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Non-profits Leverage Social Networks With Varying Degrees of Success

Kim Hart

The Facebook application "Causes" is all the rage among nonprofit organizations, with more than 179,000 groups turning to the site as an inexpensive way to seek donations. Our story today explores why using social networking application may not be the most effective way to raise gobs of money for a nonprofit organization.

Still, many say raising money isn't the whole point. Raising awareness and getting out updates about what particular organizations are up to is also crucial to keeping a group alive.

It isn't a new concept; a number of companies have joined sites like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp to court customers, and President Obama's strong presence on social networks helped fuel his campaign.

But foundations, charities and other not-for-profit groups have largely relied on sending occasional newsletters and planning expensive events to raise the bulk of their funds and publicity. They've been forced to find other means of spreading their message as their wealthiest donors have cut back during the recession.

Every D.C.-area food bank uses Twitter to raise money and spread news, according to the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington, and scores of local nonprofits are listed on Causes.

Hoop Dreams.org, a scholarship fund for underprivileged students, has a maintained an alumni Facebook group for two years, but less than 200 people were members. In January, the organization created a new page on the popular social network to attract attendees to an annual dinner fundraiser. The page is now followed by more than 1,300 people.

Lester Davis, HoopDreams' communication director, said he now asks for email addresses associated with Facebook accounts of new members. He has posted updates about scholarship recipients who land internships on Capitol Hill or get accepted to college.

"It's our way of letting people know what their time and money adds up to -- it adds up to giving students these opportunities," Davis said. "You get people who are actively marketing for you within their networks."

While joining social sites may spread information about a particular cause, it doesn't mean donations will start pouring in. Nothing But Nets has raised 17 times as much money during a fundraising event as the Facebook and Twitter campaign raised in a week.

Elliot Bisnow, the founder of Summit Series, a group of entrepreneurs that kicked off the Nothing But Nets fundraiser, said the campaign still raised awareness about the cause and potentially touched millions of Twitter and Facebook users.

Other start-ups are hoping to take advantage of the amount of time people spend sending messages on their cellphones or social networking sites. Even if they don't give money, they can help out a cash-strapped nonprofit organization by donating time and effort, said Casey Golden, who recently launched SmallAct Network, which has created specialized software to help nonprofits send out regular messages to stay in touch with supporters. Golden also created a Facebook application that raises money, usually in increments of 50 cents to $20, for a chosen charity in exchange for taking a survey or applying for a credit card.

Jacob Colker, who works for a Washington lobbying group by day, has developed an application for iPhones and BlackBerrys that lets people use features on their cellphones to donate services to organizations. For instance, his firm, called The Extraordinaries, lets multilingual users watch short clips of a documentary and translate subtitles while riding a bus. Or, using their phones GPS services, users can locate nearby stimulus package-funded projects and take a picture of the progress.

"Most people can't take a day off work to go volunteer," Colker said. "But they have brief moments they can put to use while they're waiting in line somewhere."

By Kim Hart  |  April 22, 2009; 10:33 AM ET  | Category:  Kim Hart
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