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Social media for NGOs becomes constituents' lifeline

Social media for nongovernmental organizations has brought key communications to vulnerable constituencies, providing vital information exchange. 

For many nonprofits, social media platforms aren’t nice-to-have marketing tools.  Today, as problems become dispersed, global and complex, social media has become an essential tool for nonprofits to meet their mission.

Today, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) use social media channels as their primary communication platform to serve communities living in unstable or conflict-ridden regions. "It helps bring refugees together through confidential means,” said Alice Korngold, president & CEO, Korngold Consulting LLC.

Indeed, according to the “2018 Global NGO Technology Report,” 92% of NGOs have their own Facebook page.

Social media tools as a lifeline

Portland, Ore.-based Mercy Corps serves vulnerable populations whose lives have been disrupted by human conflict, natural disaster or regional instability. In many cases, basic connectivity and communication services aren’t available. Mercy Corps is a Cisco partner in its global problem-solving work.

Mercy Corps also provides a key lifeline for migrant populations with information about services and a platform on which to communicate with one another, via social media and Mercy Corps portals (refugee.info. and khabrona.info) for real-time information exchange.

Using social media tools, Mercy Corps can provide information on clean water sources, guide beneficiaries on where to obtain healthcare or legal services, or enable portal members to chat with one another about concerns. The idea is also to cultivate these communities’ long-term ability to sustain communication channels themselves.

Alan Donald, senior director, technology for development, Mercy Corps

“We are trying to build resilience so that a community doesn’t fall back to square one,” Alan Donald, senior director, technology for development at Mercy Corps said. Social media for NGOs has helped make nonprofits more autonomous and able to manage communications on their own.

Previously, this information was distributed on physical notice boards or banners. “The old way was very analog and not super scalable,” Donald noted.

Mercy Corps also uses public tools like Facebook Live to address communities in real time: 17,000 people watched one Facebook Live stream on cash distributions.

Building trustworthy connections

Distributing information seems like an unmitigated good. But that isn’t always the case in a world where bad actors manipulate information. Untrustworthy information can also proliferate like a virus.

“In an analog world, nontrustworthy information can go out to 1,000 people,” Donald observed. “In a digital world, faulty information can go out to 100,000 people quite rapidly.” With 30,000 site visitors coming to Mercy Corps channels daily, false information can have an impact.

Using social media for good helps NGOs brings these problems into high relief. Smugglers and human traffickers can hijack social channels of information and exploit vulnerable populations. So the only way to establish trust in a digital world is to diligently verify what gets shared, Donald said. “We edit and vet every piece of information that goes out [on our platforms],” Donald said.

Transparency is seen as the best response to false information.

“With social media, everyone has an equal voice, and it really democratizes the conversation,” Korngold said. “The fact that people are disseminating bad information is a problem to be addressed, but it doesn’t mean we should limit access to information. Social media brings transparency and accountability; it brings sunlight to issues.”

Bringing connectivity

Mercy Corps also works with other nonprofits such as NetHope—and private sector partners such as Cisco—to provide connectivity services to hard-hit areas.

“We partner with Cisco to use Wi-Fi technology and install it ourselves,” Donald said. “In many cases, we are connecting people for the first time.”

One refugee, Donald recounted, spent three months on a sojourn from her homeland in Sudan to a settlement in northern Italy. Once in Italy, she could use Mercy Corps’ connectivity to videoconference with relatives to let them know her whereabouts. As Donald noted, connectivity removes one of the major stressors for transient populations by enabling them to connect with family.

Human-centered design for global problem solving    

Mercy Corps and other NGOs understand that technology implementations are successful only if they have positive social impact. Otherwise, it’s technology for technology’s sake.

“If you don’t apply the right kind of ethics to what you’re doing, you can cause a bit of harm,” Donald emphasized. “We’re not using the latest and greatest shiny objects without applying the necessary rigor.”

For Mercy Corps, human-centered design (HCD)—which acknowledges the needs of constituents—is the best way to deploy technology that solves real problems.

“You have to understand the context,” Donald said. He noted a Mercy Corps project to install a communications network in Gaza in 2014, after conflict had wiped out local communications systems.

Mercy Corps worked with other NGOs to design a solution that had greater potential to withstand conflict. “It’s not till you’re there and in the context that you ask the right questions,” Donald said. When Donald is on the ground in an area, he looks at where the solar unit is installed, how large it is, how protected it is from the elements—a whole range of questions.

Donald said that HCD has become far more important over the past decade, and the focus on constituents’ needs can significantly change how a team solves problems.

“When I started [in technology], if you wanted to create a digital solution, there was months of very structured work,” Donald recalled. “It was a great programming and development effort. Now you can rattle off some changes, hit Submit and affect thousands. But in this Agile, rapid development approach, you can lose sight of the user. HCD has become way more important to make sure you are designing with that person in mind and they are there with you along that journey.”

Experts say social media has opened up the conversation about global problem solving to a much broader array of participants. “There is an understanding today that there are far more stakeholders—customers, communities and relationships—that are relevant,” Korngold said. “And because there is data analysis, AI, trend analysis, human-centered design can happen. Constituents were always there, but they weren’t always heard. Now, there is a megaphone with social media that requires them to be heard.”

For part one in this series on global problem solving, see “Mobile healthcare analytics transforms NGOs’ global problem solving.”

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Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”