Social media can be a lifeline, but don’t let it be your only way of relating to people, especially now.

I’ve written plenty about my decision to leave social media in November 2018, and I’ve found the benefits have been more than worth it (I’ve left Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but I do use WhatsApp).

I felt a twinge of almost-regret when I started my freelance career, and I felt another twinge a few days ago, when the coronavirus crisis and the accompanying restrictions hit London. Would Twitter give me a sense of fellowship and constant communication that I’d miss during self-isolation?

I was able to answer that with a “no” very soon. Having skimmed a few Twitter profiles, I felt the familiar sense of rising panic. The fake news, angry responses to politicians (some justified, some not), and endlessly recycled jokes weren’t doing anything for my sense of wellbeing. I can generate plenty of anxiety by myself, I’ll have my unreasonable reactions to politicians in private, and I can definitely come up with bad jokes independently. (Sorry, husband.)

Twitter has its defenders and I’m sure it can do a lot of good, but I’ve questioned the balance of positive vs. negative attributes before. Talking to other people should make you feel better about yourself and the world, especially at a time like this. I have to wonder if the supermarket shortages have been exacerbated by social media fearmongering. As someone who suffers from anxiety, it has been educational to see how damaging fear can be when taken to extremes. It hurts others.

Right now, I’m craving simple human-to-human interaction. I’ve decided to try and speak to a friend, colleague or relative every single day of social isolation. I only call a couple of close friends regularly; calling a wider range of people will help to keep these relationships going and possibly deepen them.

If you can, make contact with your neighbours. I’m lucky to live in a cul-de-sac where I know most of the other residents at least by sight. As I look at my dwindling (and modest) stash, I remind myself that having people nearby who will look out for you is worth more than infinite rolls of toilet paper.

Stay safe, everyone, and keep in touch.

How many charities are covering up bad behaviour with NDAs? Let’s make them tell us.

I was dismayed to read the recent allegations against Alzheimer’s Society. The charity is accused of spending as much as £750,000 on NDAs with staff (Alzheimer’s Society denies the allegations). NDAs, or non-disclosure agreements, typically involve a payment to an employee on the condition that they do not disclose specific information about the organisation to anyone else.

NDAs do have some legitimate uses: no charity or business would want employees or ex-employees to share trade secrets with competitors. It’s arguable, however, whether NDAs used to cover up allegations of bullying, sexual harassment or other unethical behaviour are reasonable. I’d say no, especially because other notable users of NDAs include Harvey Weinstein, and the arbitration service Acas agrees with me.

Acas argues that using NDAs in this way “stops businesses from tackling the underlying issue” and that they “should not be used to hide a problem or brush it under the carpet”.

The open secret is that bullying is endemic in the charity sector

There is, sadly, an acknowledged problem with bullying in the charity sector, which is all the more distressing due to our supposed emphasis on ethical values. The issue has been documented in detail by ACEVO in their report “In Plain Sight”; I’m aware of anecdotal evidence from others; and unfortunately I’ve been the victim of bullying and discrimination myself.

The ACEVO report makes several much-needed recommendations regarding the need to improve workplace cultures and whistleblowing procedures and clarify the role of the Charity Commission. However, many of these assume good faith. I don’t see how they will make much of an impact on the charities that most urgently need to change – for example where a powerful senior leader is the perpetrator and unlikely to change their behaviour, and where trustees may be unaware or willing to turn a blind eye.

The ACEVO report also includes powerful examples of the impact of workplace bullying. It can destroy mental health, lead to breakdowns, create physical health issues, negatively affect personal relationships, and cause suicidal thoughts. I will not repeat their evidence here, but I urge you to read the report.

NDA reporting should be a mandatory part of charity accounts

It is currently impossible to know if, or to what extent, charities use NDAs to cover up complaints of bad behaviour. Perhaps it’s not a major problem in our sector, but I think this is an area worth exploring; the cost of ignoring it is far too high.

