A toe in the water – using social networks for your cause

This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of “Fundraising in New Zealand”. Foresee Communications have allowed me to republish the article on my blog. Thanks to everyone I interviewed for the story.

Using the internet for social networking was a topic that featured in a number of learning sessions at the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand’s conference in Auckland in May this year. So what’s it really all about, is it right for your organisation, and can it be used to generate donations? After attending the “Connecting Up 08” conference in Brisbane, Stephen Blyth was asked by Fundraising in New Zealand to investigate how non-profits might benefit from social networking.

Popular social networking websites like Bebo, Facebook and Myspace are settling into their fifth and sixth years of existence. People are growing used to and even demanding ways to interact with others online almost everywhere they visit.

Social networking websites aren’t the only places people communicate with others and share user-generated content. Blogs, video and photo sharing, book review, product rating and many other community websites offer this too.

Even if fads and brand names come and go, it looks like social networks are being embedded in our daily lives.

This opens up many new ways for non-profit organisations to promote their good causes. But rather than racing to start a page on Facebook or another social network, organisations are gingerly testing the waters. Will a presence online pay back the effort involved?

There is no formula for converting social networking popularity into a steady flow of donations. So far it is more likely to be about reaching niche audiences and engaging in conversation than getting cash.

What can be achieved with social networking

When David Cross, from Wellington’s Downtown Community Ministry (DCM), put out a request for volunteers to help with their annual book fair on DCM’s Facebook page, he didn’t know whether he’d get much of a response. At the time DCM had just 12 fans.

He was pleasantly surprised when he got replies from 40 people.

This came about through the networks that each of the first 12 fans actively maintain. This multiplier effect is unique to social networking websites: friends tell friends about what they support, and ask for help.

This same effect was obvious on a much bigger scale for Beth Kanter, a professional blogger and trainer from Boston who has run several online fundraising campaigns, At Connecting Up 08 conference she talked about reaching out to her networks to raise funds for the Sharing Foundation, a Cambodian charity.

During a 50 day fundraising competition launched by US Parade Magazine in December 2007 Beth and a colleague received 1,829 donations. As competition winner she gained US$51,000 prize money in addition to US$43,000 in donations.

Apart from one email to existing supporters, Beth relied only on appeals and stories on blogs, social networks and through the Twitter micro-messaging system. Over the years she has built up a huge network of contacts. After some starting prompts, she found people took things into their own hands.

“I only asked people in the very beginning. Then, it took a life of its own. Many wrote blog posts, solicited their friends on my behalf, gave advice, etc. I didn’t have to nag anyone,” Beth commented.

Rather than just pleading for support Beth told the story of why the Sharing Foundation’s work is important. This led to a two way conversation as people shared their experiences and made suggestions.

Whether it’s an individual or an organisation, social networks only really work when people can get really involved. This could be through a comments form, writing on a wall, or rating pictures or videos.

After posting 13 videos of original New Zealand classical performances on YouTube, Sounz, The Centre for New Zealand Music, was gratified by the high ratings people gave the video clips. A presence on YouTube is boosting visits to the recently upgraded Sounz website. The result is a four-fold increase in sales of scores.

“What you do is little projects to drive people to your website. Often what I think gets lost when we get a website is that it is not only a marketing tool for you, but a marketing job for you as well,” says Scilla Askew, Sounz Executive Director.

It can be scary

If you’re not prepared to hear directly from supporters and engage in debate, the time might not be right for you to set up a social network page or a blog. People expect to be able to talk – both to you, and to each other.

As well as being open, the currency of Bebo and Facebook pages is personal. It’s about personality with a capital P. A bland organisational frontage just doesn’t gel. People respond to authentic voices.

“The organisations that aren’t effective with social networks they put up a Potemkin Village – just a facade, it’s just a billboard. And you go one or two clicks in and there’s no human activity. The ones that are successful have really cultivated a community and conversation, it’s like a wonderful cafe where people are meeting and networking and having great conversation,” Beth Kanter observes.

Some non-profits in New Zealand have fallen into this trap with social networks pages drawing a muted response. Partly this is because of a mismatch between the message and the audience.

New Zealanders of every age use social networks. Twenty eight percent of all New Zealand internet users have been to social networking websites at some time according to the “Internet in NZ Report 2007″*. However, people aged up to thirty years old are the regular users: 40% of under 30s visit social networks daily. Just 10% of people in their 50s and 60s have ever been to a social networking site.

In coming years connecting with relatives, colleagues and friends online will be a commonplace part of our social lives, so participation rates are likely to grow.

Even if you are skeptical about the benefits of social networking to your organisation, you might like to find out what it’s like for yourself, if you haven’t already done so. Create an account on Facebook or another similar website, give away your secrets, find some non-profit pages and keep an eye on things.

Start by listening, and when you’re ready join the conversation. After you understand how things work for yourself you’ll be in a better position to create an organisational presence.

Beth Kanter advises organisations to start small, approach online networking as a learning experiment (action – reflect – revise), and finally, make sure you have fun. Don’t be afraid to try something, then delete the page if the benefits are not mounting up.

Some people swear they will never try any of these social networks. They don’t want to spend another minute in front of a computer than they have to, or they object on principle. Delegating a younger volunteer or staff member to set up a social networking page is one way of getting around this.

Finding the time

Although setting up Bebo and YouTube pages is free it does take some effort.

For David at DCM he spends about two hours a week checking the Facebook page, responding to comments, adding new material, and looking for new people to invite to join.

Charlotte Fowler, the webmaster for Oxfam NZ, says a big investment of time is needed to get things up and running. Finding photos, deciding on colours, changing the size of logos, and working out the intricacies of each system can take days. It doesn’t end there.

“Once up and running it takes constant management. You can’t just set it off and leave it. If it’s going to work, you’re going to have to keep engaging with it”, she suggests.

Some automatic ways of reusing material you publish on other websites are available. You don’t necessarily have to cut and paste blog posts, news stories or event notices. A moderate level of web savviness and a lot of patience is a prerequisite.

It’s possible to add widgets, badges and buttons asking for donations. But don’t expect these to get much use – just yet anyway. Research on US nonprofits shows the level of donations to Facebook causes and Myspace buttons is low. For New Zealand non-profits who can’t use many of the tools provided by the social networks it’s even harder.

Regardless of the challenges, Beth Kanter is confident that using online networks is a good way for organisations to solicit support. She says be prepared to actively keep people engaged in your cause. This month she’s embarking on her fifth personal online fundraising campaign to support a Cambodian woman to attend college. There’s no doubt there’ll be a lot of conversation generated, and hopefully some funds.

Social networks are here to stay, so at some point most non-profit organisations will want to connect with their supporters online. If you’re ready for some unexpected twists and turns, today could be a good time to dip your toe into the social networking sea.


Connecting Up 08 conference
* World Internet Project NZ
Oxfam on Myspace
DCM on Facebook
Sounz YouTube channel

Lessons from Beth Kanter

Almost every project Beth Kanter works on she makes the effort to share case studies and lessons. She also blogs regularly on non-profit organisations’ use of the Internet.

Beth’s blog
Personal, Socially Networked Fundraising, America’s Giving case study
Using the ChipIn Widget for a Personal Fundraising Campaign case study

(c) 2008 Forsee Communications. Subscribe to their monthly “Fundraising in New Zealand” magazine.

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One thought on “A toe in the water – using social networks for your cause

  1. Beth Kanter

    Just stumbled onto this post .. btw, have you indexed your blog in Technorati? That way when you link out, it gets picked up in people’s listening radars ..

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