Social Tech and Charity: Great for the bank balance but what about the brand?

27 08 2012

I’ve noticed in recent months that more and more space on my Facebook homepage now seems to be dedicated to friends talking about the latest run or bike ride or walk they are doing for charity and asking me to give what I can to the cause. This is invariably followed by the mention of some sort of target that they are trying to meet, one assumes in order to get me to loosen my purse-strings further.

It occurred to me the other day, that whilst all this fundraising that is happening through social technology at the moment must be great for the charities bank balances, it might not actually be so great for their brands. Sure it’s fantastic for Facebook as I have just alluded to, as it puts them at the forefront of people’s minds when it comes to charitable brands.

Sure it has been fantastic for Vodafone; who were the first network to have the bright idea to allow people to set up their own charity text lines with their Just Text Giving service. This basically allows you to set yourself up as a sub-brand of any charity you want, raising money for them whilst being – at least as far as the giver is concerned – completely disconnected from the charity at the point of donation.

It’s a genius move by both Facebook and Vodafone; as millions have now been raised for charity via both mediums. And it is great for us and our fondness for individualism. Seriously, what better way to assert it than through our own ego rubbing pedestals from which we may shout about our charitable work? So it is great for us and great for companies involved in social tech, but is it a genius move by the charities?

Now I’m not really the best person to talk about charity, mainly because I don’t believe it solves anything as it weakens both the giver and the receiver by making them dependant on one another when the best way to change someone’s circumstances is to empower them to change their situation for themselves.

But I’m not going to talk about my problems with charity and it’s failures here, that is for another time.

I’m going to talk about the brands. Whilst I’ll admit that I’m not the best person to talk about charity, I do – through my job – have a decent understanding of brands. And in the long-term I see the dilution of the identities of the movements that sit behind Just Text Giving and other charitable fund-raising platforms. At the end of the day, the brand is what we buy into, not the product, but the brand. And more often than not these days, I find myself giving money to a mate and not to the charity.

We all have brands we are tied to, companies we are unquestionably loyal to and whom we will forgive most indiscretions. For me it’s Apple and Manchester United. I’m pretty boring and simple in that way, I’ve never been much of a fan of stuff and things but I’ll admit that these two can both bring out a materialistic/irrational side of me that I’d like to pretend no longer exists.

The problem charities face by opening themselves up to social tech is the same problem we all face each time we either receive or hand out the type of abuse that is only reserved for the Internet’s various comment feeds. You see, the Internet (and particularly social tech), pulls off the hugely impressive feat of BOTH connecting us and disconnecting us like never before, and this is where – so far at least – charity seems to have misunderstood the full power of its latest weapon. It can work both ways.

That is where the fear should lie for any charity involved with Facebook or Vodafone or any other platform where the public becomes the spokesperson. Yes their bank balance is more connected to more of us than ever before, but the brands are becoming more and more disconnected from the general public each time one of us gives a friend money on their behalf. They ought to do something about it.

Look at Apple. Apple are able to sell their products through intermediaries like PC World because apple have products. As awesome (if not ridiculous) as their shops are, it doesn’t matter if I buy their latest gadget in an Apple Store or not because I always have the product at the end connecting me to their intricate web of communications and serving as the proof of why I felt something for this brand in the first place.

With charities it doesn’t quite work in the same way, when I give money to a charity, the connection must exist at the point of sale if that charity wishes to create any sustained loyalty from its contributors. The problem is that outside of their communications and the conversation I have with the representative on the phone or on the street, there is very little to keep me tied to that organisation. No products, no services, just the cause.

Therefore if the message is everything how can you ensure that your message is not diluted by all these people going out and raising money for you in their own names? What does that mean for the long-term future of your business? And make no mistake, charity is big business.

I’d say right now as things stand even big movements like the WWF should be worried. At least enough to recognise that the balance is not yet quite right. It doesn’t mean scrapping social tech as a money-raising tool, it certainly can’t be denied it has its benefits. But it does mean it is time for a rethink around how to strike a balance between boosting the contributions you receive and keeping the brand on point and the message as clear as it ever was.

The use of Social Media to boost any cause can be of huge benefit to the organisation if done well. But, if you get it wrong, – and many, many organisations are getting it wrong – it could serve to destroy everything that made you great in the first place. Whether you are an Apple or an Amnesty International, you’d better take social tech seriously, or it might just bite you in the bottom…

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