Social media: the power of networks

vicky-browningVicky Browning, CEO of CharityComms


I’m a big fan of the power of networks.

I don’t mean the cliché of the predatory businessman working the room, glad-handing and making small-talk, always with one eye over your shoulder to see if someone more important’s come on the scene. I mean the power of people connecting with people.

Our network is our organisation

I head up CharityComms, the membership organisation for communications professionals working in charities. What lies at the heart of our operation – and is our biggest strength – is our network, the interlocking web of people who share, support, ask, offer, inform, empower and inspire each other to be the best they can.

For me, social media is a key component of making our network possible. It not only enables me to connect with people I know, but also people they know that I couldn’t possibly reach otherwise. In turn, it allows me to make connections for others – to point them to helpful people or useful information or resources.

Social media connects our members

And the combination of online and offline networks is especially powerful. I was MC at CharityComms’ recent pub quiz, where 20 crack charity teams battle it out for possibly the smallest trophy lack of money can buy.

One of my highlights of the evening was seeing a couple of people who’d previously interacted via Twitter come face to face and realise that they’d already connected.  They were both part of the CharityComms network – through membership, through social media and now through sharing a pint.

It was a satisfying example of one of the key roles I believe I have as a chief executive – making connections: facilitating conversations and forging relationships.

Engaging with a wider audience

Through social media I can introduce colleagues, share information and flag up issues. Social media helps me be an ambassador for my charity, for my cause and for the sector as a whole.

It lets me engage with a wide audience, gain insight and find content. It helps me listen, ask questions and share. And above all it helps me keep connected to my network. Do join me there at @browning_vicky or on LinkedIn (or just buy me a pint of course).


Twitter helps me learn from survivors of domestic abuse

polly-neatePolly Neate, CEO of Women’s Aid


When I started tweeting I couldn’t imagine how my deep and profound thoughts could possibly be conveyed in just 140 characters (arrogance is hardly unknown among charity CEOs is it?).

Seriously, it shows how far I’ve come that a few months ago, when Twitter mooted the idea of unlimited characters, I felt this would mean Twitter no longer had any place in my life.

Less is more. A good tweet is a “thing” in itself, not a cut down version of something you’d prefer to say at great length. If you must have complexity, loads of detail, or cover off every side to an argument, do it somewhere else.


We need leaders who convey their values

We are living in uncertain times: it’s the cliché of the year because it’s true. That means charity beneficiaries, staff and stakeholders need leaders who convey their values in all they do, and who communicate authentically and clearly.

Public trust in charities – and in charity CEOs specifically – is suffering. Frankly, I’m not surprised. We should be out there in public, accountable, showing what we do, giving an approachable face to our organisations.


Dealing with criticism

This doesn’t mean put your whole life on Twitter. I don’t. It doesn’t mean you always have to engage with those who disagree.

But if you can’t deal with the inevitable level of inappropriately worded criticism (as opposed to abuse, which you can report) then you probably aren’t ready for Twitter. And are you ready to run a charity?


Connecting with our audience

I knew my organisation needed me to tweet when I started this job. But the benefits are far greater than I expected. I’ve engaged with, and even met in real life in some cases, a supportive, funny, clever group of feminists without whom I would undoubtedly be worse at what I do.

Twitter has given me a platform to learn from and share ideas with survivors of domestic abuse – and if they are brave enough for Twitter after what they’ve been through, there’s little excuse for anyone else. I’ve “met”, and then actually met, many people who have helped Women’s Aid in ways from funding to policy to campaigning to advice on everything under the sun.


Social media takes time

It does take time, which is something I know worries a lot of CEOs. I guess my view is that this job is bonkers anyway. And this is important, so you have to fit it in.

Twitter has taken over from the Today Programme as my main morning companion (you can get the running order on Twitter just in case), and I tweet away while drinking my tea, between waking and the onset of parental duties.


A popularity contest?

