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To Twitter or not to Twitter?

30 March 2009 at 4:15 pm
Staff Reporter
Everyone's talking about Twitter, but what is it, and should your charity be using it?

Staff Reporter | 30 March 2009 at 4:15 pm


To Twitter or not to Twitter?
30 March 2009 at 4:15 pm

Everyone’s talking about Twitter, but what is it, and should your charity be using it? Here’s the full story from our contributor and fundraising consultant Jill Ruchel.

Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read other users’ updates, which are known as "tweets".

It allows you to answer the question, "What are you doing?" by sending short text message of 140 characters ("tweets") to your "followers".

Another way of looking at it is as a mass text-messaging service that allows you to send 140 character "tweets". It’s designed to be read on a mobile, or online.

You can send your messages using the Twitter website, as a single SMS alert, or using one of the enormous number of third party applications like Twhirl, Snitter or Twitterfox.

Your tweets can be found on your Twitter page and on the Twitter page of each of your followers.

Basically you go to the Twitter website, set up a page for yourself or your organisation (which takes about 10 minutes), and you send these short messages "tweets" to your followers. Followers are people who choose to "follow" you on Twitter, a process as simple as clicking a button on your Twitter page).

Why might they want to follow you? Because you’ve got something interesting to say.

So what’s the big deal? And why is it relevant to charities?

Twitter is the hot new thing in social media.

During the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November, people scoured Twitter for postings from eye witnesses. When US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River, one of the first pictures was posted as a link on Twitter.

Its usage has grown from an estimated 500,000 tweets a day over a year ago, to some 2 million an hour now (Source:

It’s estimated to have around 8 million unique visitors a month. OK that’s not so huge when you think that Facebook has 65 million, but given that Twitter had only around 1 million a year ago, that’s a huge increase. (see: (

Unique visitors may also not be the best measure, as a huge amount of the activity takes place via SMS.

It’s relevant to charities not just because of its rapidly increasing adoption, but because it’s such an easy way to communicate with people who are interested in your work or what you’ve got to say.

So how are charities using it?

Uses of Twitter to date by charities are many and varied.

The Red Cross in the US is using it to update followers on dangerous weather conditions:

Wildlife Watch in the US use Twitter to give their program managers a chance to create friendships with Twitter users from their specific audience. The programs allow for a very specific audience to collect information about what they are most interested in (discussed in Beth Kantor’s blog about the session she did on this (in rhyme) at the recent South by South West (SXSW) Media and Music Conference).

ActionAid UK and Amnesty International UK use it to share information and promote their advocacy work:

Individuals can use it to support charitable fundraising efforts.
Beth Kantor, the queen of social media for Not for Profits, famously used Twitter to raise funds to send young Cambodian college students, Leng Sopharath and Cham Perom, to college, with the help of 82 donations collected via Twitter in the space of a few days.
Jeremiah Owyang, ( a Forrester Research web strategist, used Twitter for a personal campaign to inspire people to donate to the Red Cross to help the victims in the Earthquake in China last year, by blogging a series of photos compiled from his trips to China, showing beautiful images of every day life he had taken himself.
Oliver Ding then took it upon himself to turn the blog photos and the Twitter responses into a Slideshare ( presentation, which was further promoted through Twitter.
Members of the Austin Social Media Club used Twitter to promote a "Tweetup" for a blood drive. (

Yes you can raise money on it

You can see from some of the examples above that you can raise money on it.

In fact Network for Good ( a North American donation platform processing platform has created a mashup called, tweet4good ( that integrates with Twitter (, allowing any user of Twitter to easily donate to any cause or organisation registered with Network for Good.

However the dollars raised to date are small.

… but really it’s about relationships

What Twitter is great for is staying in touch, letting people know quickly about events, news, or developments, and for building relationships.
In my view there are terrific broadcasting opportunities, but even better for two-way communication.

It’s immensely valuable if you are an advocacy organisation like Greenpeace or Amnesty International and want to inspire people to take action.

It’s terrific for emergency updates like bushfires, or other natural disasters. Not only can it be used as an alert, it can also let donors know what is happening. For example, Australia for UNHCR could have let its donors and potential supporters know that they were initially the only charity that had managed to get supplies into Myanmar after the cyclone.

Animal welfare organisations use it to alert their supporters about horror news stories. Event organisers can use it to communicate with participants and donors, inspiring them to greater fundraising, training, planning or other efforts. It can be used to spread ideas, useful references, interesting links and urgent updates.

It’s wonderful for creating a buzz around events. Events like World’s Greatest Shave, Girls Night In or the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s Pink Ribbon Breakfast could create wonderful Twitter communications about what people are doing or planning.

Twitter’s value to you lies not just in the followers you have, but in their followers too. Fundamentally, it’s peer-to-peer or viral in nature, which means your impact can be exponential.

Should you be using Twitter?

Whether or not you should be using Twitter depends on your goals.

There’s no doubt it will take some time, attention and resources. If you are going to do it, don’t start it and then stop. People will come to follow you based on who you are as a charity, and if you don’t follow through, you’ll let them down.

If you are going to encourage your staff to Twitter, you need to be aware that you will not be able to control the message. They will be discussing your organisation’s work with the broader public, and they need to have the freedom to do that.

In fact don’t even try to control the process. It won’t work. The key to Twitter relationships is spontaneity, integrity and authenticity – as in any relationship. If your messages are too packaged, they won’t have the critical ring of authenticity.

By all means have goals for your activity. But don’t make them fixed or rigid – you’ll miss the serendipitous possibilities that might emerge.

So the answer is that if you are committed as a charity to building relationships with your supporters, then yes, go ahead and start tweeting.

Jill Ruchel is the Managing Director of Praxis Fundraising. She can be contacted via email

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