I headed over to the Wellcome Collection yesterday to deliver a keynote presentation at the Media Trust's Spring Conference. With a audience full of charity CEOs and senior third sector marketing types, it was a great opportunity to use the presentation theme, Tools & Changing Landscapes, to set out for the first time We Are Social's framework for third-sector communications and campaigning in a networked world:

Our thinking centres around the undeniable shift taking place from an ordered, hierarchical world to a world built around networks. This idea extends from the way organisations are structured right through to the way they communicate and campaign. Central to this shift is the social web and the way in which it empowers individuals to take greater control of the world around them and work together to achieve social change.

Intrinsically the social web engenders the creation and distribution of social capital on a scale never seen before. The volunteerism and shared good-will upon which civil society and the third sector grew from has become a central platform in mainstream society.

The emergence of low-cost, web-based tools which make up the infrastructure of social media is connecting individuals with shared-values and shared-goals at an unprecedented rate and on a global scale. This means that people with shared-values can easily find similarly minded people wherever they live, plan action for social change and work together to achieve it.

This is all immensely powerful and desirable for civil society. However, it also poses a series of significant challenges to traditional civil society actors, such as charities, NGOs and political parties.

People are using the social web to find like-minded people that have shared goals and then using online tools to connect and implement global campaigns. What role do NGOs and charities play in this networked civil society?

While the emergence of global, self-organised advocacy networks may pose specific threats to the third sector (in particular traditional membership-led movements) these networks offer established organisations massive opportunities to extend their reach and effectiveness.

To achieve this, third sector organisations need to adjust the way in which they're structured and potentially move to a hybrid model of organisation encompassing a range of organisational models, e.g. fundraising, single-issue campaigning, education, etc - or as I put it in my presentation: move from a 'Join Up' to a 'Join Us' structure.

More fundamentally third sector organisations operating in the new networked world need to:

  • Identify networks and communities self-organised around a cause or single-issue relevant to the their core offering
  • Listen to these networks and communities to understand how a strategic partnership can be formed
  • Create a conversation platform as a node in these networks
  • Engage with these key networks to achieve specific shared goals - either fundraising, policy-change, education, etc

By embracing the organisational disruption that a networked civil society brings we believe the future is bright for social change and the third sector.