Social Media, Volunteers, and Communication
Thirty years ago you didn’t know what was happening with a particular friend or acquaintance serving across the world unless you got a newsletter that arrived to your mail box four to six weeks after it had been written.
Thanks to the magic of social media we now know when there has been a tragedy at any school across the globe, or a baby is being born in Haiti, or when a child is admitted to a hospital in Madagascar, or when Ebola is ravaging Liberia.
Thanks to the Internet, our Moms know when we have a terrible tropical illness and can worry (er, I mean pray) right away rather than hear about it once the illness is all cleared up and better.
Within minutes of putting our feet on the floor each morning, if we choose to, we can know more news than folks could gather over several weeks time 50 years ago.
Maybe that is good. Maybe it is not.
Certainly this vastly increased connectedness has changed and influenced how we “do missions” and how we communicate with donors and family and friends “back home”. The days of snail mailed newsletters with six-week old news are long gone. Most ministries and non-profits have a Facebook page, a Twitter account and an Instagram account. If you want the news from your favorite non-profit, you should be able to find it in a nano-second.
The ways in which social media has changed things are probably too numerous to count. Today, I’m examining just one of those ways.
Social media, frequent updates, and the connectedness results in an increased desire and demand for visits and requests for volunteer opportunities. People see (in real-time) the exciting updates and they want to be a part of what they see.
Most of us realize that we cannot discourage or disallow potential donors from seeing the work first hand, after all most people would find it pretty sketchy if we said visitors are not allowed. When legitimate work is happening, we want to prove that to donors as best we can. It makes sense for them to SEE it.
The question becomes, how can we communicate the nuances of our individual organization’s needs without offending or upsetting those that want to help? Sometimes not needing help can feel hurtful to an interested friend or financial partner. How can we communicate those things really well? How can we say “We have a full-time, year-round staff. We don’t really have any work for volunteers”, without sounding ungrateful, dismissive or unwelcoming?
Where I work, we often get requests from visitors to come see a birth. Social media and sharing the news of babies born at our Maternity Center equals a sweet level of support and much curiosity. The easiest way for me to answer those inquiries is to ask how well it would work for strangers to walk into a birth and observe it in the developed world. (However, I recognize that sounds rude, so I don’t ask anything quite like that.)
Do any of us want to invite strangers into intimate and private moments such as the birth of a child? Can you imagine if your OB or Midwife said, “Oh, this is So-and-so and her team. She is visiting your town this week and she/they wanted to see a baby be born in this town, so I invited her to your birth. Hope that’s okay. Ready to push?”
(Maybe materially poor people are not automatically seen as needing equal privacy or respect by those of us that are materially wealthy. I hope that can change somehow.)
It is not uncommon for many of us working in poor countries to receive a note saying something similar to this, “What can we do, we will paint walls, build things, or do anything you want.” How can we kindly explain that all around us there are men and women in need of work, and if at all possible we prefer to offer a chance at employment for folks hoping to feed their children in our area. It is not that we don’t want these interested friends to see the countries we are working in; it is that we want to be cognizant of what each country needs.
Another thing I have noticed over the years, whenever we have several visitors on a clinic/program day, we communicate less with the Haitian women we serve. Try as we might to stay on task and allow our visitors to just hang out and observe the days activities, we always end up spending much of the day speaking English and sharing information with the guests. Suddenly, several hours in, I will realize that I have not engaged with the new mother and baby in front of me in her own language because I’m being polite and chatting with the American in the room. That is my fault, not the fault of the visitor. Finding the balance is tricky.
Social Media tends to show the exciting part of our lives abroad. (Social Media doesn't communicate sleep deprivation to the point of delirium.) The snapshots we share produce an interest without giving the full picture of what is needed. This leaves us to figure out how to communicate in a way that does not turn donors away.
The easiest way for any of us to successfully consider things from another perspective or point of view is when it is very gently and carefully explained. Sometimes writing doesn’t allow for the very best communication to happen, a lack of tone can cause defensiveness or offense. (We learned this the hard way. We frequently hear, “Oh, they are anti teams” based on this post I wrote several years ago – but I am not anti short-term-missions, I just think it can be done differently, more respectfully, and better.)
Over the years, as I have learned the culture of my host country and grown to love my new home, it has become increasingly more important to me to protect, love, and respect the people we work with just as we desire to be loved and protected. I’ve realized that there is an imbalance of power that allows us to do things that take advantage of our inherent power. At times it seems more loving (to Haitians) to say “no thank you” to some offers for help. Without a doubt, that has meant a loss of potential ministry partners and donors.
What about you?
As you work in your respective fields, how have you allowed visitors and short-term teams to come see your work without compromising the privacy,dignity, or needs of those you live and work with abroad?
Do you find it difficult to communicate well without causing offense?
Is it possible to put the people you are serving first, or does a need for funding require a compromise in that area?
Do you feel like social media positively impacts your work? Are there any drawbacks?