency for development assistance, has not issued a single statement about the impacts that the slowing economy will have on its capacity to continue delivering aid overseas. And while the Charities Aid Foundation in Britain has been regularly issuing updates on the economic implications of the market meltdown for the voluntary sector, Imagine Canada has been mute by comparison. Not a single report has been published or broadcast on any of Canada’s major news outlets. Even the news page of Charity Village, “Canada’s supersite for the nonprofit sector,” reports nothing about how the global economic slowdown will impact charitable giving. 

The failure of leading development agencies, nonprofit organizations and media organizations in Canada to discuss publicly the impacts that the global market slowdown will have on the voluntary sector is a cause for concern. Individuals who will be feeling the sharpest edges of the economic crisis will be increasingly reliant on charity to survive. The Association of Chief Executive of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) in Britain reports that demand in that country for charitable services has increased by 72% in the last year alone, while donations have dropped by almost a third in the same period. Social enterprises are also feeling the pinch. As reported by Charity Finance, a poll of nearly 1,000 social entrepreneurs and small business owners found that nearly four out of ten say they have experienced cashflow difficulties in the past few months. Around 70 per cent of those who had recently applied for a business loan or credit card had been turned down, while over a third had been forced to resort to personal loans and credit cards.

Charity organizations everywhere are already or will very soon be facing difficult choices in the foreseeable future between reducing services or running deficits to maintain existing programs. And when these factors combine with the steady rise in costs of energy, fuel and food, the most vulnerable citizens – whether they are in Zambia, Liverpool, Buenos Aires or Toronto – will be hardest hit. 

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Volunteering Gets Extreme Makeover

One of the biggest challenges facing voluntary organizations is the recruitment of young people, as either employees or volunteers. Youth are a curious and misunderstood demographic. While politicos lament their unwillingness to participate in the electoral process as evidence of political apathy, disengagement and intensified individualization, we would do well to remember that politics involves more than engaging with the formal institutions of government. As the German sociologist Ulrich Beck argues in The Reinvention of Politics, “the individualized everyday culture of the West simply is a culture of built-up knowledge and self-confidence…Individuals still communicate in and play along with the old forms and institutions, but they also withdraw from them in at least part of their existence…Their withdrawal, however, is not just a withdrawal, but at the same time an emigration to new niches of activity and identity…All of that no longer fits into one design of an order upon which the surveying specialists of the political map can base their analyses” (pp. 101-102).

A new charity organization called V is not only challenging the myth of youth apathy, but aggressively campaigning to mobilize young people into voluntary charitable action. Its latest campaign, Favours, is providing a much-needed makeover for volunteering, seeking to change the misperception that giving back to your community is “boring” or “geeky,” a perception the organization reports to be common among 25% of youth in England, and turning volunteering into an accessible and natural lifestyle choice.

The video release of the Favours campaign can be streamed here, compliments of The Guardian Online.

The London-based V describes itself as “a team of young people, staff members, and trustees from the business and voluntary and community sector.” Its youth members do more than stuff envelopes, knock on doors and whoop it up at fundraising events – they also act as consultants and play a huge role in delivering the organization’s messages and work.

By giving young people advisory authority and a role in decision-making, voluntary organizations will not only be able to harvest their creativity, talent, intelligence and energy, but also enable them to demonstrate that the third sector is a viable place for youth to launch and maintain their careers.

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