The other objection I’ve heard from fellow CEOs is that Twitter is a shallow popularity contest. If you’re advertising yourself as a feminist, a cyclist and a charity CEO (see @pollyn1), popularity can’t worry you that much. We’re not paid to be popular, are we?

But we are paid to be the approachable, honest face of our organisation, driven by its values. In 2016, I’d say one inescapable channel for that is Twitter.



Social media is central to enabling debate

julie-bentleyJulie Bentley, CEO of Girlguiding

Amongst all the debate on Brexit, one overly simple take-away is that everyone wants to have their say. We’ve seen clear affirmation that making our voices heard is important to us Brits.

As CEO of Girlguiding, I’ve heard repeatedly that girls and young women don’t feel their voices are heard enough on the decisions that affect their lives. We know young people as a group voted differently to older in the referendum  and the whys and whereforalls merit more debate – Brexit after all affects their futures more than anyone’s. But what I want to say isn’t about the politics of Brexit but the message it sends about voice.


Twitter-phobe to fanatic

I’ve blogged here before about how I started my Twitter journey – I’ve gone from Twitter phobe to Twitter with breakfast, lunch and dinner!

I continue to use it so I’m accessible and transparent as a leader and to share important messages with our young members, volunteers, partners and sector colleagues (and sometimes sharing totally random and meaningless musings).


Social media is still used to silence people

As empowering as it can be, social media is also used as powerful way to attempt to silence certain people and groups often in the most unacceptable of ways – women, whilst not exclusively, are often targeted explicitly.  

It’s not good enough. Everyone should feel able to engage and contribute their views, as long as it’s within a context of respectful challenge and constructive debate.

Social media enables debate

 We are living in uncertain and changing times, and social media is a space that allows us all to hear the range of different perspective on key issues that are affecting our lives.

Being part of discussion through social media allows us to focus on the things that really matter to us.

For me, high up on my list of interests are young people, social justice issues and the charity sector.  I am especially interested in how the voluntary sector gets the voices of their beneficiaries heard in discussion. Social media is a simple and cost effective means to doing that.


Inspiring moments

It is also a great way to share special and inspiring moments. The moving speech from @alex_brooker  in his Paralympics coverage certainly brought a lump to my throat.

Social media can be such a powerful way to bring people together around shared interests and goals.

As a charity CEOs, let’s harness that potential to further awareness of and support for  the causes we feel so passionate about.

If you aren’t on twitter yet, come join us and say hi – I’m @juliebentley.



How social media lets me be a personal advocate for our cause

mark-flannaganMark Flannagan, CEO of Beating Bowel Cancer


Within my staff team and the wider supporter base I think that being an active and available Chief Executive brings a deal of credit.  Supporters particularly appreciate you always being “on” and available.  They want you to be a visible advocate for the cause and to show your passion and personal motivation.

This, for me, has never been a problem, or an intrusion.  Being directly connected through social media brings insight and immediacy.  It allows me to see sides of people and their stories that I might not otherwise get in the office, or mediated through other forms of communications.

In their turn, supporters appreciate seeing the ‘real me’ behind the CEO – whether that’s my cycling or baking.


Social media is part of our service

As a charity Chief Executive I see every day that social media is a central and vital medium to connect people with our services. Our unique bowel cancer helpline is signposted through Twitter and Facebook.

Our information and support booklets are routinely advertised and links to download are highlighted as well. We promote and sign up individuals to our successful Patient and Carer Days through social media.

All of this is now business as usual.  In many ways Twitter has replaced the mass mailing, as the means of reaching people and, crucially, we can now receive an almost instantaneous response and direct feedback.


My Twitter feed connects me to patients, their family and friends

Beyond this, in my role I am conscious that what I say, when I say it and how I say it via Twitter or Facebook is also a symbol of the charity’s ability to be there when people need it most.

My Twitter feed (@MarkFlannCEO) is a direct link to patients, their family and friends.  Through Twitter I can be there for them and let them know that the whole charity is there to help them.  I can thank people for their fundraising and celebrate when people connect with others going through the same experiences.



