Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 23 seconds

Last May, Facebook , which has joined MySpace as one of the leading social networking sites on the Web, launched "Causes," an application that enables its users to raise money for -- well, for just about anything nonprofit. Since then, more than four million Facebook users have joined Causes, according to the Non-Pofit Tech Blog . Some of those users have created Cause pages and initiated great recruitment and fundraising efforts, and some have given simply donated through Causes pages.

But the vast majority of users have done nothing more than voice their support, putting a link to a Cause page on their personal page. The evidence for this comes right from the top: the leading cause on Facebook, "Support Breast Cancer Research." It boasted nearly 1.7 million members near the end of September. Collectively, those members had raised only $34,460 -- an average of two cents per member. The second-biggest cause, "Stop Global Warming," had squeezed an average of just over a penny out of each of its MySpace supporters.

Boom or Bust?
Do the huge membership numbers represent a major shift in nonprofit fundraising efforts to the social networking space? Do the paltry donation totals signal that many symbolic gestures have simply added up to a whole lot of nothing? Beth Kanter , a trainer, coach, and consultant to non-profits on the use of technology, says the confounding data means only one thing.

"We're in a transition," she says. "It's a good start, but the traditional fundraising methods are all still working very well." As a result, even the largest nonprofits haven't invested much into raising money through social networking. But they're planting seeds with small-scale online campaigns that require little effort -- or cash -- from headquarters. The target is young people, says Kanter, those who live on MySpace and Facebook, but who aren't making a lot of money and therefore don't have much to give away.

What they do have to give: time and energy. "Part of the change is that it's the donor deciding what they're going to give to," says Kanter. "They're not waiting for the organization to ask them." As a result, many on social networking sites are advocating and raising money for causes and organizations, but doing so without any direct guidance from, or communication with the organizations. " It's turned on its ear," says Kanter. "That's incredibly threatening, in terms of branding and message."

Mark Sutton, the CEO of Firstgiving , a company that serves as a kind of Web middleman between nonprofits and individual fundraisers, disagrees. "We've been talking about this issue with organizations for years," he says. Social networking causes "some organizations to feel uncomfortable because they're not controlling the message. But they ultimately weigh that against the good that can be done" and embrace social networking, often beginning cautiously.

Firstgiving, the U.S. offshoot of the U.K.'s Justgiving , enables organizations to create awareness and fundraising pages within their site. In August, it rolled out its Facebook application, a customizable template that Facebook users can adapt to support their individual fundraising efforts. This was a big but expected move for Facebook; MySpace has long encouraged nonprofits to set up pages, and also sponsors a monthly contest in its "Impact" section to honor "MySpace members for the positive impact they've had on our culture." MySpace users decide the winner by vote. The winner of the August 2007 prize, To Write Love On Her Arms, received $10,000 and a mountain of free publicity from MySpace. The group raises funds to help in "the treatment, recovery and support of young people facing depression, addiction, suicide and self-injury."

Giant Leaps for Individuals, Baby Steps for Big Organizations
Kanter is not just a consultant to non-profits. Last year, she raised money, through her own blog and other social networking contacts, to send a Cambodian teenager to college. The Sharing Foundation, a nonprofit which served as an intermediary in that effort, benefited again from Kanter's efforts when she jump-started a late-year campaign on the organization's behalf, spurred on by a Yahoo! contest that promised to match up to $50,000 to the person who enlisted the most individual donors. Starting with the organization's 25 board members, she corralled 745 donations totaling $49,537. Less than a month after she started, The Sharing Foundation added nearly $100,000 to its coffers. Kanter continues to experiment; she recently raised more than $4,000 to visit Cambodia, where she had been invited to teach videoblogging. "I did all my pitching through Twitter ," she says, "and I raised that money in 10 days."

Meanwhile, the country's biggest charities are figuring out just what to do with all of the opportunities now open through social networking sites and related Web 2.0 tools. Both Sutton and Kanter agree that the old-fashioned fundraising methods -- newsletters, phone calls, and mail solicitations -- won't go away soon. They work, and they still reach the vast majority of donors. But social networking will nevertheless be a big part of the future, in ways Sutton won't even try to forecast. "It's the early days for us," he says, "and we've got a lot to learn." Last modified on Sunday, 19 May 2013
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