When Jennifer Marano created the Greenpeace Canada Facebook group three years ago, it was as much the result of frustration as anything else.

Living in Toronto, where Greenpeace’s Canadian offices are located, it had always been easy for her to volunteer for the organization. But when she began studying at the University of Ottawa, Marano, now 20 years old, suddenly found herself far from the action.

"I felt useless in Ottawa," she recalled in an interview conducted, fittingly enough, via Facebook. "I thought I could spread environmental awareness through Facebook because it was becoming so international."

Marano’s motivations reflect the growing presence of non-governmental organizations on social media websites like Facebook. In an increasingly interconnected world, social media may provide the most direct way of helping NGOs publicize their causes to potential recruits.

"I think at this point, the importance of a product like Facebook is to generate awareness and to help educate people about what your group is doing," said Grant Eberlin, director of information technology and supporter relations for UNICEF Canada.

"It’s not necessarily looking for a donation or for you to stand up in the street and yell out, "I support UNICEF", but rather to create the awareness and cause you to think, ‘Hmm…The world’s bigger than where I grew up, and I need to start asking some other questions.’"

As a medium where identity is everything, Facebook has proven an ideal venue for Marano to express her lifelong passion for environmental activism. She first signed up for Greenpeace e-mail newsletters at 13 years old, wanting to become an active member to help save animals. Upon getting her first job, she used her parents’ credit card to make monthly donations.

"I have always been environmentally aware," she wrote, "and I have taken those steps gradually to make them a lifestyle (becoming a vegetarian, walking everywhere or taking transit, conserving energy, etc.)."

Marano most often uses her Facebook group to offer advice on how members can make their lifestyles more eco-conscious.

"I have some group members who are always messaging me and asking me to find them volunteer positions, or asking me how they can help," she explained, "and I send out group messages during times of the year teaching them how to conserve or how to do their part in helping the planet, like during Christmas."

While NGOs like Greenpeace have been using Facebook primarily to spread awareness, the relatively simple act of joining a group online does not necessarily translate into real-world action. Inasmuch as Facebook is a vehicle for branding oneself, for some, joining a social activist group may amount to little more than a bumper sticker.

Marano theorizes that such "inactive activists" may join because of a sudden impulse, short-lived interest in the environment, or a desire to outwardly show that they care about the issues Greenpeace deals with. But she is more concerned with those who show the strength of their convictions.

"I don’t expect people to go down to the Amazon and chain themselves to trees so they won’t be cut down," said Marano. "But I do expect them to […] spread the word about environmental awareness, and also to live like [environmental activists] as well."

The use of technology to sub-brand messages

Lorna Larsen remembers helping mothers cope with the pain of watching their babies spend months in incubators. Early in her career as a public-health nurse, she listened as women told her their arms ached to hold their children. She didn’t know how they felt at the time. But now she does.

"My arms ache to hold her. My eyes ache to see her. And my heart aches to talk to her. Every single day," said Larsen, describing how she feels three years after losing her 24-year-old daughter, Shanna, to breast-cancer.

Larsen developed the Team Shan Community Project in memory of her daughter. The project aims to raise awareness of the fact that breast cancer is not just a disease of older women. Although many regional and national cancer awareness campaigns existed at the time of Shanna’s death, Larsen’s research uncovered the need to sub-brand the message. Team Shan uses technology to help engage the younger generation.

"As a health-care professional, and a grieving mother, I was quite disturbed by some of the print-media ads for fundraising that weren’t really raising awareness," said Larsen, adding that she began to research the issue six months after losing Shan. What she found, spurred her to act. "I was right. The awareness for young adults and cancer was lacking."

Initial funding was provided by way of two grants from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. More recent campaigns in London, Ont. have been funded by a partnership with Rethink Breast Cancer.

"We’re about educating young woman of their risk factors," said M.J. DeCoteau, executive director of Rethink Breast Cancer. "So, we really couldn’t think of a better fit."

DeCoteau founded Rethink Breast Cancer almost eight years ago, after her own mother died of breast cancer at 53. Like Larsen, DeCoteau believed in the need to sub-brand the breast cancer awareness message.

"After my mother passed away, I began to look around for information. Every piece of material I found had a picture of a senior citizen on it. I knew there was no way messages like that would reach young women," said DeCoteau.

Rethink Breast Cancer knows it’s important to use the Internet in creative, and even provocative, ways.

In January 2008, Rethink Breast Cancer launched a program called The Booby Wall. It’s an interactive website on which women are asked to upload a picture of their breasts, either naked, in a bra, or clothed.

"The program is designed to expand our TLC program which is Touch, Look and Check your breasts," said Allison Gordon, vice president of strategy and marketing communications for Rethink Breast Cancer. "The site acts as a large, interactive art piece to spread awareness."

Thousands of women have uploaded pictures of their breasts, so The Booby Wall has been a successful example of sub-branding. So has the Team Shan program, said Gordon.

To reach young women between the ages of 15 and 39, Larsen’s team has also developed an interactive website, as well as a flourishing Facebook group.

With over 1100 members, the Facebook group has reached young women from many parts of the world. The group, as well as the website, have also attracted breast-cancer researchers who want to inform young women about their findings. It’s connected family members, friends, and young women who have breast cancer.

The Team Shan on-line presence has become a support mechanism for so many, said Larsen, and it’s a very useful communication vehicle for this age group.

"I just can’t say enough about the power of the Internet," said Larsen, explaining that she’s had requests for information from all across Canada.

Sub-branding, the use of technology and social media have been instrumental in the success of the Team Shan and Rethink Breast Cancer projects. In addition to the Team Shan website and Facebook group, the Team Shan site is now on many other websites as a link, said Larsen. Without the Internet, it would be impossible for the sub-brand to reach so many young women.

