Social entrepreneurs: Charity begins online
Social entrepreneur Jean O’Brien is helping Irish charities get a healthier return from their digital communications
Jean O’Brien, founder of Irish Charity Lab, which was set up last year to help charities in Ireland develop skills and strategies for digital communications to support their causes. Photograph: Laurence McMahon/Laurence J Photography
Last year, it felt as if everyone and their granny got doused with buckets of ice-cold water. Video clips of the pre-bucket cringes and post-bucket shivers were posted in their millions on social media, and the drenched and freezing donated money to help research and services for motor neurone disease.
Then women started taking pictures of their faces with no makeup on, and posting them online. This time it was to raise money for cancer research.
The ice-bucket challenge and the “no-makeup selfie” are two examples of how digital technology can help charities increase public awareness and raise much- needed funds. But where would a small charity even start?
Enter Irish Charity Lab, which social entrepreneur Jean O’Brien set up last year to help charities in Ireland develop skills and strategies for digital communications to support their causes.
“In the past five to 10 years, there has been a huge change in the way consumers behave, and there are big opportunities now for using websites, email, social media and mobile for fundraising and getting people to take action,” says O’Brien, who works for Barnardos as an online executive.
She had noticed a gulf between charities wanting to do something in the digital area and getting the expert training to do it, so a few years ago she set up an online group to connect people working on digital projects in the charity sector.
“I set it up so we could share resources and help each other out with problems,” she says. “And it worked well and was building good connections, so I wanted to bring it to the next level to provide a more formal service to the charity sector.”
That led her to set up Irish Charity Lab, which today offers free resources on its website; it runs workshops about practical issues such as how to get more online traffic and funds; and it updates members on a mailing list with tips and news.
“We are testing out a number of different ways to build skills in the sector,” says O’Brien. “And the lab approach is that you test things and see what works, then if you get great results from an activity you look to scale that up.”
At the moment, she is preparing a mentoring scheme where she or a colleague from Irish Charity Lab will spend time working with small charities.
“They may not have anyone there with a background in multimedia or digital communications, or it may be that one person is doing the digital but they are doing several other things too,” she says. “So we will help them to develop the skills to work strategically and effectively in the time that they have.”
While much of the content is free, charities pay for workshops and mentoring, but O’Brien wants to keep costs down. “I’m doing my best to keep it as affordable as possible, but obviously sustainability is really important as well, and we are talking to different corporates about support to help subsidise services so they are affordable for small charities,” she says.
The Lab works with many different types of charities, but there are particular nuances that health charities need to watch, says O’Brien.
“Charities need to think about who they need to communicate with: their service users might be small children and their families, but then through Facebook you would sometimes need to communicate with your supporters, which is a different audience,” she says.
“And charities might be gathering stories that are sensitive, so they would need to protect people’s identities.”
That said, there are big opportunities for charities that can use digital communications well, even on a small scale, she notes. “It doesn’t have to be expensive: a lot of digital platforms are free to set up, and you might just post on Facebook twice a week and send out one email a month,” she says.
“You can just build up these small improvements and they do really add up; they make a difference to your bottom line and your supporter base.”
Running Irish Charity Lab combines O’Brien’s long-held interests of digital communications, storytelling and social justice.
“Digital is such a fast-moving field and there are always so many innovations and inspirations; I find that really motivating,” she says. “I want to contribute to social justice causes and I feel this is how I can do it in a useful way.
“I would love to be a field surgeon working in Afghanistan, but I can’t do that, so I feel like this is a way I can contribute. And it is incredibly rewarding work.”
Irish Charity Lab is a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Elevator Programme winner: see http://socialentrepreneurs.ie/