CEO Clear Lessons & The Charity Learning Consortium
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How the third sector uses social media for learning

10th Jan 2011
CEO Clear Lessons & The Charity Learning Consortium
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Using social media for learning is compellingly cost effective. Martin Baker, founder and MD of the Charity Learning Consortium, explains how charities are harnessing the power of social networking for organisational use.
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The most important starting point for using any social medium is to ask 'why'. If you are networking purely for your own enjoyment in your spare time that's different, but if you are networking within an organisational context, then it's important to know why you are doing what you are doing, otherwise it can just be a waste of time.
When it comes to charities using social networks, I hear anecdotally that some third sector marketing departments effectively 'claim' social media, and like to control the messages that they are putting out. Fundraising departments have also realised the power of using networks like Twitter. Harnessing social media for learning may not be so obvious, and they have been slower on the uptake by all organisations – not just within the third sector. But there are some great examples of where social networking has been put to really good learning and development use by charities.
Amongst the members of the Charity Learning Consortium, VSO is using social networking really imaginatively, with a moderated discussion forum helping to prepare its UK volunteers. VSO's vision is to eventually roll this out globally. It's very forward thinking and I know that other charities are keeping a keen eye on how this discussion forum is progressing.
 
"Harnessing social media for learning may not be so obvious, and they have been slower on the uptake by all organisations – not just within the third sector."
The King's Fund has also embraced modern forms of communication, using Twitter, Facebook and other networking tools to engage with their audience - even using an interactive game to test people's knowledge of health care policy in the run up to the general election. Some of these ideas may be very simple, but the best ideas in life often are!
It's easy to forget that one-fifth of the population has never been online, so one of the challenges of integrating social media for learning for any organisation, not just in the third sector, is making sure that what you are offering is what people want - and that they are able to access and use it. This may be more of a challenge if you have workers who are reticent about 'social media' or if your staff are doing practical, hands-on jobs, and don't use or have access to a computer – this is particularly the case in the health care sector. So it definitely is a case of 'horses for courses'.
Having said that, many people may be unaware that what they are using comes under the umbrella term of 'social media' anyway! Social media doesn't just mean Facebook – they are the exclusive, invitation-only networks that work really well for organisational use. The Charity Learning Consortium, for example, has an internal network for our staff on Yammer. We also have a Ning network for members of the consortium – networking like this, between charity L&D managers across the country, is a good example of what I would call 'joining the dots', connecting like-minded people together.
Increasingly, members of the CLC also seek advice and information from one another on the Consortium's Ning network, which they access via the CLC's website. As the CLC grows, this network is becoming stronger and more vibrant, and increasingly valuable – but then a refreshing openness and a willingness to collaborate, share and learn together is at the heart of what we do.
These exclusive, invitation-only networks don't normally have the same challenges of open sites - where there seems to be increasing evidence of a kind of 'road rage' online. We do obviously monitor the CLC Ning network, but it is more to see how we can be of help to our members, both by asking questions and answering theirs, so we manage the network, we don't have to moderate it, it is all very civilised. As a general rule though, I would say that the larger the network, the more management of it is required.
 
"Social media doesn't just mean Facebook – they are the exclusive, invitation-only networks that work really well for organisational use."
Charities have always had to think creatively, but never more so than in the current economic climate, and it makes sense to use social networking in this way. It's just such a cost-effective option, whether you are solely based in the UK or have a global workforce. In the future I think that more of our members will embrace social media for learning, and I look forward to seeing how.
The exciting thing about using this kind of technology is you just don't know where it will ultimately take you – even the inventors of Twitter have said that people are using their network in ways they could never have imagined. So I would encourage charities to think beyond using networks just for fundraising and marketing.
In the past the third sector may have struggled to keep up with the private sector in terms of technology, because of obvious budgetary constraints, but what charities have become expert at is being innovative and creative with what they have on offer. It's so exciting to see charities like The King's Fund and VSO embracing new techniques – they are at the leading edge of using social networking for learning in the third sector, and I'm sure that other consortium members will follow their lead. In the future, I would be so thrilled to see the private sector looking to us for a change, to see what lessons can be learnt about developing staff on a shoestring.

Martin Baker is founder and managing director of the innovative Charity Learning Consortium, which enables cost-effective learning and development in the third sector. The CLC currently has more than 75 membership organisations and provides elearning and resources to almost 80,000 third sector staff, not including volunteers

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