Larsen was taken aback for a moment when asked, "If your organization were a person, what kind of person would it be?" But then she looked toward a picture of Shan.

The new frontier for NGOs: An exciting trend in online activism

There’s a radical new approach that taps into the fluid nature of the online community to drive an NGO campaign.

Once upon a time, NGOs courted potential donors by mail, waited six weeks and cashed the cheques as they came in. Now, the internet offers a world of opportunity for tech-savvy NGOs. It’s a new frontier, with rules of engagement that baffle the uninitiated. What was once a one-way communication has become a two-way street.

"The web and online communications are about conversations between people," says Eric Squair, an online communications consultant. "If you try and use a broadcast framework you can only get so far because the web is so diverse."

Well-established NGOs have trouble with the fluidity of the online medium as they grapple to control their message online, says technology strategist Phillip Smith. But if they want to engage a broader group of people they must release this lock on their brand, he says.

"If you look at who you are as a brand, you’re turning your supporters into consumers," says Smith.

Consumers align themselves with a brand that they feel reflects their identity. But like the internet, people’s identities are constantly shifting. In their book, Consuming People, Firat and Dholakia describe the identity transition from bystander to consumer. A person will go from someone seeking to find their own identity, to one who shops for pre-packaged identities, and finally become someone who is interested in constructing their own identity.

It is these people that NGOs need to target. Smith describes an extreme approach that does just that. In it, the NGO relinquishes control over its brand or identity. It may develop the core concept, but it hands this seed over to its supporters to grow and develop.

"Here’s the data we have. You re-mix it and mash it and build a co-application on top of it, and sure we don’t have control of that, but we understand that it’s still supporting our mission," says Smith. "Run your own event and just report back to us."

Smith cites a campaign run in the States leading up to the 2004 U.S. election. A small NGO that dubbed itself the "Billionaires For Bush " wanted to engage people to vote against the incumbent in 2004. They branded themselves online as a satirical collection of billionaires who, because of their money and influence, were able to buy the political might of America’s highest office.

The group started with three people and a credit card, says Smith. It grew to 100,000 people worldwide and 60 chapters in the U.S. using online social media and the core idea that Bush is a billionaire’s president. The message could spread and mutate and allow campaign events to follow an individual’s own imagination without losing the core, says Smith.

And this is where other NGOs need to go, he says.

"A lot of culture-jamming ethos is around," he says. "You take a brand and perform this kind of judo on it and you flip it around and use its own brand strength against it. You’re just kind of a scrappy culture-jammer and you want means to spread, so you riff on something and you hope that other people riff on it, too."

"If our organization were a person, it would be Shan. Shan valued life. She wanted to make a difference, she wanted to teach," said Larsen. "Shan’s spirit continues to teach."

How Can NGOs Measure Success Online?

It’s difficult to measure success for organizations. But, web metrics do exist and can be used to calculate results, says Eric Squair, an online communication consultant. Groups can measure the online presence they have by calculating the number of people that join their group or sign a petition, says Squair. He believes that concrete actions like joining a group, initiates engagement and creates a successful presence online.

"Social Marketing sites like Facebook are excellent at generating referrals to a wide variety of activities taking place on Amnesty’s website, especially, events and actions," according to Andrew Bales, the online fundraising coordinator for Amnesty International. But, Bales doesn’t think he can measure success with web metrics. "We’re not able to accurately track this one marketing tool as a source for joining Amnesty International."

Squair, who’s currently working with Make Poverty History, disagrees. He thinks getting a person to make the first step by joining a group is a good start. "I think a lot of times people say, ‘well what’s the value of a signature on a petition?’ and that’s a valid question, but the issue is that, what you’re doing is you’re engaging people."

When people put their name on a petition or an email list, Squair thinks, they’re more likely to act. "Studies show that those people … sub-consciously have signed on to this campaign, and now on some level identify themselves with the issue for which they’ve signed a petition."

The results may just take longer to be seen online, says Philip Smith, a technology strategist. "It’s a trickle, if you look at something like Facebook ads or Google ads, you’ll get a new member or two every day," says Smith. "So you have to think of the whole year as the window you’re looking at in these small incremental changes…"

That said, Smith points out that some social networks can work against an organization’s success because they can distract users with constant notifications, emails, and group invitations. "Folks that are online are just very distracted and being engaged in very sometimes meaningless ways," says Smith, explaining how people can aimlessly join NGO groups.

To captivate the attention of potential online supporters and activists, Smith thinks that NGOs have to capitalize on the "attention currency."

He explains the concept by saying that if someone reads an article online about a certain cause, the amount spent reading is a good measure of attention currency, and hence a good metric of success.

But does getting the attention of members enough to get them to donate financially? Bales doesn’t think so. "Online fundraising widgets on Facebook, in general have not been effective at generating donations for us," says Bales.

"Facebook has been far better at mobilizing action, like encouraging people to become involved in events such as our Writeathon."

It’s up to the NGO to strengthen the relationship and engage people to get involved on different levels, says Squair.


Matt Puddister, Kelly Quance, Sylvia Squair and Salma Tarikh are students in the MA Journalism Program at the University of Western Ontario.

Who R U? An Exploration of Identity at the Edge of Tech, is a collaborative feature series created by the students of the 2008 Online Journalism class at the University of Western Ontario, Instructed by Wayne MacPhail. The series looks at how technology is changing our identities and our idea of identity. Each of the nine episodes includes a feature article, a podcast (part of the rabble podcast network) and a video segment on rabbletv. We’ll feature one episode a week, each Thursday here on rabble.ca. Hope you enjoy Who R U? We welcome your feedback, as do the great students who produced the series. Thanks to all of them for sharing their work with the rabble audience.