Unusually, I think, I am also available on Facebook.  I don’t see Facebook as my closed personal space, but think that it is not unreasonable that supporters can see and engage with me on a personal basis, albeit in much smaller numbers.

My Facebook connections are usually those with who I have had prior personal contact and who I know are individuals who want to have a closer relationship.  Real friendships are also formed, as well as Facebook Friends!  Instant messages are exchanged when people want an answer and I don’t see this as a problem or an inconvenience.


Always connected

Being a charity Chief Executive is never a nine-to-five job and in my view it is necessary to be aware and connected outside of these hours.  Social media is the best way to do this.

Of course, there is a risk that you can be swamped and work-life balance tilts the wrong way.  That said, in the times when I have needed motivation, being connected with individuals who are what we are all about has been a source of inspiration.


Social media has introduced me to my ‘bucket list’ of inspiring people

mandy-johnsonMandy Johnson, Director of Partnerships at

When I became a non-exec director at I was told that it was a vital part of my role to check Twitter every day and to follow the “right” people and organisations to ensure I didn’t miss out on key events within the sector. I think, in the back of my head, I knew this advice was right but I was angry because I had been hired without this skill. I had worked for some of the biggest companies and charities in the UK, broken records for the amount of money I’d helped to fundraise and been headhunted into my role. In short, I thought I could do my job without it.


I was intimidated at first

I was also intimidated. Posting good and engaging content on social media was always something that I wanted to be able to do well but, until a couple of years ago, I thought it was only possible to achieve this if you were famous, hilariously funny or someone who spent their life finding great videos to share from YouTube. I remember asking a colleague whether it was possible for me to get more than 100 followers on Twitter and not really believing him when he told me it was.


Would people forget me?

A couple of years later I had my first child and was worried that my peers, clients and colleagues would forget who I was, and what I was capable of, whilst I was on maternity leave. To overcome this I attended one of Zoe Amar’s courses entitled “How to improve your personal brand on social media”. At the time, social media felt like the one thing I could do whilst lying in bed breastfeeding a constantly hungry little boy.


Zoe’s course was wonderful. It made me realise that social media isn’t as scary as I’d thought. Even I, as a non-famous, not particularly funny, non-YouTube-obsessed person had something to say that was relevant on social media. Suddenly this scary form of communication was not so scary AND I was starting to achieve things I hadn’t expected.


I set myself the goal of being approached by someone I didn’t know because of my social media presence within three months…within three weeks I had been approached by a fundraiser from the NSPCC who wanted me to be their mentor and a few months later I was offered some freelance work by someone who found me through the same channel. I’m now used to interesting and valuable strangers wanting to connect with me because they’ve seen my presence on social media. It has led to so many interesting opportunities.


Social media opened doors for me


I have learnt that we all have something to say that someone else will be interested in…even me. Since Zoe’s course, I have acquired over 2,000 followers on Twitter, become the 7th most influential fundraiser in the UK (according to the readers of Fundraising Magazine) and now I’m working my way through a bucket list of people I wouldn’t previously have believed would meet me for coffee…one of whom is now my mentor!


Give it a go


I would encourage everyone to try out social media – try posting a blog on LinkedIn, or share an article you’ve found interesting on Twitter. It really is not as difficult or scary as you may think and I promise you, if you invest a few minutes every day or so, you will be paid back in bucket loads of new connections, opportunities and information that you would not have thought possible.


To get you started, why not say hello to me on Twitter – @MsMandyJ – I promise to say hi back!

Ten top tips for social CEOs

1. Social media is a massive opportunity. Use it to represent your charity well, reflect how important your work is, and improve transparency.

2. Share personal as well as professional updates. This will make your social media presence more human and approachable.

3. Tell your followers about what you’re working on. Your followers will value personal insights which show how you are making a difference.

4. Share expert information on your cause. This will position you and your charity as thought leaders and the ‘go to’ experts in your field.

