NGOs and blogging on development: Why do we find it so hard?
I went to a fascinating ‘bloggers breakfast’ in Washington last week, hosted by Lawrence MacDonald of CGD and Oxfam’s Paul O’Brien. A bunch 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.
And 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.