Nonprofits tap online networks to raise funds

Living Beyond Breast Cancer has won supporters for one of its biggest fund-raisers with e-mail blasts, brochures and personal calls to big donors.

But that’s so yesterday.

For the first time, the nonprofit based in Haverford, Pa., is posting to its new Facebook page information on this year’s Yoga Unites event, which takes place Sunday. It also is tweeting on Twitter as @YU4LBBC and uploading video to YouTube.

Of course, Living Beyond also blogs, and it shares photos on Flickr, including one of women saluting the sun on the steps of the Art Museum, where the annual Yoga Unites takes place.

As a result, the number of teams signed up for the event has nearly tripled, the group reports.

That’s the bottom-line promise of “social giving,” which uses online networks to raise awareness and, ultimately, money. Organizations with a cause are “friend-raising” on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and elsewhere to bolster that old-as-money objective: fund-raising.

How does it work? Social giving exploits online networks, which offer exponential possibilities for building personal relationships. Once an organization makes a connection to an individual, that person can leverage his or her personal contacts ? the old “friends of friends” gone viral. When campaigns also include interactive contests, creative video clips, and real-time information, donating money becomes less of an obligation and more of an experience.

“Everybody saw the success of the Obama campaign,” said Jean Sachs, who leads the national cancer group. During the presidential election, lots of small donations through online networks added up to big bucks for the candidate.

Nonprofits across the country ? more than 85 percent use social media, according to a new survey ? want to replicate that success. In an economy where purse strings are triple-knotted, the strategy has particular appeal.

But even though some national groups, such as the Humane Society, have had huge success reaping donations through social giving, many others have not come up with a successful strategy.

“It’s not a magic cure-all,” said Rick Cohen, director of membership and technology for the National Council of Nonprofits in Washington. “They’re wonderful tools. It’s just not automatic, that if you’re there, your fund-raising is going to go through the roof.”

Social giving at its best, however, can be the gift that keeps on giving.

“It has tentacles,” Sachs said. “You have so many more people you can reach. … If we can get donations, even small amounts, from lots of people, we can continue to grow our goal.”

Despite the tough economy, Living Beyond has bet on social giving to reach its new fund-raising target of $100,000 ? twice the amount of last year’s goal. So far, so good.

As of Thursday, the event had 690 registrants, compared with 460 at this time last year. It also had 56 fund-raising teams (compared with 22) that so far had collected $96,059, according to the cancer group. An event sponsor also was found through Facebook.

Michelle Zeigler, Living Beyond’s communications assistant, said she enjoys the status updates and tweets that allow her to have “two-way conversations” with supporters and that demand about 20 percent of her time. “We have Facebook friends from Africa,” she marveled.

Social networks can be a marketing bonanza. “It’s the fastest way to get to people,” said Bill Cowen, director of the public relations program at Villanova University. “In a downturned economy, it’s one of the most cost-effective means of promotion.”

A national survey, released in late April and sponsored by three groups that help organizations use social media, found that 86 percent of the 980 nonprofit professionals who responded had joined at least one social network. Nearly three-fourths have a presence on Facebook, and 43 percent on Twitter.

The vast majority of nonprofits have entered the online soiree in the last two years. Nearly 60 percent of Twitter users came on board in the last three months, as the network that allows only mini-posts (140 characters or shorter) has soared in popularity.

“I think there’s a lot of experimenting in the sector,” said Holly Ross, executive director of the Nonprofit Technology Network, one of the survey sponsors.

Recently, the network tried to raise $10,000 for its scholarship fund through Facebook and other online technology. Its successful approach fit the medium. Ross agreed that if the goal was reached, she would star in her take on Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video, wiggling her derriere and all.

“I did,” she said, laughing. “It’s the fun, irreverent nature of the social-media world.”

One of the top dogs in successful social giving is the Humane Society of the United States. A February Spay Day campaign that involved a pet photo contest netted $550,000 ? largely due to a Facebook application that allowed owners to upload pet profile pictures, write the pet’s story, and ask for votes, according to Carie Lewis, the society’s Internet marketing manager. Each vote cost $1. Last year the contest (without the ability to post to Facebook) raised $70,000.

“It was brilliant,” said Beth Kanter, a scholar-in-residence at the Packard Foundation who writes on nonprofits and social media at Beth’s Blog. “You need to reach out to people in the right way.”

That’s the hurdle that can trip many nonprofits, especially smaller ones that may not have the expertise or staff time to devote to clever contests and frequent updates.

“It’s important to understand how this fits into your nonprofit,” said Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania. Some groups might use social media more to share information than to raise money.

Cohen, from the nonprofit council, worries that social media, while low-cost, can distract from a group’s core mission. “It’s a drawdown on time,” he said. “Nonprofits need to focus on doing the public good.”

Others caution that fast-paced, informal updates and tweets can backfire if poorly vetted messages get uploaded for the wide world to see.

Living Beyond is still exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of social networks but for now, Zeigler is busy working her connections.

She might post a tweet to 145 followers that touts “studios all over Philly region are offering special yoga classes to raise money for Yoga Unites for LBBC.”

And she might update 995 Facebook fans about Living Beyond’s latest blog post on a conference; a memorial for a community member who died; or its public-service announcement on YouTube.

“You just keep the cycle going,” Zeigler said. “It’s exciting to reach people who we never would have otherwise.”

(c) 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.