The story goes that NGOs were able to mobilise support and spread their message online over a decade ago, when the corporates they were up against barely had any web presence to speak of. This is cited as one of the reasons for their ascendancy in the political power game.
How are they faring these days? This is by no means a long analytical piece: I haven’t combed through hundreds of NGO sites from which I’ll cite dozens of examples; but in short, my general feeling is that NGOs aren’t as effective online as they used to be. To some extent, it’s probably their fault. Some have amazing stories – especially from the field – but are not using social media as well as they could to tell them. Sometimes they use the tools but not in an integrated manner e.g. offline campaigns aren’t backed up online and vice-versa. Big NGOs are often too split along country or regional lines: rather than sharing material across platforms they’re keeping it separate, which is pointless as well as detrimental. Also, some of these same big-time NGOs have sites that are far too pristine and corporate-looking. Meanwhile, others have crammed too much into their toolkit, meaning that they do a little of everything badly rather than a few things well; and others, especially small-time single issue pressure groups, are not using cheap and cheerful tools nearly as much as they should (although I hasten to add that some do!)
To some extent, their loss of the best practice mantle is not really their doing. With their mammoth budgets, their corporate adversaries have played catch-up very well by developing credible CSR programmes and hiring smart agencies that do great communications online, with plenty of effective social media in the mix and winning the search-ranking battle.
Having said that all that, the spirit of the NGO is alive and well, and their message is stronger than ever. However, it’s not necessarily them that’s delivering it. Firstly, “regular folk” are often more militant than most NGOs nowadays, and they’re very active online in forums, blogs etc. I did a little bit of research last week in response to a report from the Food Standards Agency in the UK which claims that organic is no healthier than regular produce, and was astonished to see how many people (with no affiliation to official groups) were taking a stand against the FSA. And they were pretty angry. Secondly, corporations themselves are making noise about the sort of issues only NGOs seemed interested in until recently.
Conclusion? Having mobilised people to such an extent over the last 10 or 20 years to the point where they have actually radically altered the common man’s sensibilities over a range of issues and leading ultimately to far more responsibility in corporate-land (as well as politico-land of course) is no doubt a great triumph and impressive legacy. It probably might not seem to matter so much that they’re not good with Twitter: that’d be taking a myopic view of the global challenges we still face and which they can contribute to. Still, I think they should brush up a little online.