Sit down at any cafe, and you'll notice that half the people are bent over their laptop, iPhone, or BlackBerry, checking up on their Facebook friends or composing a pithy message for their Twitter followers. On Facebook (one of the most popular peer-to-peer sites), 50% of its estimated 500 million users log in every day. And it's no longer just a playground for 18 to 24-year-olds. The fastest growing group on Facebook -- users in the 35 to 54 year-old age range -- has some gray hairs.
Professional fundraisers are asking the obvious question: What's in it for the nonprofit sector? Tapping into online networks of like-minded people must have some fundraising or marketing potential.
So far, the numbers alone don't look too exciting. No one has discovered an easy way to earn big dollars via social networks, not even after an organization puts in a lot of staff time and attracts lots of virtual friends. New donors who arrive at an organization via a social network make lower-than-average sized gifts, and then don't often return to make follow-up gifts -- only about 15% of them come back within a year. Contrast that with donors who give via a nonprofit's website, who have a 50-50 chance of making another gift within the same year. (That's according to studies by Target Analytics.)
Yet social networks are becoming one of the primary ways that people communicate and share information. Their potential for fundraising and other social uses has yet to be fully realized. As Susan Messina, Director of Communications at the National Hospice Foundation (www.nationalhospicefoundation.org) says of her work in establishing a social network presence for NHF, "Social networks have created a space that nonprofits like ours simply have to be in -- even though we don't yet know what will emerge as a result."
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at:
If you're a nonprofit executive director, development staffperson, or otherwise involved in communications, and you yourself haven't yet joined a social network such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (primarily for professional contacts), Change.org (an issues-oriented site), or whatever site emerges next in popularity, now may be the time to do so. (If you're already a savvy social networker, you can skip this section.)
Sure, reading about these sites will tell you things like the space limit for a Twitter message (140 characters) or that such sites let people update their contacts; share photos, website links, and videos; and get in touch with long-lost and distant friends -- or people they barely know -- but that's all abstract.
Only by joining one or more sites yourself will you get a sense of the etiquette, style of discourse, and -- most importantly for your planning -- a sense of how much time it might take for you and other staff to incorporate social networking into your fundraising and marketing activities. Expect to spend a couple of months just learning the ropes.
At first glance, it may appear that the storm of information tidbits leaves little room for nonprofit fundraising. Notice, however, that when your social network contacts aren't updating you on what they ate for breakfast, some declare themselves "fans" of a certain cause (which, on Facebook, means that they're linked to the organization's profile and receive its status updates), put up links to an interesting cause-related video, post photos of their fabulous day of volunteering, or simply ask friends to make donations in honor of something (or in response to an emergency). There are ways for your organization to plug into all this.
Making sense of the social network sites can take time and, to complicate matters, they're subject to frequent revisions. It often works best if someone in your organization has the skills and energy to really learn how these sites work and be the go-to person when others have questions. Young interns can be helpful with this.
Here are some ways to make use of the social networking phenomenon:
Be selective. Don't try to have your organization join every site at once. Choose ones you're comfortable with and that seem to match the demographic of whoever you're hoping to reach. If your organization ends up with several kinds of online presence, make use of features allowing automatic postings of content from your website, blog, or Twitter feed to another site (Facebook offers this, for example).
Create a page for your organization on Facebook. Register at www.facebook.com/pages/create.php (this must be done by an official representative of your organization). This creates a profile page similar to that used by individuals. As one of your first steps, search for members of your staff, support base, and board, and ask them to be your organization's friend. Then, regularly (at least every few days) post brief status updates, comments on relevant news of the day, photos, requests for input or stories, announcements of events, and more. Note, however, that a profile page doesn't allow you to raise money directly -- for that, you'll need to either send people to your website or create a separate Facebook "Cause" page, described below.
Consider using Facebook Causes. This Facebook application lets nonprofit groups -- as well as individuals who want to muster up support for a cause -- create a page, post updates and links, receive comments, and actually process donations (via Network for Good). Initially, Causes was the only way an organization could have a presence on Facebook. Once regular profile pages became an option (with all the functionality of a personal page), Susan Messina explains, "I saw many nonprofits take their Causes down and send their followers a Facebook message basically saying, All the action is over at our profile; please become a Fan.'"
Ask staff and volunteers to work their own networks. Encourage (but don't require) people within your nonprofit who have joined a networking site -- staff, board members, and volunteers -- to mix cause-related messages (whether information, announcements about events, or actual appeals) with personal ones. This shouldn't become a drumbeat of publicity about your work, but should represent sincere efforts to link the cause they care about with other people who might be interested. If they're willing, people's own birthdays can become a time to ask friends for donations. (By the way, if you're a nonprofit leader, beware of mixing the personal with the professional -- you might want to create more than one profile per site for yourself.)
Create content that people will want their friends to see. Online videos, for example, have become a hot item. A two-to-four minute story arising from your work may inspire curious clicks. Make sure it's narrowly focused -- mere ads describing your organization will be sneered at, and your subsequent links ignored. Post such content on your own website as well as on sites like YouTube. Podcasts, contests, surveys, and calls for volunteers for a "day of action" are other forms of content worth circulating.
Start a Twitter feed for your organization. If you've ever agonized about whether you're bombarding people with communication, worry no more. Those who want to hear from you regularly will sign up for your Twitter feed -- and will expect ongoing but short tidbits about what's going on with your efforts to serve a cause. You can also send links to photos.
So, when exactly does all this activity lead to donations? Don't expect to see the money pour in. In some cases, you're just helping people feel good about themselves by being friends of your cause. But at least you're reaching people you might not have otherwise, whose friendship might translate into getting more involved with your organization or making donations, now or someday. And you're strengthening your relationships with existing members, holding their attention rather than letting it stray to other organizations. So when next you send out direct mail appeals, or invite people on your mailing list to an event, the reason that some of them might respond is because you've kept their loyalty through social networks -- even if your group can't directly traced these results back to its social networking efforts.
Now let's imagine that you've brought in some new donors via your social networks. How will you bring them back for a second gift?
The forces against success are a bit daunting. The donor's first gift may have been in response to a request from a friend -- perhaps in honor of a birthday, wedding, or funeral. But once that moment has passed, the donors are most likely left without any direct sense of connection with your nonprofit. What's more, they may have since been bombarded with other requests by other friends.
However, you can take steps to enhance their feeling of connection to your organization. Possibilities include:
To make sure your nonprofit is doing everything it can to keep the donations flowing, get Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).