5. Develop valuable relationships with decision makers on social media. Share useful information, have topical discussions and slowly build support for what your charity does.

6. It’s ok to have challenging conversations. If people disagree with you, as they might, be as nice and professional as you would be if it was a face to face discussion.

7. Share your fundraising journey. If you’re fundraising for your cause, share selfies, training stories and updates from the whole experience.

8. Encourage staff to use social media too. You can all be strong representatives of your cause and support each other as you do.

9. Use LinkedIn as a professional space. Get introduced to people who can help your charity and share professional content.

10. There are no rules on social media – only guidelines. Experiment and see what works for you.

How to use LinkedIn to reach decision makers

In the UK alone LinkedIn is used by 364,000 policy makers, 406,000 journalists and 19,000 CSR Directors. Just think about that for a moment. With so many decision makers on this platform, is your charity reaching them?

LinkedIn is a competitive network to get noticed on but if you follow these tips consistently you should be remembered by all the right people.

LinkedIn might just be the nonprofit world’s best kept secret for reaching senior influencers in the worlds of business and government. However, these people often receive many connection requests. Even if they do accept you, you may have your work cut out staying top of mind in their network. After all, the average CEO has 930 connections on LinkedIn. Here are my tips to help develop these relationships.

Know who you want to reach. What are your charity’s goals and how can connecting with influencers on LinkedIn support that? The more specific you are the more easily you will be able to search for these stakeholders on LinkedIn.

• Start with who you know. Use the add connections tool on LinkedIn to find out who you already know on there. Spend two minutes a day updating your network by connecting with people who you’ve worked with or had meetings with.

• Ask for introductions. If you can see that someone you really want to get to know is connected to someone in your network, ask for an introduction. Whenever people ask me to do this I’m happy to help.

• Remember that connecting is just the start. Post regular status updates and blogs. These should differ slightly from Twitter and Facebook; as LinkedIn is a professional network, you should use a more professional and formal tone of voice. However, don’t use LinkedIn to broadcast. Your aim should be to increase engagement and start conversations. So share something you’ve found useful (e.g. a great article or insight), news about what you’re working on, or ask a question that’ll get people talking.





Managing risks on social media

As the figurehead of an organisation, the Chief Executive will always be there to be scrutinised whether it be from commentary in the newspaper, to the ‘ voice’ on social media.

Be it Richard Branson, who famously faux-passed in front of his six million followers with ‘Space is hard – but worth it’ on the day of the fatal Virgin Galactic crash last year, to Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary seemingly forgetting the true reach of Twitter by commenting ‘Nice pic. Phoarrrr!!’ when a female fan posted a photograph of her airplane journey on his Twitter feed.

The risks these tweets impose on the person, but more importantly, an organisation’s brand can be huge so it’s really key that the person behind the tweet is taking responsibility and is aware of the risks social media brings. So…

Have you had training?

Has your media training been extended to the digital world? Specific training and guidance on social media for every level, from board to operational staff and volunteers, helps different roles to understand the risks and manage them. Keep the guidance and training simple, easy to access and remember, and people are more likely to engage in it.

Are you in the know?

As Chief Executives, you should be kept abreast of any ‘breaking news’ or latest developments (both internally and externally) that may affect or be related to your charity. The processes around these latest developments should be enforced to determine whether it is appropriate that you engage in conversation on that particular news story, or whether it is more appropriate to refrain in case the subject could be seen as insensitive. As Chief Executives, your first thought should be to check in with these processes, and not act before that. This could be critical in avoiding a ‘Richard Branson’ moment.

Authenticity is key

Your own voice will be much more engaging for beneficiaries, giving your own personal thought and passion for the cause. By having your own account, this is your chance to create your own ‘human touch’, a chance for everyone to see that you care about the charity you lead. This is you taking control of your own message but it should be one taken with care. This should be different from the charity’s, where the posts, in many cases, are constructed by professionally trained individuals who will have a more ‘structured’ approach to what they are saying.