I believe that charities should be required to include a line in their accounts for NDA payoffs where a complaint is involved, summarising the total amount and the number of NDAs made.

It is clear that allegations of bullying and large payoffs are potentially highly damaging to charity reputations. I can’t imagine that many donors would be happy to find out that their money was being used to silence staff.

By forcing charities to report a number, cultural problems will quickly make themselves starkly known. The reputational risk of inaction will become untenable.

I often wonder if trustees are aware of what’s being done in their name. If they’re not aware of a bullying or otherwise toxic culture, then this would focus their attention on the issue. And if they don’t care – perhaps because the perpetrator is known to get “good results” – it would force them to take action for the sake of their charity’s reputation.

The ACEVO report found that bullying was often an “open secret” in the organisations where it occurred. Well, my view is that if everyone already knows, the knowledge should be shared as widely and frankly as possible. This would lead to some extremely uncomfortable conversations, but would ultimately result in a happier, healthier and more effective charity sector.

Is social media worth it?

I read with dismay the Social CEOs survey of female charity CEOs, which revealed a widespread problem with trolling. Much of this is sexist, and much of it leads to mental health issues and concerns about safety.

The survey only had a brief mention of racism. I expect this could have been identified as a major issue if the survey also had capacity to explore this, not to mention the intersectional issues when sexism combines with racism.

I’m sure that most of these female CEOs feel that they need to be on social media to be effective at their jobs. I’m aware that many charities view outreach to beneficiaries and donors as essential.

However, there’s no avoiding the fact that social media does increase vulnerability. I’ve experienced abuse on Facebook which made me fear for my safety. Thankfully this was a fleeting experience, but the impact of it has stayed with me.

I have to ask: is social media worth it?

I’ve been social media-free for a year

One year ago, I went cold turkey on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

I made that decision while on maternity leave; since then my life and career took an unexpected twist. Six months after returning to work I left my job and launched a freelance career.

I had a brief flash of uncertainty when I made the decision to go freelance. Would I be missing out on opportunities via Fundraising Chat on Facebook, or the Twittersphere?

In short, no. I’m relieved to say that so far, my new career is going pretty well, and I don’t regret my decision to leave social media. I feel as if I’ve proved my hypothesis that one strong professional relationship is worth more than a hundred Twitter followers.

I still do check the Twitter feeds of a few people, including charity sector leaders, which is possible to do without an account. Observing social media trends and conversations as an outsider has been an interesting experience (and I get a little bit of perverse pleasure out of using Twitter in a way that isn’t intended by its creators).

Many charities have ethical donations policies. If we applied the same standards to our social media providers, would we use social media at all?

Trolling on social media is one tiny part of all these platforms’ myriad issues . I’m sure you’ve heard all the main arguments against it: social media leads to mental health problems. It destroys our ability to concentrate. It polarises points of view, driving communities apart. It spreads fake news and undermines democracy. It violates our privacy, selling our data to the highest bidder, and the major platforms persuade us to buy mildly helpful robots that spy on us.

Facebook is possibly the worst offender; at time of writing they have refused to ban political ads that spread misinformation. And if that wasn’t enough, the HEATED newsletter recently reported that despite espousing a commitment to an environmental agenda, Facebook has donated $20,000 to Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign. McConnell is one of the most rabid climate deniers in the White House.

Again, do we really feel that the benefits to us as individuals, and to our charities, really outweigh the above? These concerns are being widely discussed in other sectors, but I haven’t seen much evidence of them affecting our ways of working in the charity sector.

Despite that, when I’ve mentioned to charity peers that I no longer use social media, they immediately understand and I never have to explain myself. Deep down, most of us are aware of the issues.

What is the role of privilege in who chooses to use, or not use social media?

Obviously, if all women left social media that would be a dreadful situation. Men, particularly white men, are far less likely to suffer abuse and are therefore in a position of privilege when using these platforms.

