On April 14, actor Hugh Jackman pledged to give AUS $100,000 to the charity that could best convince him, via Twitter, that it was deserving of the award. On Friday, Jackman announced that, unable to decide, he had chosen two winners to split the prize: Operation of Hope, a medical foundation that donates surgical procedures to children in developing countries born with facial deformities, and Charity: Water, a non-profit dedicated to providing safe drinking water in developing countries.

One of the winning tweets came from Charity: Water president and founder Scott Harrison, who tweeted a link to a photo of a group of Ethiopian children holding up a hand-made sign with the simple message “Dear Mr. Hugh Jackman, thank you for helping us!” Harrison added: “dear @realhughjackman — just snapped this near eritrean border at a school of 1400 w/o clean water.”

Charity: Water is only one of many examples of non-profits using social media to raise awareness and encourage donations. Although the media is always abuzz about the latest corporation to open a Twitter account or YouTube channel, research indicates that it’s actually non-profits that are most likely to make a push into the world of online social media — and reap its benefits.

Charity 2.0

This isn’t the first time that Charity: Water has harnessed the power of social media to fund its projects. In February, it was the beneficiary of Twitter-based charity drive Twestival, when it posted daily videos of its ongoing efforts to drill wells in Ethiopia. In March, it was the first charity to use YouTube’s Call-to-Action feature, a video overlay available to non-profit users that links viewers to a group’s donation page.


charity: water for Twestival from charity: water on Vimeo.

“The whole world is changing because of social media,” said Harrison, who was pleasantly surprised to learn of Jackman’s donation. “It’s really become a force for good and a great way to educate people. It’s a powerful way to tell a story to hundreds of thousands of people.”

Other charities have also ventured into online video and social networking. 24 Hours for Darfur uses YouTube videos to bring the stories of genocide survivors to a global audience. The Humane Society created a YouTube contest asking viewers to create videos responding to the Michael Vick dogfighting controversy. And the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx Zoo posts videos of adorable animals to draw attention to its work protecting wildlife.

In a 2007 report entitled Blogging for the Hearts of Donors, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth professor Nora Barnes and research partner Eric Mattson found that nearly three out of four U.S. charities used social media, especially online video, as a key component of their outreach and fundraising. Nearly half of the major charities surveyed made use of social media; in contrast, earlier Dartmouth studies suggested that only 8% of Fortune 500 companies had any social media involvement.

“There is more of a financial incentive for charities to use social media,” explained Barnes, who is director of Dartmouth’s Center for Marketing Research. “Traditionally, they have had less money for advertising and PR; now they can level the playing field through the use of social media. For the first time, they can compete with big companies with little or no funds. They are moving quickly into social media, more quickly than any other group we’ve studied.”

Rachel Beer, a founding partner of Beautiful World, a fundraising and marketing agency that works with charities and social enterprises, explained the advantages of social media for charities:

They are free (in the main), fast, flexible, and they enable charities to engage with large numbers of existing and prospective supporters. They provide charities with greater opportunities to share more information about the important work that they do, and to seek and receive feedback. They also allow individuals to engage with charities in a way that is convenient to them and of their choosing, which — provided charities follow the principle of engagement first, before asking for support — provides the opportunity to build deeper, more loyal, relationships.

The Power of Video

Beer emphasized that charities shouldn’t think it necessary that they leap into every form of social media; rather they should think about what best fits their needs.

“Charities shouldn’t feel they have to use every social media channel available,” she said, “They should be clear about the audiences they need to engage with to meet their strategic objectives, and chose the channels, messages and types of activities that will work for those audiences and fit with the charity’s work and culture.”

Although Twitter is an increasingly popular way for charities to communicate with potential donors, it’s online video where most feel they can best make their case. Harrison noted that the trick to making a compelling case in 140 characters is to include a link to a three-to-four minute video.

Of those charities surveyed by Barnes and Mattson, 41% used online video. Harrison agreed that video was by far the best way to tell a story online.

“The ability of sites like YouTube to embed is especially important to charities,” said Harrison, “Supporters can embed it on their sites and it becomes part of their identity. It lets them show everyone else that this is a cause they support.”

Plus, activists and supporters can embed those videos on their own sites, helping to spread them virally.

“If a video is funny and engaging, people respond more than they do to the standard PSA model that we’ve seen on TV for years,” said Ramya Raghavan, YouTube’s non-profits and activism manager. “Video has this amazing power to compel someone to want to take action in a way that just reading text wouldn’t. But non-profits have to up their game since so many users have interesting videos.”

Raghavan cited her personal favorite video, a clip put out by Haagen Daz to draw attention to the problem of disappearing honeybees, as an example of a video that drew attention to an important issue in a memorable, entertaining way.

Raising Money

Non-profits’ attempts to engage potential donors through social media are paying off in some cases.

“Social media are still largely unproven for mass-market fundraising, although there are some examples, like TweetsGiving and Twestival, which provide an indication of the future potential of these channels,” said Beer. “Their real power will be realized when charities have built up some experience about what works, get better at integrating their various messages, activities and media — on and offline — and begin to use them more strategically.”

Charity: Water’s featured video on YouTube resulted in approximately $10,000 in donations, enough to build two brand new wells in the Central African Republic that will provide over 150 people with clean drinking water for 20 years. On a typical day, Harrison said that Charity: Water receives several thousand dollars in donations. The day of the Call-to-Action video was especially heavy, due to the public attention the charity received on World Water Day, but Harrison said that about half of the day’s $20,000 in donations could be attributed to the YouTube feature.

“There’s a little more of a back and forth than watching on TV,” said Raghavan. “We see that people want to use YouTube because of the opportunity for interactivity. It turns passive watchers into active workers.”

The instantaneous nature of social media is a boon for charities that often must not only convince a potential donor that a charity is worthwhile but must also keep them convinced long enough to actually donate. While TV appeals may tug at viewers’ heartstrings, many forget what they’ve seen before they can make time to make a contribution.

James Norris of Social Uproar, a blog that monitors charity use of social media, posted a list of suggestions for charities hoping to encourage donations with online video, including:

> Watch and research other charities’ videos
> Make your video interesting
> Include a call to action at the end
> Seed the video using relevant keywords and descriptions
> Let your user base know that the video exists by sending out an email with a link to the video
> Once you have the embed code seed it on social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, blogs, etc.)
> Encourage people to share the video

Beer suggested that charities “Think strategically, update regularly, engage personally, be transparent and be yourself.”

For Harrison, the advice for charities using social media was even simpler: “Just do good work and produce quality content.”

Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.

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