Digital space, civil society and nonprofits in South Africa

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Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room

25th November 2016

So what is the state of play in South African digital civil society?  My last post looked at the importance of defending digital spaces in South Africa – but now I go back a bit, to the nitty-gritty of digital civil society. This broad phrase refers to a broad mix of concerns, approaches, practices and activities ranging from building the public profile of a cause, to defending current levels of freedom, openness and accessibility of digital space.

Enset has been running a global workshop series focused on supporting civil society organisations around the world to navigate what Enset refers to as “the complex digital landscape” to achieve online effectiveness.  Enset’s mission with these workshops and panel discussions is to identify and, likely, help create the best paths for the use of digital space by non-profits globally.

The Enset/ Resource Alliance panel discussion, of which I was a part – held at Bandwidth Barn in Cape Town on 4th October 2016 – was titled, “NGOdigitalspaces & Civil Society”.  The discussion addressed a range of issues and practice areas in the digital space, such as:

  • What is the role of Social Media in building civil society?
  • How is digital fundraising changing the donor relationship and giving overall?
  • What are some of the risks and challenges of digital spaces, and what can non-profits to address these?
  • What is the political / regulatory environment and implications of a new NPO Act in South Africa?
  • What is the future of digital spaces for civil society – opportunities, challenges and potential threats?
  • What is the importance of credibility and validation within the sector?

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A number of organisations and individuals spoke to their particular concerns, the work they do, and how their work serves to address their concerns.  The panel and issues included:

  1. Jeri Curry, president and CEO, Enset: introduction to the non-profit and civil society digital space, and to the work of Enset – and also navigated the panellists inputs, facilitating the discussion with great knowledge and expertise.
  2. Baratang Miya, founder and CEO, GirlHype: now here is somebody to watch and keep up with. Baratang spoke about her initiative to encourage girls into the digital and tech space, not as users but as innovators.  Great stuff.
  3. Michelle Jones, head of content for digital agency RogerWilco: Michelle shared lessons from a successful client project, showing how paying careful attention to messaging, content, design and site architecture can completely change levels, frequency and type of user interactions with your online presence
  4. Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room: This is me – I spoke about the need to defend digital spaces, as these levels of freedom increasingly come under the state spotlight and as non-profit organisations are under pressure from government. I also shared insights about the legislative framework that currently governs this space in South Africa.
  5. Colin Habberton, IFC Ambassador, South Africa: Colin shared insights into the use of digital platforms for fundraising and for profile-building for organisations and causes, and stressed the importance – across a range of factors – of building an online profile
  6. Michelle Matthews, Head of ED and Innovation, CiTi: Michelle’s focused on trends in ICT and the digital economy, and she shared details of a fantastic digital project supporting start-up and established social enterprises and businesses, including the development of an innovative toolkit (which we all wanted a copy of!)

Are you starting to get the picture?  Around the breadth and depth of any discussions about “digital space”?

We can talk about developments in digital technology; the use of digital technologies for the promotion of civil society campaigns; the role of an online presence in promoting your non-profit organisation and in stakeholder/ supporter/ donor communications; the importance of content in building a profile and positive footprint in the online space; the role of civil society organisations in promoting and encouraging the involvement of girl learners in the digital tech space; the importance of an online presence for fundraising (both on- and off-line); the pressure (globally) on civil society and the closure of operating spaces, both physical and digital; and the legislative framework governing the use of digital technology (eg. drones for journalism) and online spaces.  That’s just the start.

In addition, there is a boatload of information that non-profits need to keep up with – such as the 2014 transition of the org.za domain (used by most South African non-profits for their web presence) to a new regulatory authority, and the implications for non-profits using org.za.  Again, just the start.

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Enset’s work has had the effect not just of providing spaces to have discussions about digital spaces and civil society, but also of connecting activists and digital specialists locally and globally.  It is critical that we are talking to each other, in light of my particular concern – as per my previous post – about the defence of digital spaces as we see an increase in governments clamping down on activities that challenge their actions (or lack of action).

This space is absolutely critical for civil society organising, as a still-democratic space providing for the proliferation and platforming of a range of voices critical to debate, discussion, defining the languaging around particular issues, and moving away from the dominance of traditional media and their ownership of public discourse.  This has changed irreversibly, and this space must be defended.

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How do we know when FREE is worth the effort, or just a waste of time?

Non-profits generally love FREE!!  And donors usually get really excited about low-cost/ no-cost opportunities for their grantees to access skills-exchanges and new knowledge.

But How do we know when FREE is worth the effort, or just a waste of time?

Here is one virtual online conference you can be sure will be worth the effort.  Organised and hosted by Resource Alliance, an organisation with a global reputation for its excellence in capacity development products and services for non-profits (particularly their conferences!), you can’t really go too wrong 🙂

This two-day event is being held on 13th and 14th May 2015 and all you need to do to be part of this fantastic learning event is register here. Over the two days, 16 sessions will be presented by leading experts in digital marketing, online fundraising and social media marketing, from within and outside the non-profit sector.

Full details on the programme are available here and include the following:-

  • Six practical methodologies to enable you to get started – Dr Scilla Elworthy (UK)
  • Charities don’t tweet, people do – Euan Semple (UK)
  • Adapting to a changing world: the innovation imperative – Colin Habberton (South Africa)
  • Seven ways to use mobile to build your supporter base – Nick Allen (USA)
  • Integrating digital into your old fashioned fundraising stuff – Sean Triner (Australia)
  • Crowdfunding for fundraisers – Ronald Kleverlaan (Netherlands)
  • Five learnings from masters of social media you can use in your fundraising today – Touko Sipiläinen (Finland)

According to Resource Alliance, who host the regular Netherlands-based International Fundraising Conference,over 2 000 delegates from 120 countries participated in last year’s Fundraising Online, which once again aims to help charities of all sizes successfully navigate the shifting sands of technological change.   With a focus on “empowerment and bridging the gap between online and offline initiatives”, Resource Alliance explains that this online initiative makes it possible for delegates to “benefit from the expertise of renowned speakers in the comfort of their own workplace, wherever and whenever it suits”.

Gotta go now … off to register 🙂  I am not missing this one!