Sloane Berrent wanted her 30th birthday to involve more than sharing cake and drinks with friends. So she and a friend started using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread the word that their birthday celebrations would benefit Netting Nations, a charity that fights malaria.
The pair asked people in their online networks to hold parties in seven cities in as many days. Supporters could give small donations: $15 to buy bed nets to protect a family from malaria, or $75 to protect a village. Ms. Berrent, a former fund raiser and marketer who left her job last year to volunteer, flew with her friend from city to city on their own dime for the parties. In a month, they raised more than $19,000.
That haul has made her one of a handful of charity supporters and employees who have succeeded in unlocking donations with the help of social media.
"I don't think that campaigns like this could have happened before Facebook and Twitter," says Ms. Berrent. "So many people were able to learn what we were about and help us spread the word virally."
As more groups experiment with how to win donations through online social networks, some are finding, like Ms. Berrent, that they are a useful way to publicize and encourage participation in fund-raising campaigns.
Nevertheless, a growing number of charities are now asking whether it is worth spending time on that approach, especially in a period when groups are facing so many staff cutbacks that everybody is trying to focus only on what works. In just the past month, three new reports have come out raising questions about how much charities benefit from using social media. Among them:
- Philanthropy Action, an online journal for donors, found that 74 percent of midsize charities raised less than $100 using social-networking sites or did not know how much they'd raised that way.
- Seventy-nine percent of nonprofit groups in a study by Weber Shandwick, the public-relations firm, reported that they could not determine how valuable the Web sites were for their organizations.
- Fewer than one in five Americans have made a donation using social-networking tools, according to a study by Cone, a marketing firm.
Timothy Ogden, editor in chief of Philanthropy Action, says charities have little to gain if they become "early adopters" of social-networking tools. For now, organizations should focus on what works and start using social media once effective strategies develop, he says.
But others say that charities risk losing out on the chance to create awareness among the hundreds of millions of people using Facebook and other tools. Those sites aren't spigots that charities can turn on to unleash gifts, they say, but places to build groups of supporters, some of whom may turn into donors. In the future, they say, lots of people will be giving through the Web sites.
"It's important for organizations to be investing in social media now even if we don't have everything figured out," says Susan Citro, director of digital membership at the Nature Conservancy. "It's where our donors will be."
Lessons About Online Efforts
Nonprofit officials who are raising money on the sites have already learned some lessons about what works and what does not. They say the Web sites are useful for soliciting small donations over short time periods, motivating supporters to ask others to give, and spreading the word about matching gifts.
The Nature Conservancy, for example, has attracted 17,500 supporters on Twitter and 35,000 on Facebook. The group used those sites to help promote Plant a Billion Trees, a campaign that raised more than $4-million by asking people to give $1 apiece to save a tree.
People participating in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life walkathons and other events have raised more than $850,000 through an initial trial of a Facebook application by asking their friends for money.
Sometimes donors put up matching gifts: Drew Carey, the comedian, has offered to give $1-million to the Lance Armstrong Foundation if he gets one million Twitter followers by year's end.
Often, volunteers and leaders of small groups are behind the fund-raising drives. Stacey Monk, co-founder of a charity that raised $11,000 in two days on Twitter, says the enthusiasm of volunteers translates well on social media.
"I don't think you can be a paid spokesperson and be able to articulate that same level of authenticity," she says. "It would be really, really difficult." Ms. Berrent, though, suggests that executive directors of big charities might be able to use their own personalities and networks to raise money as volunteers have.
Organizations that have not scored one of those fund-raising coups are asking lots of questions about how valuable their efforts have been.
For example, George Hood, national community-relations secretary at the Salvation Army, wonders what his group's 11,000 Facebook fans add up to. "Are they our employees? Are they existing supporters? Are they brand new?" he says. "If all we're doing is attracting ourselves, we're not being very effective."
His charity is slowly embarking on an effort to get more information on those Facebook supporters.
People who study social media say that for now charity officials should not worry about quantifying each Twitter follower or Facebook friend.
"Look at the more-qualitative measures of return right now," says Allison Fine, a Chronicle contributor and an expert on social media. "Look at the relationships that are being built, look at the increases in the size of your networks. If you expect it to work financially like direct mail, you are going to be disappointed."
Indeed, even charities that are happy with social media say measuring returns is difficult. The Nature Conservancy's Ms. Citro, for example, says she cannot break down how much of the $4-million her Plant a Billion Trees campaign raised through social media as opposed to e-mail appeals, Web-site visits, or corporations, although she says she is certain the networking sites helped.
Instead, the Nature Conservancy is monitoring how much attention and how many followers it attracts on social-networking sites and is using that information to winnow the number of Web sites it uses.
The Nature Conservancy is also paying attention to how people use each site and modifying its approach accordingly. The group has raised more than $200,000 on Facebook through a game called Lil Green Patch. The game's developer agreed to donate a portion of his advertising revenue every time someone uses the application.
But the environmental charity doesn't see Facebook games as an area of big growth anymore because people have migrated away from using the site for games and are instead using it primarily to share news and information.
Still in 'Infancy'
Such developments are a lot to keep track of for harried charity fund raisers and marketers. How much time individual nonprofit groups decide to spend on social-media tools will probably come down to their personal appetite for the work.
But fans of the sites emphasize that charities should take the long view.
"Direct mail has had 25 years to figure out its strategy, the Web has had 10, and social media is in its infancy," says the Nature Conservancy's Ms. Citro. It may not be until the nation faces another Hurricane Katrina-like moment that it will be possible to see how useful online social networks are for fund raising, she says.
"Unfortunately, maybe the first thing that will really show social media's strength is an emergency giving situation."