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How do nonprofits turn social media sharing into successful fundraising?

December 30, 2014 at 6:30 PM EST
The viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a watershed moment in the evolution of philanthropy, but using social media to raise money has not been a universally successful strategy. Stacy Palmer of The Chronicle of Philanthropy and Amy Sample Ward of the Nonprofit Technology Network join Hari Sreenivasan for a conversation about donating in the digital age.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Social media has revolutionized how we stay in touch with friends and family, how we shop and get our news. This year, the success of the viral ice bucket challenge has people asking whether charitable giving is having its own digital makeover.

Yesterday, we checked in on how the $220 million raised by the ice bucket challenge to fight ALS is being put to work. Today, in the second of a series of conversations about digital philanthropy, we look at how social platforms are changing the way we give.

Joining me are Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and Amy Sample Ward, CEO of the Nonprofit Technology Network and a co-author of “Social Change Anytime, Everywhere.”

So, Stacy, I want to ask, was the ice bucket challenge a watershed moment or I guess a cold watershed moment?

STACY PALMER, The Chronicle of Philanthropy: It was quite the watershed. Everybody was doing it.

And it was a miraculous thing. Nobody thought that social media could raise money at all and many nonprofits were really frustrated. We had just written a story a few weeks earlier saying, nobody is succeeding. Don’t worry. You’re OK that you’re not raising money.

And then all of a sudden, hundreds of people are joining together and, all of a sudden, their friends were joining and everybody was joining. And celebrities did. And everybody got engaged. And it wouldn’t have happened without things like Facebook spreading the message.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

So, Amy, I want to ask, is this something that a campaign — is that something that can be replicated? Because it seems like it had a much more organic feel when it began which. And that is what got more people into it, vs. getting a flyer in your box saying go dump a bucket of icewater on yourself.

AMY SAMPLE WARD, Nonprofit Technology Network: Well, that’s the million-dollar question, right, or the multimillion-dollar question.

I think a lot of organizations are feeling the pressure from their boards, from their fund-raising teams, thinking, OK, we have to put a plan in place and we have to create the next ice bucket challenge.

But, if you peel it back, what really made it successful, to Stacy’s point, it was shareable. It was a really easy-to-share campaign. You posted a video, you posted something on Facebook, and your friends wanted to like it, and comment, and they wanted to make all of their other friends dump icewater on their head.

So finding something that is in your either campaign strategy or in your messaging in general that can be shared, but is also really fun. It’s about the people participating. It’s not about the organization.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Stacy, you mentioned Facebook earlier and so did Amy. What is the Facebook effect on philanthropy, if it could be measured, at least up until — until now?

STACY PALMER: Up until the ice bucket thing, it was great for sharing information and for people saying I’m running in a race and will you support me and letting people know about that, but it really just wasn’t bringing in any money.

And groups were spending a lot of time scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do. And I think they still are, actually, because that’s the question. Can Facebook really help, can Twitter help, what do these social media tools really do in terms of connecting people?

And it spreads the message, but how did — what nonprofits really need is cash to run their organizations. And so at a certain point, spreading the message is just not enough.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

So, Amy, what can an organization do or what do successful ones do to convert that from Facebook being kind of a marketing tool to actually getting people to contribute? Because that’s what they need at the end of the year or the end of the day.

AMY SAMPLE WARD: Sure.

And I think part of that is really recognizing who’s on Facebook. Do you have people on your Facebook page because you’re an organization that does lots of events and people are on there to see the photos and engage with you around events? Well, then figure out how those events hook into fund-raising.

But if you have instead a community on Facebook that’s really there for your mission and your stories, promoting giving and promoting events may not be what hooks them in, and being realistic. The people on your e-mail list are not all the same people on your Facebook page. They’re not the same people on your Twitter list. It’s all different components within your community.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Stacy, is there kind of a blanket rule? Or it seems like this is almost threading a needle to find that balance. And it can be different for different organizations of different sizes and different causes.

STACY PALMER: Very much so.