As a social CEO, you already have a personal and vested interest in social media, but it is always important to check back to make sure you have the basics right when using these channels in attracting new beneficiaries.

Social media – time to get personal

Social media is by its very nature a personal business. You need to share your own thoughts, feelings and details about how you spend your spare time. But you’re the CEO, don’t you have to be careful with how much of that stuff you share with those who work for you?

Watercooler chat matters

Think of social media as an enormous watercooler, with millions gathered round it. We all indulge in that idle chit chat and gossip. Some of the most important morsels are discovered here, the scraps that help you get things done, even if they’re just ideas.

The difference with this watercooler though is that it has the most influential and most important stakeholders sharing their most intimate thoughts around it. If you don’t pay your dues by getting personal, who will share those mission-critical scraps with you?

Should I connect to my staff on social media?

Connect to your staff on social and one of two things happens:

• You share updates and snaps from your personal life – now your staff know about your personal life.

• They share updates and snaps from their personal life – now you know about your staff’s personal lives.

Either way, the dynamic between you changes, even if imperceptibly. So the culture at your organisation changes.

Now, this is only a problem if this doesn’t align with the organisational culture you want to build (assuming you have a clear idea about that). If you want a tight-knit vibe, connect away. If you want a more distant one, stay separate.

On Twitter, you can always follow and not always reply to their updates if you do read personal ones – depending what they’re like, your staff may feel snooped on if they know the boss reads everything they put out there.

How much should I share on social media?

Remember, you’re not an RSS feed. If you just churn out organisational news stories on social media, nobody will bother engaging with you.

If you are sharing news from your organisation, always add a feeling layer on top of the fact – are you delighted, excited, outraged? Tell us!

Finally, to whatever extent you feel comfortable, talk about your personal life and thoughts. The only rule you need to apply here is instinct – if something in you is stopping you pressing ‘tweet’ on an update, don’t do it.

Remember, being personal gives you personality. And it’s a rare leader who gets far without a fair dose of that.


How CEOs can use social media for culture change

Embracing the possibilities that digital offers means that charities face a huge change to their culture and way of doing things, as it both enables and requires collaboration, excellent internal communications and the ability to move quickly.

Encourage staff to be digital champions 

If your charity wants to get the most out of digital you will need staff who can champion the organisation on social media. However, it’s very important that they have the support from senior management to do so. Organisations should be clear about their digital goals for the future and bear these in mind when bringing in new staff – recruit for the culture you want to have, not the one you have now.

Digital means that employees throughout the organisation can have just as much impact as the CEO on the public perception of your organisation and its work. This can be a great opportunity to give your brand a more convincing and human voice, as individual experiences from the front line tend to be very powerful but it requires an open hands-off approach and lots of trust.

A good example of an organisation involving their employees in their social media strategy is the afrikids blog, which was created as a way “to give everyone in their organisation a voice.”

Work with HR and senior management

After all, while individual social media accounts belong to individuals, not organisations, any remarks made about the brand could be in the public domain forever. Just adding an “all views my own” disclaimer to an online profile isn’t enough to stop a negative comment from an individual reflecting badly on the organisation as a whole.

HR and Senior Management need to work together with your staff to ensure that everyone has clear guidelines on how to talk about your charity, its mission and work, and crucially, what not to say. Then employees should be encouraged to make the brand their own and talk about their work in their own voice.

Empowerment is key

A good example of an organisation involving their employees in their social media strategy is the AfriKids blog, which was created as a way “to give everyone in their organisation a voice.” The blog is updated by different members of staff with a mix of human interest, opinion posts and plenty of images.

According to AfriKids’ founder Georgie Fienberg, “We use the blog’s content to drive new audiences to our website with a view to spreading the word and generating interest in what we do.” This ultimately leads to new partners and donors – the lifeblood of our organisation.

Helping your staff embrace social media themselves can ultimately lead to stronger communications and networks withyour supporters, but it’s vital that it’s managed carefully.