Conversely, however, it can often take a certain amount of privilege to feel able to leave social media, depending on one’s individual situation. I recognise that in myself; I have the experience and contacts that have made a social media-free career viable. Someone just starting out may not feel able to make that choice.

For those who feel they’d miss out on connections and interactions, however, I’d like to ask: what’s the opportunity cost of social media? Who could you be talking to if you weren’t on Facebook? What could you be reading or writing?

Most of all, I’d much rather monetise my ideas by writing articles and pitching them to publications that pay, like Third Sector, instead of providing free content that enriches Twitter.

Maybe social media works for you. But if it doesn’t – if you have that niggling feeling inside you that doesn’t feel quite right – you can have a perfectly good life and career without it. Maybe an even better one.

And you can still enjoy LinkedIn’s most hilariously irrelevant posts.

Let’s not be too quick to jump on the surveillance capitalism bandwagon

I’m deeply suspicious of smart speakers. The endless stream of alleged privacy violations  and vulnerability to hacking and manipulation means that I will never, ever have one in my home, and their increasing ubiquity worries me.

But they’re clearly here to stay, and just as with social media, charities need to make sure they’re not missing the boat. Charities should invest in ways to engage with donors and beneficiaries via voice assistant technology…

…shouldn’t they?

I see two key questions that need answering.

What is the problem that voice skills solve?

There are two potential audiences for charities using voice skills: beneficiaries and donors.

Examples of voice skills for beneficiaries include Cancer Research UK’s Alcohol Tracker and Breast Cancer Care’s Taking Care of Your Breasts. Both provide valuable health information to users. However, I question whether this is the right format for people seeking this information, and whether it reaches people that weren’t already accessing it. Mobile apps for alcohol tracking already exist, and I expect the health information provided in voice skills like these is readily available online.

Voice skills for donors focus on enabling verbal donations. Examples include the British Heart Foundation and NSPCC. Perhaps there are donors who would give this way. However, downloading and installing a voice skill requires a decision and an action. If any donor was that committed to the charity and felt they would be donating often enough to use a voice skill, wouldn’t they simply set up a regular gift?

It’s impossible to find stats for usage or resultant donations online. However, the number of ratings and reviews in the Amazon store gives a clue. Admittedly, this is all relatively new to the charity sector, but I couldn’t find a charity voice skill with more than 20 ratings.

The problem of low uptake isn’t limited to charities. No voice skill has really taken off, and the most popular uses of Alexa have been simple tasks such as playing music.

So I am not convinced that investing in voice skills will enable charities to reach people they are not already reaching via other means. But if anyone has evidence that proves me wrong, I’d love to see it.

How do the sector’s values align with the values of smart speaker providers?

There is a tendency, that I’m sure is not limited to the charity sector, to jump on new, exciting-sounding technological “solutions” that aren’t. Remember the fuss about blockchain?

Perhaps we all get excited about a new technology, spend a bit of money on it, and then it doesn’t work out. We should embrace attempts to innovate, and the failure that sometimes accompanies it. What’s the problem?

Well, I don’t think the outcome is neutral. There are myriad ethical issues related to smart speakers that go beyond privacy and security: gender, race and sexuality bias, for example, and concerns about the impact on children. A charity that invests in tools for smart speakers is implicitly supporting companies such as Amazon, which wants Alexa to be everywhere.

Surveillance capitalism is becoming such a powerful force in our lives that I believe we need to take a stance on it. Just as charities have donation acceptance policies, we should consider the statement we are making when committing to developing tools for products built by mega-corporations. Our values should drive our decisions.

Think carefully before jumping in

I’m not arguing that we should never invest in technologies such as smart speakers. However, the conversations across the sector that I’ve witnessed have not appeared to consider these two questions.

As I have argued with blockchain, if our service users and donors don’t benefit, there’s definitely someone else who does.