Social networking and online communities

Online social networks connect people together; people with similar interests, people who know each other. Charities are beginning to experiment with these online networks as one way of finding a new generation of supporters and campaigners.

These networks are expanding rapidly, but it is early days for this new “participatory media”. It remains to be seen if online activity and virtual communities can successfully inspire people to get active in the real world. There’s nothing to lose in joining these networks and it could turn out to be the best way to engage with a new generation of volunteers.

How do these new media sites differ to traditional media?

  • Users don’t want to passively ‘consume’ media. They want to participate.
  • Social network users want to create their own content.
  • Online users don’t want to be lectured to. They want to make conversations and join debate.
  • Most network users want to expand their contacts and “meet” new people.
  • Users tend to collect together into small special interest groups.

According to Hitwise, the internet analyst company, three of the top ten websites in the UK are now social networking sites. Read some of the latest research about how people are using social networks and new media:

What can you do on these online networks?

  • Spread the message about the volunteering opportunities you have to offer.
  • Ask your current volunteers to engage in online conversations with others about the volunteer work they do for your organisation.
  • Give people the tools and information they need to get involved.
  • Share your volunteering experiences and inspire others to do the same. Keep it personal. Don’t be “official” or overtly plug your organisation as it puts other networkers off.
  • These networks can help you engage ‘hard to reach’ communities. For example, Shelter has found that homeless people use social networking sites and email as their only constant means of communication.

Girlguiding UK leaders have created a network on Facebook. The Scout Association has made a big impact on MySpace. The organisation PostPals recruits new volunteers to write to sick children using their pages on MySpace and Facebook. The charity Make a Difference has used MySpace and Bebo to recruit young volunteers.

Lots of charities are joining Bebo Be One. Launched in Summer 2007 it’s a social network designed to help people get in touch with campaigners, charities and support organisations. The Scouts are already linked up to the Bebo Be Enriched network. It’s a great way to meet people interested in volunteering.

Oxfam succeeded in inspiring hundreds of people to set up their own fundraising events by engaging them on the networking site MySpace. See what they achieved with their online Oxjam campaign.

TimeBank in partnership with TMobile have launched the first online community designed to help young people volunteer. They hope to capture young people’s imaginations in the virtual world of Junction49 and help them find the volunteering opportunities they want.

The Dogs Trust launched their own photo sharing site called as a way for the charity to reach new supporters. Site users can upload and share their own dog photos, get advice from experts and chat on the DoggySnaps online forum.

Have a look at The Media Trust’s Communication for the next generation,  a guide to new media, engaging young people and online communities. Also have a look at the charities featured in “ICT Hub Think Tank: New Media Case Studies” also produced by the Media Trust.

To find out about the latest charities’ adventures on social networks, read Steve Bridger’s blog, nfp 2.0.

The biggest online networks

  • facebook : Launched in 2004 and it already has over 34million active members worldwide. 150,000 new members join the network each day. It could be described as a contacts book, a people finder, a messaging and blogging service and more.
  • Bebo : Still the most popular social networking site in the UK. It’s still favoured by teens that come to Bebo to chat with other young people and their school friends. It’s aimed at 13 to 30 year olds.
  • MySpace : MySpace has 180million members. It offers a forum for messaging, blogging, networking and chatting with both friends and strangers. It is best known for the musicians who use the site to share their music with the vast network of MySpace members.
  • Horse’s Mouth : Social networking for social good. It’s a new site designed to encourage and host online mentoring.
  • Second Life : “A 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its Residents… today it is inhabited by a total of 8,863,920 Residents from around the globe.” Save the Children was the first UK charity to try to use Second Life by setting up a virtual ”Yak Shack”. They didn’t succeed in raising much money through the site but they raised awareness and the story got lots of media coverage.
  • Habbo is a virtual community, similar to Second Life, but it’s designed for school age children. 750,000 11 to 18 year olds visit the site each month. ChildLine set up a “Zen ChildLine garden” inside the online Habbo world.
  • YouTube : A popular website where you can upload, watch and share video clips. It allows anyone to broadcast their own content. WRVS have posted their own short appeal film for volunteers on the site. You can also watch CSV’s Make A Difference Day film.
  • Flickr : Is one of the most popular online photo-sharing sites with over 4.5 million users.
  • Videojug :  Videojug is a new site which claims to ”host one of the world’s largest, most all-encompassing libraries of factual content online” Users can upload their own informative “How To” and “Ask The Expert” films. Have a look at their film about how to become a hospice volunteer.
  • is a relatively new social network where users join special interest clubs. The difference to other networks is that Yuwie share their advertising revenue with all network members; people are paid to participate.
  • is a global network of people who want to make a difference. Their motto is “Discover. Share. Take Action”. Although there are UK based groups on the network it is still a mainly American site. Two other similar sites are and both aim to help people join together to campaign, get active in their communities and change the world.

Advertising on online social networks

You can purchase advertising space on online networking sites. However, these networks are anarchic and you can’t predict or police the kind of content which your advert might end up beside. Plus, recent research has found that most active social networkers respond unfavourably to the advertising which appears in their online communities.  It’s risky and you may end up alienating more people than you reach with your advert. Find out more in The A to Z of advertising.

Messageboards and online forums

Girlguiding UK set up their own messageboard site for their volunteer guide leaders. Have a look at

Yahoo! provides space online for people to set up their own special interest groups. You can search their vast directory to find a group discussion or special interest network which you want to join. These groups have proved to be particularly popular with health charities, creating support networks for people dealing with particular health problems. There are many groups in the directory involved with volunteering. : Over 250,000 mothers use this site’s messageboards and chatrooms to get advice, seek support, chat and share their experience. It was set up and is still run by seven mothers.

The BBC also host a number of special interest messageboards, as well as their Action Network - an online forum designed to help people get involved in their community. Mail Online also host a number of messageboards.

Others to consider AOL Chat & Community and Google Groups.


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