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.

Want to write about the sector? You can do better than unpaid guest blogs.

There’s a worrying trend among well-meaning fellow fundraisers and sector bloggers. I’ve seen many occasions where they’ve invited other fundraisers to write “guest posts” that are – explicitly – not paid opportunities.

I can already hear the chorus of people asking me “what’s the problem?” It’s unlikely that a blogger can afford to pay other writers, so much as they’d like to offer payment, what’s wrong with offering their platforms for other – often under-represented – voices?

I can think of several reasons.

It continues the expectation that writing shouldn’t be paid, which makes it much harder for freelance writers to make a living.

Many of us – myself included – have worked to raise awareness of the insidious problem of unpaid internships within the charity sector. The Institute of Fundraising’s Change Collective Manifesto (which I played a role in shaping as a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Panel) highlights the need to ban unpaid internships. This is a hugely positive step in the right direction.

Surely, if we accept that fundraising should be paid – including at entry level – we should also support the need to pay writers, regardless of their level of experience?

In the same way that unpaid internships have spread like a plague through the charity and arts sectors, writers’ wages are being consistently undercut. Sites such as Huffington Post, which relied for years on unpaid contributions (although it has recently decided to pay all writers) have made it harder and harder for full-time writers to earn a good living.

Social media is also to blame. After all, the entire industry model is based on monetising content that others create for free. One of the many reasons I decided to leave LinkedIn was due to the way their algorithm prioritises content created on their own platform. I would share links to my blog posts, but as these directed traffic away from LinkedIn, they were pushed down to the bottom of the hierarchy. I would have secured far more visibility if I had written my articles on LinkedIn. I wasn’t comfortable with that.

Next time you think about writing an article on LinkedIn, consider this. Are you really comfortable providing your free labour to a wealthy Silicon Valley company, and further increasing their value?

“But what about the exposure?” I hear you ask. Well, to combat this and many other wrong-headed arguments about why you should write for free, the fantasy author Matt Wallace has written a fabulous and entertaining Freelance Writer’s Rebuttal Guide.

Creating the expectation of unpaid work from minority groups is intensely problematic.

I’ve witnessed bloggers and editors in our sector specifically encourage contributions from under-represented groups, such as people of colour, disabled people and those who are LGBT+.

If these are paid? Fantastic. When these “opportunities” are unpaid, however, it only serves to entrench existing disadvantages and risks creating a two-tiered system.

It’s not as altruistic as it may initially seem.

Although I no longer have a Twitter profile, I do visit others’ Twitter pages from time to time. I was shocked when, a few months ago, I witnessed one sector blogger offer unpaid guest post “opportunities”, followed by a tweet that essentially expressed her pleasure at being able to take a break because others were doing the work for her.

If I were to publish a guest post, I would benefit from the increased traffic to my site and the resultant increase in my profile. This would benefit me far more than the person putting in the work. Any “exposure” that the writer would gain is tenuous at best.

It lowers aspirations when better opportunities exist.

Our sector is small and I thoroughly believe there are opportunities for any good writer with original ideas. My experience over the last year of writing this blog has proved that to me.

Instead of writing for free, I suggest the following:

  • Pitch to the trade press. Third Sector occasionally puts out calls for submissions on Twitter, and they pay professional rates. I am not sure what the pitch process is for Civil Society (it would be excellent if they could be more transparent about this) but I would expect that, as a subscription publication, they also pay professional rates.
  • Pitch to the national press, or specialist publications/websites where you have personal interest or affinity that overlaps with charity sector themes e.g. LGBT+,  specific ethnic groups or religions, or local papers.
  • Set up your own blog; my philosophy is if you are going to write for free, do it to build your own platform. I pay approximately £80 per year for the WordPress premium package but there is also a free package available.

There are, of course, exceptions

It is possible to volunteer as a writer, just as volunteers fill all sorts of roles at charities. The crowdblog 101 Fundraising exists to serve the entire fundraising community, and I believe writing for them for free is a worthwhile endeavour. The same goes for blogs for the Institute of Fundraising, because neither of these sites provides benefit to one individual over and above the entire fundraising community.

When is guest blogging acceptable? When it pays. The well-known YouTuber Tom Scott invites submissions for guest videos; notably, he promises a cut of the advertising revenue. Even with his extraordinary reach and influence, he accepts that providing this as the only benefit is not acceptable. Creative work should be paid.

How do I want to support aspiring writers? By urging them to aim high.

If it’s not obvious by now, I’m not offering any guest spots on my blog. I can’t afford to pay and, believe me, you can do better.

I hope this post will inspire some readers to pitch to the trade press and/or start their own blog. My experience of both has been very positive. When Third Sector commissioned me for my first paid article, the simple fact that I was being paid pushed me to work hard and produce something I was proud of. As for my own blog, over the past year and a half I’ve built an online portfolio, developed my voice as a writer, and built connections with others in the sector.

Our sector is small and I strongly believe that anyone who is a good writer and has something to say will get noticed. What’s more, we desperately need more diverse voices.

I admit that in the past (prior to my fundraising career) I’ve made the mistake of writing articles for free. As well as being exploitative this kept me in a limiting mindset: I did not see myself as someone who could develop their own platform or be paid for their writing.

It’s taken me to my mid-thirties to realise that both things can be true for me. And they can be true for you, too.

I’m taking a short career break, but will soon be looking for a new role

I’m leaving my current role at Tommy’s, with my contract finishing at the end of June. I’ll be looking after my daughter while we wait for a nursery place to open up – hopefully by the autumn at the latest. When this is confirmed I will be actively job-seeking.

I would love to work for an environmental organisation, ideally based in central or south London, but I am open-minded as to the particular cause.

I’m an experienced trust fundraiser and people manager, with a strong track record of growing income and developing long-term relationships with funders. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of translating technical/scientific projects into compelling proposals. I also love developing people and gain deep satisfaction from supporting junior fundraisers to flourish.

I’d be happy to share my CV or have an exploratory chat with potential employers – please get in touch if interested.