In March 2015 I gave a talk as part of the Guardian masterclass series, called Digital From the Ground Up. It was about maximising user generated content and incorporating it as part of the digital strategy for your charity.

I talked about a conference I’d been to where someone in the audience had asked how you stop people coming up with ideas and starting campaigns on their own. This is something I hear a lot, there can be huge pressure from above to justify your existence when you work in charity digital, so when a great idea comes from outside the charity, people can be made to feel like they should have come up with it themselves.

My argument is that kind of thinking will hold you back. Our job is to amplify the voices of our supporters – we can’t control everything and we’ll be limiting our progress if we try.

To demonstrate this, I looked at a couple of examples of charities and organisations who’d amplified outside activity really well and seen huge gains as a result:

CRUK and the no makeup selfie – it started, they quickly posted out a sign saying they loved it and funneled people wanting to give into their established channels. They kept thanking people as they went, they tweeted out milestones as they happened, they were sure not to claim it, but to be there with all the information people wanted if they were looking to donate. The storm raised £8 million, enough to fund 10 clinical trials.

Manchester Dogs’ Home Fire – when the news broke that a fire had been started at the Manchester Dogs’ Home, members of the public began offering support and looking for ways they could help via social. Manchester Evening News were quick to channel that support into a Just Giving site, which aimed to raise £1 million. All the way along and once they reached that milestone, the dogs’ home tweeted “A million. A million good hearts, a million amazing people, thank you, thank you, thank you” to show their gratitude and fuel further activity.

Mental Patient – Halloween is a sad day for mental health. Every year some huge company or high profile person capitalises on ingrained prejudice and stigma to produce or say something totally offensive and ridiculous. In 2013, it was Asda’s turn and they produced a ‘Mental Patient’ Halloween costume – complete with all the blood and axe wheedling you can imagine. The backlash began overnight, with a photo and tweet by someone who has accessed mental health services showing Asda what a real ‘mental patient’ looks like. From there, thousands of people joined in using the #mentalpatient hashtag and sharing their own experiences. In the morning, all Mind needed to do was amplify this activity. It was supporter generated, led and owned, Mind just widened the reach and got more people involved. By the afternoon, both Asda and Tesco had committed to each make a £25,000 donation to Mind.

A virtual choir 2,000 voices strong – this is perhaps the best and most inspiring digital thing I’ve ever seen, so I’d recommend watching the original example yourself.

After I’d shared these I imagined a few people in the audience would be thinking ‘yes, but what if this just never happens for us?’ So for them I had a few suggestions on how they might kick start it:

Create your own viral content – At Time to Change I started a series of four-way images with members of staff holding up cards with their names, two everyday facts about themselves and one fact about their mental health experiences. The idea was to show regular people with regular lives sharing regular things without fear of shame or stigma. It was a really popular idea and continues to be amongst our top performing content – because it communicates totally what we’re about and it’s easy for anyone to do. I showed examples of where supporters had created their own versions, as well as examples of where they’d changed the format or done something creative and original with the idea and sparked a new wave of people getting involved.

Be subversive – I used the example of Charity Water’s First World Problems film, using viral disruption techniques to inspire people to share their own first world problems and donate to the campaign.

Build a user generated platform – While I worked at Mind I was involved in the development of Elefriends, which I think is so successful because of the role users had in making it. The brand is entirely user generated, it was modeled on an old Facebook group called the Elephant In the Room, where the users called each other Elefriends. Creating a new platform was a necessary step once the group reached Facebook’s maximum user limit, which meant Mind had a huge number of people invested in the project. At every stage it was shaped and built based on what those users wanted – including tone, language, house rules, interface design, functionality, content, everything. Almost immediately the community grew bigger than the Facebook group had ever been and has continued growing and growing ever since. In 2014 Robin Williams took his own life, that day a user posted ‘If only Robin had heard of Elefriends’, showing just how important the platform is to the people who use it today.

My 5 top tips: 

  1. Think big picture
  2. Let go of control
  3. Trust your supporters
  4. Try new things
  5. Love digital

At the end of the talk I wanted to sum up with the ethos that guides me most days at work and underpins how I feel about the importance of user generated content:

“When we’re obsolete, we’ll know our work is done.”