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Social networks: A tool for fundraising

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[Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on viral fundraising.]

Elizabeth Floyd

Last winter, the Case Foundation launched an experiment in online giving, partnering with two media outlets, Parade Magazine and Facebook, to promote grassroots fundraising through Web 2.0 tools like social networks and charity badges.

Together, the giving challenges pulled in some 80,000 donors and raised more than $1.7 million for thousands of causes, not counting the extra $750,000 put up by Case and partners as prize money for causes with the largest number of unique donors.

The challenges brought some insightful revelations about the benefits of Web 2.0 fundraising.

Size matters

Smaller groups that have greater use for small donations seem to see the most fundraising benefit from using social media.

Most groups interviewed for this article reported average donations of $50 to $100, with those received during the Facebook challenge considerably lower, at about $10.

“We haven’t seen social media really be gangbusters for any of our clients,” says Sarah DiJulio, executive vice president at M + R Strategic Services, which advises nonprofits in campaign strategy. DiJulio says most of her clients are larger nonprofits like the MS Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Competitions like the Facebook giving challenge, which offered a top prize of $50,000, are naturally geared towards smaller groups, she adds.

“Fifty thousand is great, but it’s not enough to get an organization that raises $80 million a year to stop what they’re doing,” she says.

Size also seems to be an advantage in converting cause supporters into vested donors.

Carie Lewis, Internet marketing manager at the Humane Society, which participated in the Facebook challenge and raised $3,000, feels the challenge’s emphasis on unique donors gave grassroots groups a head start.

Even Web 2.0 fundraising is based on the traditional “ask,” and smaller organizations with personal contacts and the energy to mobilize them fared better, Lewis says.

Pressure me, please

Fundraising through social media is a long-haul affair that involves painstaking cultivation of networks in preparation for a media moment.

Nearly all groups interviewed agreed the challenge wouldn’t have worked without the pressure of a deadline.

Internet fundraising seems to thrive on such “impulse effects,” as a recent report from Network for Good on online giving in response to natural disaster suggests.

The report says web traffic was 75 times, and donations 20 times, the normal volume in the month after Hurricane Katrina.

Giving online facilitates such immediate reactions, with those moved by a cause able to pledge their support within seconds.

Yet it also tends to “spike and drop.”

The Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative, which won a $10,000 fourth-place prize in the Facebook challenge, combated this tendency with a unique launch-day strategy.

Mobilizing quietly at first through email campaigns to family and friends, the group prepared for a public launch day in the hopes of winning one of the challenge’s $1,000 prizes for causes with the most unique donors in a single day.

The plan worked, and the group carefully monitored subsequent giving, sometimes asking supporters to stop and other times mobilizing mass donations.

Traditional fundraising methods

The point of agreement between almost all Facebook challenge participants interviewed was that new technology still calls for traditional fundraising methods.

Many used table captains, email and phone calls to urge supporters to give.

Josh Sommer of the Chordoma Foundation went door-to-door in his college dorm. Supporters of Love Without Boundaries, which works with orphans in China, set up tables in Starbucks and walked would-be donors in their fifties through Facebook registration over the phone.

The Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative instigated a collaboration with other organizations with similar missions, swapping donors when they had a few to spare, and on the last day, had doctors and nurses lined up in a hospital room to give at the last minute.

Yet all agreed that the human element was key.

“It’s the same principle as other types of giving: people give to people,” says Sommer. “The platform makes it easier for lots of people to give in small amounts, but you still have to make the connections.”

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