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April 4, 2012

NGOs and blogging on development: Why do we find it so hard?

April 4, 2012
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I went to a fascinating ‘bloggers breakfast’ in Washington last week, hosted by Lawrence MacDonald of CGD and Oxfam’s Paul O’Brien. A thomas-the-tank-enginebunch of development bloggers from the Center for Global Development, Oxfam America and a few others chewed over a mixture of blogging dilemmas and CGD’s muffins and fruit. V pleasant way to start the day (actually I had started it an hour earlier reading endless Thomas the Tank Engine books (see right) to a delightful three year old by the name of Lawrence – great way to start the day). What emerged?

My over-riding impression was just how much of a struggle blogging is for NGO types: many (not all) NGO bloggers just don’t enjoy the experience. They find it hard to keep to length or strike a suitably conversational tone. But much more problematic is how they feel about the exercise – overwhelmingly anxious. Constrained by feeling they face a conflict between finding their personal blogger’s voice and having to write to what one Oxfamista called ‘the editorial voice’ (I didn’t even know we had one…..). People talked of ‘writing what I think is appropriate from Oxfam’s point of view, and not in my own voice’. ‘I’m just so nervous and afraid of having my true voice out there, so I get really conservative.’ Ouch. Not surprising, then, that so many great bloggers inside Oxfam choose to set up their own personal blogs instead, but I think that’s a shame too, if it means fewer people get to read them.

These difficulties show in the numbers – a lot of NGO blogs really don’t do very well on traffic or on reputation (the ABBAs were dominated by academic blogs – NGOs barely got a mention). So what can we do about this? First distinguish between the different purposes of blogs and manage them differently. Some categories (please add your own refinements) include:

1. Discursive, trying to set or change agendas (Gramsci would have made a great blogger), raise new issues, but feeling free to express doubts (yep we all have them), and not hammer home specific policy demands (what Owen Barder caricatures as ‘flogging not blogging’). I would put FP2P into the (very) discursive category. For these you need to give the blogger license and avoid heavy sign-off processes. If you’re worried, then monitor authors over a probationary period and if they don’t screw up, progressively loosen the reins.

2. Issue specific-policy blogs – Oxfam’s new Global Health Check is doing rather well in this category, getting decent numbers and lots of positive feedback from health officials and other target audiences. In this case the writers should know the no-go areas better than anyone – so set the bloggers free. In this category, doubt and diversity may not work – if you’re trying to persuade health officials, it’s no good having one post saying user fees are terrible, then another saying ‘well, on the other hand….’

3. Witness bearing: one of NGOs’ niches ought to be blogging ‘from the field’ in a way that communicates the reality of life in developing country communities to people who live elsewhere (mainly in rich countries). If these are really crude ‘thank you Oxfam for giving me a new goat’ type blogs, they probably won’t reach many people – nuance and ambiguity is a good thing when trying to describe real life. But some of them can be extraordinarily powerful, like the blogs from Oxfam staffer Mohamed Ali during the Gaza blockade in 2009. Sign-off here should be limited to avoiding risk to staff or partners in country.

There are some inevitable and pretty fundamental tensions. Campaigners are always itching to use blogging in a rather instrumental way, e.g. get everyone blogging on the same issue or directed at the same target, but on some level, that really goes against the nature of blogs. ‘Authenticity is key’ asked one participant, ‘but how do you coopt authenticity?’ No blogger (or indeed sentient human being) agrees with their organization’s ‘line’ all the time.

dog_blog_cartoonAnd there is more to life (and social media) than blogging. Owen Barder usefully described blogs as ‘part of a set of conversations’, including twitter, facebook etc. He sees the particular niche of blogs as setting out arguments, rather than having conversations – twitter is better suited to that. I came back from the US finally accepting that I am going to have to start using twitter for more than the current ‘robo-tweet’ alerts of blogposts.

Overall, I would say that NGOs need to think about the bloggers not the blog. Blogs need human faces and personality, which seems to go against an instinctive corporate urge to suppress ego, promote the Oxfam brand and speak anonymously in ‘the Oxfam voice’. According to in-house blogging guru Eddy Lambert, this doesn’t work: ‘‘We have no evidence that people want to develop relationships with ‘brands’. It’s people, problems and ideas every time. However much we may wish otherwise, we struggle (as do others) when we place our brand at the centre and obsess over style/tone of voice etc.’ 

If you have multiple bloggers on a site , at least follow Global Dashboard’s model of giving prominence to them as individuals, and letting subscribers pick and choose who they want to hear from.

Finally, this has to be fun, not a chore (or it shows). Don’t force people to blog if they hate it. Would-be bloggers need encouragement, mentoring (especially on the first few posts) and, yes, empowerment. NGOs have to shift from ‘permission to forgiveness’ – a big but essential organizational shift (practice makes perfect – I’m getting quite good at asking for forgiveness….). Unless we can make these kinds of changes, I fear NGOs are going to continue to struggle in the blogosphere.

Your thoughts?

