Hanging on your every word?

An edited version of this article appeared in the August 2009 issue of “FINZ on Fundraising”. Find out more about the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand.

Hanging on your every word?

It sounds like a fundraisers dream. Supporters who hang on your every word.

For charities using Twitter this is exactly what people do. The latest craze in social networking allows anyone to send their every waking thought or carefully crafted message. Each missive is just 140 characters or less. Willing listeners (known as followers in Twitter parlance) talk back too.

“Potentially 100 followers on Twitter is more valuable than 10,000 people on a DM database,” suggests Nathalie Hofsteede, CEO of Give a little donations website. “It’s a voluntary connection, people opt in. So it’s a much more powerful relationship than you can establish through any other communication means you’d normally have as a charity.”

Many charities are starting to use Twitter as well other social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. This includes big players like art galleries, university alumni associations and museums and very small grassroots groups.

While few New Zealand organisations are directly raising money yet, the online medium offers new means of interacting with supporters that are unparalleled.

Social networks embraced US not-for-profits

As NZ organisations start exploring the place of social networks within the communications outreach, it’s something not-for-profit organisations are embracing in the USA.

A survey of US not-for-profit organisations released in April 2009 shows an overwhelming majority have a social network of some sort. Of the 929 organisations that replied, 86% are on Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, LinkedIn or another commercial social network (www.nonprofitsocialnetworksurvey.com). Of the commercial networks Facebook is by far the most popular, with 74% of organisations running a group, cause or fan page. In-house networks are run by 31% of organisations.

Despite being online for upward of two years barely any of the groups surveyed are actually raising funds directly from social networks. Those that have raised less than US $10,000 per annum. This survey and other reports conclude that raising significant amounts of money directly through social networks is a rarity. Those organisations raising large sums put in a lot of effort and time.

A stand-out example of social media use comes from the Humane Society of the United Society (HSUS). During its second annual Spay Day Online Pet Photo Contest over $600,000 was raised from over 40,000 entrants. The event, run in February 2009, relied heavily on social media and referrals to new people by existing supporters. The effort was considerable. With members of HSUS’s internet marketing team all directly of involved (with five paid staff, two interns and a number of volunteers).

Time to experiment

Examples of New Zealand not-for-profits directly raising funds through their social media presence are scarce. Some organisations are making experimental forays, with others with lots of questions.

“There is definitely a growing awareness and interest in using social networks. Some of the charities see a benefit, they’re quite keen. But they don’t necessarily know how to get in there,” says Lee Hales, Give a little’s marketing manager.

Oxfam NZ is one organisation that has broadened it’s online presence from a packed website and regular email bulletins. It has Facebook fan page, a YouTube channel, and recently started using Twitter. A gaol of their early sorties within social networks is to build up a supporters base.

“By building up trust in us and knowledge in us, perhaps through people who haven’t hard of Oxfam NZ before, they’ll be willing to help when we ask,” says Oxfam NZ’s web coordinator Andrea Walker.

What comes next has still to be decided. Andrea is wary of jumping straight into asking as she believes this could scare people off.

Twitter is the latest social network used by the University of Canterbury alumni office. The University fires out tweets (as the pithy Twitter updates are known), as well as sharing regular news with a Facebook group comprising over 2,000 members and a restricted entry group on LinkedIn, a website for connecting professionals.

“We’re trying to achieve a sense of alumni being part of a global community”, says Chanel Hughes, University of Canterbury alumni relations manager. “Alumni have become more aware of the benefits of networking, particularly on a global scale. This gives us an opportunity to provide an additional service to our alumni globally at no real extra cost.”

Social media sits alongside existing print and email communications. Compared to the near 50,000 subscribers to the quarterly Canterbury magazine, around 5% belong to one of the social networks.

“Using Facebook and other social networks has enabled us to get in touch with an age group who don’t typically come to alumni events and who may not actually be reading the magazine,” Chanel commented.

For those Internet savvy people who do almost everything online, including make donations, the University is considering how best to tap into social networks.

What’s your message?

There is little to stop an organisations setting up a social networking presence. Aside from staff time the costs of social networks are low. There is broad agreement that using social media is something any marketer or communicator can readily use. But as with any medium, there are unique characteristics to discover.

Social networkers have limited tolerance for repeated organisational key messaging and PR speak. Instead winning friends depends on adopting a personal tone and allowing people across your organisation to speak directly.

“You can interact with supporters on a much more personal level”, says Andrea Walker from Oxfam NZ. “Generally you’ve got to be more serious on your website and we don’t comment back. It feels with social media you can have your own voice a bit more.”

In fact, people are attuned to the tenor of conversation. It needs to be a genuine two way street. A good starting point is to think first about what you’re offering your audience not what you want.

“There’s an element of being honest. People don’t expect everything to be rosy… it’s really good if you can call the state of play as it is – things that are worrying us, problems, or we need your help and why,” suggests Give a little’s Nathalie Hofsteede.

Supporters and occasionally antagonists can easily re-interprete and spread ideas related to your cause without you ever knowing. Organisations have less control than ever before about how the organisation is perceived.

Some see the possibilities presented by social media with its potential for immediacy and personal contact as a dream come true. Whereas others envision a nightmare overloaded with micro messages and other trivia. Whether it is any use for fundraising is too early to definitely say.

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