Thursday, December 9, 2010

Facebook Causes

Since its founding in 2007, Facebook Causes has become an indispensable resource for many nonprofits. The pioneering social media application, created by Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake in the movie) and Joe Green, allows any Facebook user to create a profile for an issue or organization of their choosing, network with other groups, then solicit friends and family to join and even donate.

The fundraising stats have grown gradually since the app's creation. So far only two groups have broken the $100,000 threshold: The Nature Conservancy and Students for a Free Tibet. According to Susan Gordon, Nonprofit Coordinator for Causes, the Nature Conservancy is Causes' largest fundraiser to date with $262,984 in donations.

But there's a catch here and there, ones which any participant might want to heed. There are the usual privacy concerns, of course. Also, as with much of the user-created content on Facebook, the site itself reserves the right to re-purpose your organization's logos, copy, graphics, photos and miscellaneous content. What's more, 4.75% of all donations are tithed by Causes' donation distribution partner, Network for Good, in order to cover their operating expenses. While none of that money benefits Causes directly, the application is a for-profit enterprise that earns revenue through advertising.

Many in the media have been sharply critical of Causes. According to the Wall Street Journal, social media in general and Causes in specific are among the most ineffective means of nonprofit fundraising.

As their article points out:

Only a tiny fraction of the 179,000 nonprofits that have turned to Causes as an inexpensive and green way to seek donations have brought in even $1,000, according to data available on the Causes developers' site.

Research shows that the Internet and email are generally considered the least successful nonprofit fundraising techniques, according to a report by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

"The prevalent fantasy among nonprofits during the early days of the Web was that a random person would come to your Web site, see that they could donate, and donate a million dollars," said Aaron Hurst, chief executive of a California nonprofit, who has blogged about the ineffectiveness of Causes. "But that wasn't true then and it isn't true on social networks."

Just this past October, too, Malcolm Gladwell took on social media activism in a controversial article for The New Yorker. While I disagree with many of Gladwell's conclusions about the organizing potential of Internet platforms like Causes, the piece makes for a thought-provoking read.

In it, Gladwell contrasts Facebook and Twitter networking with the highly organized, centralized, disciplined and passionate techniques of the civil rights movement. Gladwell asserts that social media cause support requires comparatively little of web-users, often entailing nothing more than the clicking of that "Like" button. It demands little material or physical sacrifice, largely because Internet-based networks are loose-knit communities, counterproductive to strong activism, as opposed to "strong tie" organizations with a centralized strategy and deep, lasting, value-based social bonds.

Once you've read Gladwell's piece, hop over here for a spirited response from Facebook Causes' Susan Gordon.

Indeed, while Gladwell raises some legitimate points, the bright future for many nonprofits lies along a middle path, combining the capabilities of traditional activism and cause marketing with the unparalleled information dissemination and fundraising potential of social media. To that end, Facebook Causes, like Facebook itself, makes for a valuable marketing platform. It has its downsides, and every user would do well to read the fine print of the user agreement, but ultimately makes for a powerful source of increased awareness.

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