Digital ethics for charities

John Newton's picture
John Newton

It's been interesting to watch commentators deal with the recent revelations over Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. While the #deletefacebook campaign has gained some traction, many critics of the social media giant are reluctant to close their accounts. This is because they rely on Facebook to help promote their message and they may be worried that removing themselves from the platform will diminish their ability to effectively campaign to the widest possible number of supporters.

Charities face a similar dilemma. Continuing to use the platform can be seen as endorsing its practices, however reluctantly. Plus Facebook's ecosystem is wide-reaching. It owns WhatsApp and Instagram. Is your charity ready to delete these platforms too? Reliance on social media delivers huge benefits for charities but also exacts a telling price.

Another challenge presents itself through data personalisation. These days most large websites seek to personalise the content they serve based on user profiling. They can leverage big data to show a specific piece of content based on, for example, the demographic profile of the site visitor. This is often achieved through expensive services and specialist hosting platforms. But even small to medium sized charities can now serve dynamic and personlaise content. For example, Drupal can show specific content based on how a user has been interacting with your site. If they appear to show an interest in a content area, why not show them more of the content you think they'd like?

How you approach tailoring your content delivery is a matter of judgement. Perhaps it's fine to silently show a piece of content to someone that you think they'd find useful. But what if that content might lead them to make a decision about making a donation or signing up for an event? In this case you might want to flag your content with some supporting text which indicates that you're showing them something based on their browsing history. Or you might set up a rule that states you should always flag up personalised content.

As content management systems become more flexible and sophisticated, charities at all levels will increasingly find themselves faced with these sorts of ethical dilemmas. Here are a few suggestions for making sure your charity is doing its best to make ethical decisions about its use of digital:

  • be open and honest about the drivers behind your decisions to use social media platforms - this is a conversation that you should have internally and that includes your senior management and trustees
  • choose open source software whenever you can and consider giving back to the open source community. If you use Drupal, you might want to become a member of, or encourage your digital partner to share any work they've done on your behalf back to the community so others can benefit
  • think through your donation form 'defaults' these can be powerful tools for people accepting what they see as the normal giving behaviour. Don't try to lead people to donate a sum that is in reality more than you normally receive
  • when you are designing your content strategy, aim to be helpful to your users and non manipulative
  • don't use pop-ups and nag screens. Let people choose for themselves. Your site should be a pleasure to use and as far as possible the technology itself should stay in the background and simply enable people to get to the content they are looking for and do the things they need to do