And I think that’s what’s so frustrating for people, is there’s not one recipe. But that’s sort of what the whole point is. But researchers are starting to look at what works. And one of the interesting findings that just came out was that it turns out, if you don’t have a very big social network, you’re actually better at raising money from your friends, because people are paying attention to you, is the theory.

So, we might think, oh, go to somebody who has tons of friends on Facebook. That might not be the way. It might be these more authentic messages that truly work. And I think that’s one of the reasons that this ice bucket thing took off.

People who knew somebody who had ALS at some point. They often talked about it. You need that connection to the cause. It still needs to be personal in some kind of way. I think if it had just been this fun thing, it wouldn’t have worked. That was an ingredient of why it worked, but also part of what it was doing was trying to emulate how people feel when they have ALS. And people, for a second, thought about that.

And, all of a sudden, they heard about this disease that many people hadn’t heard of. They learned something about it. So it was that great combination of things. But when people have tried some other kinds of things on crowdfunding networks — remember the potato salad thing?

And that was — this guy had this idea he wanted to make potato salad, and he raised tons of money. So, this nonprofit official in Saint Louis got really frustrated and decided, I’m going to try to raise money for people who are hungry. That’s a better cause than the potato salad thing.

Well, guess what? He wasn’t able to raise very much money at all. So, it’s very fluky why some things work and some things don’t.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

And, Amy, is there a cultural or a generational gift in how we consider giving? It seems that a lot of millennials are fine with giving $5 or $10 throughout the year in different causes because it’s right on their phone, it’s very easy to give, and maybe they’re not thinking about it as much as here’s the end of the year, here’s my $200 or whatever it is to Doctors Without Borders or UNICEF.

AMY SAMPLE WARD: And I think what’s really important about what you just said is causes, not necessarily nonprofits.

If there is — if there is an issue that someone is passionate about, whether it’s a really large being-covered-in-the-news political issue or it’s something in their — in their hometown, they feel connected to that cause and the impact that ultimately they want to see happen, and not necessarily the same kind of traditional relationship with a single organization that may serve — that may have a mission focused on that.

But they’re not giving every year, like you said, at the end of the year to the same organization. They’re really feeling like, in this moment, this campaign asked for my support. I’m not — it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a nonprofit, a political organization, a community group. I want to give $10, and I also want to feel like my $10 was important, it was noticed by them, and it made a difference.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Stacy, how does a big, huge organization tailor that message and create that personal touch, besides just sending something in the mail to me?

STACY PALMER: One of the things that a lot of groups are doing is trying to tap their volunteers, get them to reach out to their friends, make it personal in some kind of way. So, you can’t just say, I’m at the Red Cross headquarters and I’m going to send out this message, but I’m going to find the people who can reach out to other folks.

That takes time and effort too, but it’s a more effective and more authentic kind of way of getting out to people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, Amy, the big, huge, $100 million, “put my name on the side of a museum” gifts aren’t coming across Twitter, right? This is still a relatively small fraction, but I take that it’s growing on an annual basis.

AMY SAMPLE WARD: Certainly. Online fund-raising is definitely growing year over year.

And what we see in NTEN’s research is that e-mail is still the most significant lead generator, the piece that is driving asks for online donations, because, beyond e-mail, there are so many variables. How did they find your Web site? Was it on Twitter? Did they click through because they already follow you or did they see a retweet from a random person on a hashtag?

There are so many other variables. So feeling those opportunities out, figuring out who the community members are that you can make asks to, whether it’s on e-mail, and you personalize that e-mail, or you use that as a constant touch point, so that when you do take that person out to lunch or you bring those people together at your annual gala, they have already heard your story. They have already talked to you a number of times, and now they may be ready for that task, whether it’s, you know, $100,000, or $1,000 or $10.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Amy Sample Ward, CEO of the Nonprofit Technology Network, and Stacy Palmer, “Chronicle of Philanthropy,” thanks so much for joining us.

STACY PALMER: Thank you.

AMY SAMPLE WARD: Thanks.

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