In 1876, Chief Engineer to the British Post Office, Sir William Preece, said: “The Americans have need for the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” Predictions about the value and impact of social media in the distant future are similarly fraught with difficulties. We have too little knowledge about the conditions in the world to come, or the potential uses that will be found for these tools in future society, to make straightforward predictions.

The above extract is taken from a new report commissioned by the Indigo Trust and written by the Institute for Philanthropy into the relationship between philanthropy and social media. The report, due to be launched tomorrow, is now available for download.

The aim of the paper is ‘to provide an introduction to social media for philanthropists and philanthropic organisations interested in the potential of these tools for achieving social impact’. While it is not intended as an expert guide covering all aspects of social media, it is nevertheless a very useful starting point for organisations looking to take their first step into the world of social media and provides a great set of things to consider and tips on how best to get involved.

The paper is split into three main sections. The first asks why people and organisations should use social media and what benefits it can bring. In reality, there are innumerable reasons why organisations use social media from improving service delivery to inclusion to fundraising to sharing knowledge. As Indigo trustee, William Perrin, says in the report:

Modern online media, whether social or not, can be enormously powerful tools [in achieving your organisation’s goals]… They represent the only way in which citizens can manage their own information economically and at scale.

In addition to outlining how social media can help organisations achieve their aims, the paper also contains a number of case studies on organisations that have already used social media to great effect. The It Gets Better project, for example, has used YouTube to create a global movement aimed at combating the alarming number of suicides by LGBT students in American schools. What essentially started as a homemade project has transformed into a worldwide phenomenon with backing from high-profile people such as Barack Obama. This and other case studies throughout the report provide a useful reminder of how successful social media can be when used effectively.

The second section of the report contains a series of interviews with philanthropic organisations that have already taken the plunge and invested in social media. As the report itself comments, ‘in an emerging and fast-changing field, it can be helpful to hear directly from people who have already begun to invest in order to understand what they look for and how they approach such innovative work’. It features interviews with organisations such as the Knight Foundation, Localgiving and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who offer insightful reasons on why funders should take the plunge and invest in projects using social media. As Marcelle Speller, founder of Localgiving, points out:

Time and money spent on building a network online will go much further than the same amount spent on printed materials.

The third and final chapter explores how funders themselves are using social media. Whether it’s to promote the work of grantees, invite external stakeholders to participate in grantmaking decisions or simply to be more transparent, there are many reasons why philanthropic organisations should use social media.

All in all, this is a highly readable and engaging account of why and how social media can enhance the work of donors and recipients alike. If you have any comments on the report or you’d like to find out more, then get in touch. Alternatively, why not take a look at the excellent blogs of Beth Kanter, Katie Paine or Lucy Bernholz, all of whom offer great advice on investing in social media.

If you’d like to follow the discussion on Twitter, remember to use our #giveandtech hashtag.