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World Vision’s Kate Nicholas discusses how digital technologies are breaking down global frontiers for aid organisations and their supporters

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti which killed more than 200,000 people at the beginning of the year, desperate survivors used mobile devices to tweet their whereabouts helping aid agencies such as World Vision to locate those in need. Elsewhere in the world, a sponsored child visits a makeshift internet cafe and connects with their UK-based sponsor on Facebook.

Now 25 per cent of humanity use the internet and there are more people using it in China than the total population of the United States. As the cost of hardware and connection continues to fall, the formerly unfathomable distance between charity donors and beneficiaries is closing, with potential for connection beyond the control of professional non-governmental organisations.

As supporters in the UK see the potential for technology to offer a greater understanding of how their donation changes lives, they are likely to seek closer and more direct ties to the ‘field’ of operations wherever that may be.

Up until recently international aid agencies – in fact most charities – could be likened to pre-internet insurance brokers. Effectively, they provided a service that most people couldn’t access in any other form.

But today, supporters are beginning to seek to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable more directly, with some looking to bypass the intermediary – rather like the customer who accesses insurance directly through the internet.

Of course, this poses a huge challenge to professional charities which are increasingly re-examining how to communicate the value they add to this interaction. At World Vision we are in the midst of thinking this through as part of our five-year strategy, and what has become clear is that it is communications itself that can add that value.

The reality is that having got over the initial novelty of a Facebook encounter, supporters are likely to become frustrated with the overwhelming nature of global connectivity, and potentially become mired in ‘cultural’ confusion. They are also likely to become increasingly concerned about governance if funds are donated directly to individuals or communities.

Concern about accountability and responsibility are likely to lead to desire for a new kind of middle-man; not a gatekeeper, but a facilitator who does not seek to control, but provides expert guidance. To be successful, this kind of agency will not just communicate, but enable conversation, encouraging peer-to-peer endorsement opportunities.

Faced with information overload and a resistance to traditional marketing methods, the future has to be about simplicity and authenticity; allowing supporters to engage in a way that works for them and the communities we work with, using our expertise to help build a real and deep mutual understanding.

The reality is that the primary motivator for social networking is still human connection. But when it comes to making a commitment, whether that is supporting a charity or buying a product, people still look for that expert guidance.

That isn’t to say that all communications needs to focus on the digital arena. Social platforms play a huge role, but need to be seen in an integrated way with offline influencers and media. Broadcast media, in particular, continues to be the most powerful source of information about the developing world. But as recent research from the Department for International Development has shown, even here people are tired of the stereotypical doom-and-gloom portrayals of the developing world.

It isn’t rocket science. What people are fundamentally interested in is other people. And as communicators in this field we need to move beyond the horror of statistics and generic images of suffering, and create a real connection between supporter and beneficiary that breaks down barriers and highlights our common humanity.

Kate Nicholas is associate director, communications, for World Vision UK one of the world's leading humanitarian relief and development agencies, and former editor-in-chief of PRWeek. Kate will be writing an irregular column for PRmoment.com

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