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Using Social Media to Reach Mission: An Interview with Wendy Harman

By Nell Edgington



In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Wendy Harman. Wendy is the Director of Social Strategy at the American Red Cross. Her goal is for the Red Cross to be a social organization ready for 21st century humanitarian work. She is responsible for their national social media presence, including the listening program, social content and community engagement.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: The Red Cross has fully embraced social media. How specifically has it helped you get closer to achieving your mission?

Wendy: Our social engagement philosophy centers around using social tools to execute our mission. That is, moving beyond using social engagement for communications and marketing purposes and onto using these tools and our increased ability to network horizontally with huge communities for service delivery. The Red Cross has five main service areas: disaster services; international services; serviced to the Armed Forces; preparedness health and safety; and biomedical services (blood). We have probably made the most headway in operationalizing during disasters. For example, we’ve created the Digital Operations Center (funded by Dell) in order to holistically see and synthesize social conversations from disaster-affected areas. So far, we’ve found three main purposes for the center:

  1. We use the center to provide real-time and anticipatory situational awareness. This means we can provide all decision makers in the Red Cross disaster services, as well as many of our partners outside the organization, with real-time trends from the affected areas. We can identify gaps in service, the biggest needs, the most talked-about subjects as they relate to the disaster, and more. This helps us know what’s happening on the ground in the moment and also can help our experts anticipate service delivery that will be needed in the coming days or weeks.

  2. We use it to route needs. When we see an individual tweet that says, “I need a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I haven’t eaten in days because of this hurricane,” we can route this information to our teams on the ground who are organizing our mobile feeding efforts.

  3. We provide individualized information. We have built a digital volunteer role and now have trained volunteers who can “deploy” in place and help to get information, resources, shelter locations, mobile feeding locations, real time tips, and a bit of confidence and support to people who need it. For example, during tornado warnings we often see a big increase in tweets from people hunkered down in their basements or bathtubs—and they are scared. The Red Cross has a lot of expertise on exactly what to do when you find yourself in this situation, and we’re able to provide those tips in the exact moment people need them. In addition, a big part of our mission is to provide hope and comfort in people’s worst moments, so we’re also encouraging the digital volunteers to offer that hope and comfort via digital “hugs,” or words of support.

Nell: How do you manage the ever-changing and ever-expanding social media environment? How do you determine where to spend your time and when to change your approach?

Wendy: The age of the social web has affected the role of the nonprofit sector in general and the role of the Red Cross, particularly during disasters. We are expanding from an organization that executes discrete relief activities with trained experts and volunteers, to an organization that acts as a platform to connect and mobilize people affected by disasters. We are tool agnostic; the foundation of our social engagement program centers around listening to, engaging with and acting on social conversations. This way we stay nimble in our content, and we can adapt quickly with the public.

Nell: The Red Cross is a huge nonprofit and has more resources to put behind social media. How do you suggest small nonprofits logistically work social media into their marketing mix?

Wendy: Huge doesn’t necessarily translate to big budgets for social engagement. We are lucky to have three staff members dedicated to social engagement, but we’re really trying to work our way out of our jobs. In other words, rather than having the three of us triaging thousands of conversations per day, we’d like to see social engagement become part of every Red Crossers’ workday. My more concrete advice is to do what you can do well—you don’t have to be everywhere, you just have to really be in the places where you say you will be.

Nell: In some ways your role at the Red Cross is to help an aging institution embrace change and the new realities of the world we live in. Why do you think the Red Cross has been open to change when other large and seasoned nonprofits have not?

Wendy: I think innovation and adaptation has always been baked into the DNA of the Red Cross. One of my favorite Clara Barton quotes is, “I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.” No doubt we have built up institutional walls over the years, but at the same time, we have broad recognition of the value of partnerships and collaboration, and we’re working to be sure we make openings in those walls so everyone can participate in the Red Cross network and our humanitarian mission. We’re also getting quicker at adopting new technologies, but I think the openness in our organizational culture to strive to be better is more of a key indicator about our relevancy than our adoption to a particular technology.

Nell: Some nonprofits will embrace social media if they think there is a fundraising payoff, but the Red Cross has obviously found a huge mission payoff as well. How do you explain to nonprofits that are hesitant to spend time building communities what the payoff could be and how to be patient in finding it?

Wendy: This is the million-dollar question. I think my favorite quote about this is from Socialnomics author Erik Qualmann who says, “The ROI of social media is that your business will still exist in 5 years.”

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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