14 comments

  1. Hi Duncan,
    as usual interesting reflexions and useful suggestions. I wonder whether one other consideration that puts off potential bloggers came up, at least one that I experience occasionally?: that however many people the blogs reach, they at times come across as cliquey (spell?), self-referetial and with lots of first names, that are not exactly inclusive…a bit blokey if you like (back to that old chestnut?…but even Thomas is a boy!)

  2. An NGO blog (and its facebook page / twitter account / etc) need to be seen very differently from traditional NGO communications channels, for two reasons.

    First, glossy reports, leaflets and even websites are expensive to produce and fixed once done so NGOs can afford to make sign-off a complicated process. To be effective, blogs etc need to be dynamic, quick-on-their-feet and conversational. Most NGO leaders are not comfortable with that.

    Second, I think its important for NGO blogs to try to open out the NGO, so that readers get a sense of how the organisation works on the inside as well as how it likes to present itself to the public. That’s even harder for NGO leaders to accept. It would be interesting to know what Oxfam’s top leadership think of the Nairobi swimming pool blogpost?

    In both cases, the exceptions seem to be where an NGO’s blogging presence is handled by someone sufficiently senior within the organisation – such as with fp2p – so that sign-off doesn’t become a blockage.

    Then it becomes a time/workload issue, but my firm belief is that the benefits (engagement, brand identity, agenda setting) can massively outweigh the costs.

  3. I am new to blogging…something we set up for our organization last November just ahead of the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan. We did it as a way to bring our members back home closer to some of the issues that were being discussed thousands of miles away. It was a big success, and we (different staff members and guest bloggers)continue to blog and at a pace we can handle -about every ten days (something heretical I am sure to the blogging world!). This makes it both manageable and enjoyable.

    Yes I am sure we would like more people to read the blog, and perhaps have the blog influence more people’s thinking, but I am personally not trying to think about that as the driving force behind the blog.

    My key interest lies in, as you say, talking about “people, problems and ideas every time.” For me blogging gives me time to think…something that many of us don’t have the time to do with that “inbox” constantly filling up.

  4. Ben’s comments resonate with me — especially this: “the exceptions seem to be where an NGO’s blogging presence is handled by someone sufficiently senior within the organisation – such as with fp2p – so that sign-off doesn’t become a blockage.” Too many NGO blogs seem to be extensions of the communications department written by folks who are junior enough to worry about violating that “voice” – and it’s really hard to write an interesting blog about “here’s the good thing we just did.”

    Duncan — what’s your impression? At the bloggers’ round table did most folks have communications backgrounds? And where are they situated in their organizations’ structures, both in terms or seniority and department (communications vs. research, etc)?

  5. Some good ideas here as usual. Like many, I follow blogs (NGO and otherwise) as one means of keeping up with international development news, ideas and trends – but it occurs to me that most of them are written by people in the North. Am I missing something here? Perhaps there plenty of Southern bloggers out there, with potentially fresh and different ideas, and I just haven’t tracked them down. Or, are blogs another example of us Northerners – perhaps better equipped with resources and space in our work agendas – again dominating the development discourse?

  6. Of course I have to write anonymously to say this, but it has to be said:

    Letting staff blog, and not just PR-blog, means trusting our staff. The guts of it is that there is not enough trust. Yet there are times when we are expected to mobilize ourselves, our private facebook profiles and time and presence, with the flap-du-jour when there are major campaigns on.

    Between these two things, I think there’s a clashing of gears. We want staff to be socially active and digitially influential… but only at the org’s beck and call? It can’t be turned on and turned off like that.

    W[h]ither trust?

  7. This question has been bothering me for years since, once upon a time, Brazilian NGOS were so quick on their feet they practically birthed the whole Internet business in Brazil. Nowadays, you’re hard pressed to find one that can make a decent use of social media tools. I myself have tried to keep a blog but has been taxing, to say the least. Bill Morton may have a point, though, for I can only speak, from a personal standpoint, about Brazil, where the blogosphere is overflown with good and bad stuff, but very little from the NGO community.

  8. This is right on the mark, “If you have multiple bloggers on a site , at least follow Global Dashboard’s model of giving prominence to them as individuals, and letting subscribers pick and choose who they want to hear from.” I would say CGD is also successful in this regard and FP2P seems to give you the free reign to take it on as your blog rather than an institutional one.

    Ben and Brett got at what I have been arguing for awhile. Blogging and social media break down traditional NGO communications tactics. Control has to be loosened in order to be more immediately responsive and to give personality/voice to the various spaces. Trying to achieve that will be an ongoing process, but I agree with Lee Crawfurd’s assessment awhile ago that more NGOs will have big name bloggers such as yourself at the helm.

    Part of the challenge is showing that the value may not directly lead to financial returns. Blogging for NGOs is a bit more of a goodwill move in that it is for the betterment of the organization and the sector. Open conversations can lead to more honest learning for the NGOs and the potential donors. It can be one tool of education for people who are not as knowledgeable about specific interventions.

    When I am asked by an organization what to do in order to help their social media account, my first piece of advice is to encourage staff to sign up for twitter and use it in a personal capacity. Not all will use it and demands should not be made. However, the strength of CGD’s social media is the use by its staff. People can converse with Owen, Michael, and others about given topics. That plus blogging brings individuals closer to topics and leads to conversations about ideas, programs and interventions.

    This gets back to the need to loosen control by NGO comms teams. It seems that some are ready, but others are reluctant. This is evidenced by the lack of interaction between NGOs and what I consider to be a strong aid blogging sector. It has dramatically improved over the past year, but there is a long way to go.

  9. Duncan

    I hope you are having a good break.

    This is insightful and interesting as ever. And that leads me to think that in our discussion over breakfast, and consequently in your report of it, we underestimated something important: content.

    We talked a lot about tone, voice and freedom to disagree with a corporate line.

    But it seems to me probably more important is the quality of the content you write about.

    The reason I read this blog, and Chris Blattman, is that you both consistently identify interesting topics to write about, and then you say interesting, insightful things about them.

    It is right to talk about tone and process, but let’s keep in mind as well the importance of having interesting things to say.

    Owen

  10. Interesting reflections on NGOs and the discomfort to use social media.

    There are still many individuals who don’t like the public interface of blogging and prefer to take a behind-the-scenes approach to conversations about their work. That’s something to be respected, too, alongside the style of the more extroverted blogger who has the tendency to… over-tweet. Trick, I keep being told, is to have something to say – and something worthwhile.

    Our awkwardness with blogging goes back to a basic lack of trust and confidence amongst us all, about communicating our ideas more freely, and trusting that others will listen.

    It isn’t always organisations that regulate what we say and don’t say – but organisations are essentially made up of people like us – and the more we accept the idea of blogging, and responsible blogging, the more likely it is that we can loosen our organisational culture.

  11. Its an interesting question, but to me the answers lie in the kinds of institutions NGOs are and the kinds of things their staff are expected to do. Unlike researchers/academics journalists or your run of the mill desk top activist, NGO staff are mostly there to keep the machine running–plan, implement, report. There might be one or two whose function is to think, but even then, they are supposed to think in a certain frame, and after many years in an organization, that just about defines them. NGOs are not knowledge generation institutions–advocacy messages have to be simplified for audiences we believe don’t know better. Then of course there is a sense of legitimacy–development blogging is usually about other people’s contexts, histories and most expat development worker have their colonial baggage to contend with. the constraints of political correctness and the outcry if you violate the rules will silence you. Its a rather sanctimonious environment, and one where you just want to keep away. It was only when I worked in a local NGOs that I felt free to think, to be creative and put my thoughts out there. My two experiences of international NGOs was just the opposite. I did internal interviews of candidates who had been in positions for years, and they could not come out with one original thought beyond the organizations credo. When Dambisa Moyo published Dead Aid, I expected a lively controversial engagement. There was silence. Then defensiveness. Local staff would not have said ‘they agreed’ outright because they were worried they would be thrown out the door. And when could they blog about an experience where aid had been completely useless without immediate intellectual excommunication? I got tired of offering ideas and thoughts, only to find people took what they wanted and ditched what didn’t fit. I didn’t need to be right, but discussion was not part of the process. And Duncan … take a step back … once you make a statement or take a position on an issue, it takes someone powerful in the organization to disagree and challenge that thinking. If you want your colleagues to blog more, then you (I mean NGOs) have to give them the spaces to think and learn more and show that their ideas and knowledge are valued. (-:But above all, once you turn activists into functionaries, you have pretty much killed the spirit of writing…

  12. Interesting comments and insightful discussion. Owen is spot on, it should be driven by interesting content that adds value to people, because that’s the only reason people will keep coming back to read it.
    A blog just focussed on the organisation and how great they are isn’t particularly inspiring or interesting for readers.
    First, you need to ask yourself, what’s the objective of the blog, is it to raise profile of your org, engagement, fundraising? Because each objective requires a different strategy. A blog for the sake of a blog will get lost. A vision and focus is essential as a starting point, then plot the content strategy from that standpoint.

  13. Hey guys I’ve just started blogging for a small NGO here in rural Rajasthan. My approach has been much more ‘journalistic’ & occasionally I try & throw in a bit of light humour to break the sometime serious tone. What I’ve found is that statistics are great & do lament the dire situation but imagination has to be used as well. For instance: Very little is known about the rural regions of India yet their populations are huge & so detrimental for the wellbeing of this nation!!! Rajasthan has over 80 million people & a female rural literacy rate of 45%, without mentioning any other statistics you can imagine how little knowledge is known about HIV, individual rights, modern agricultural practices, the basic daily wage under MGNREGA, importance of education, susceptibility to child marriage; the list goes on……

    What is being done…..
    Educational, agricultural, health, empowerment, women’s rights programs & so on….

    I try to be informal but disciplined, paint the picture by listing the facts, be skeptical with imagination but not overly & then list what is being done to fix the problem statistics are great to reassure the reader.

    Like I said this is just my approach. Here’s one of my more recent on women empowerment:
    http://thezeebraabroad.blogspot.in/2014/06/it-is-true-that-we-may-never-be-able-to.html

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