My take on the Facebook Causes/WaPo buzz

April 24, 2009 at 5:09 pm 3 comments

For those of you who missed it, the Washington Post published a story this week downplaying the effectiveness of Facebook causes for nonprofit fundraising.

It states that “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,” and goes on to explain that “even” e-mail campaigns are more likely to raise significant amounts of money (being an e-mail communications manager, I get feisty at the suggested tone in their use of the word “even,” but I digress …).

It’s no surprise that this article created buzz among the nonprofit tech community. First, social media/social change blogger Allison Fine points out that the “news” in the WaPo article isn’t actually “new,” which is true: the effectiveness of Causes was already being discussed among nonprofit techies last year. She also takes the WaPo to task for using faulty data when determining the average number of nonprofits using Causes and the average amount of money they’ve raised.

Next, Mike Ames, of Tech Hermit, blogged about an email conversation he had with the WaPo staff writers who wrote the article – Kim Hart and Megan Greenwell. In short, the response he got included a shot at social media and nonprofit bloggers.

Finally, social media guru Beth Kanter boils down the argument on her blog, pointing out the fact that “Causes is a Friending too, Not a Fundraising Tool.”

Now … what do I think?

I agree with the WaPo that yes, Causes isn’t the best way to raise money for a nonprofit. But what the article doesn’t address are some fundraising basics that deal with the semantics of the actual application, instead of the concept of raising money via social networks.

First, it’s crucial to be able to follow up with an individual who makes a donation – a phone number, an email address, a postal address, a NAME. It’s the key to the longevity of an organization, because it allows development departments to gather and cultivate a list of donors, engaging them further and (hopefully) getting more donations along the way.

As it stands right now, Causes doesn’t allow an organization to get this information. A person donates, the organization gets the money, and that’s it. It’s not much of a relationship.

Now, this doesn’t mean that fundraising via social networks isn’t possible. (On the contrary, I think it is possible, in time.) But this does mean that more thought has to be put into applications like Causes that harkens back to the traditional tenets of successful fundraising.

As someone who fights every day for the relevance of new media and technology in the nonprofit world, I have to admit that I’m also annoyed at the tone of this article and the implications it has for those who are reading the information for the first time. Because those who have read about the varied uses for social networks in the nonprofit world understand that fundraising is only one wedge of a list of many wedges that all have to work together to be effective.

Nobody’s going to give your organization money if they haven’t heard of you and don’t feel a connection with you. Social networks help create that connection. Thought of this way, social networks DO play a part in fundraising – but you have to look at the big picture and the big strategy to realize this.

Media Blogger Brian Reich (thanks to Beth Kanter for tipping me off to his blog and this quote) makes an excellent comment on this point:

There are lots of people who ‘get it’ — consultants, nonprofit leaders, technology people and such. We are in the business of helping nonprofit organizations, as well as folks like the team from Facebook Causes, to understand the true value of technology in the context of communications, and fundraising, and other activities online. Its a slow process, but progress is definitely being made. At the same time, nonprofits probably give more weight to something in the Washington Post or New York Times (not to mention CNN, the Philanthropy Journal, and so on) than anything else. And in my experience, most of the news media doesn’t ‘get it.’ You read article after article about the tools and gadgets, or a big story about how one group raised a bunch of money or built a big email list. But those stories rarely get into the heart of the matter and those articles fall short of explaining all the factors that contributed to a set of outcomes. No matter, the message they send is readily shared and embraced by people everywhere, in the nonprofit community, technology circles, and even the broader audience — and their perspective is shaped. As long as the news media continues to tell that limited story, we are fighting an uphill battle.

I’m already seeing this happen in my organization. The comments of “Oh, well this must mean social networking isn’t effective,” and “Maybe we shouldn’t do social networking anymore.” These thoughts are frustrating and wrong – and hard to refute when people who “don’t get” social media perpetuate them.

Maybe I’m ranting a bit too much. But getting organizations into the social media/Web 2.0 world is an uphill, dirty battle – as employees at the WaPo have surely discovered. And articles like the WaPo’s on Causes – with a limited scope and a lack of thorough reporting and perspective – serve to make that uphill battle more grisly for those of us fighting it.


Entry filed under: Non-profit technology. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Patrick  |  April 24, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    Have been following along in the post-story debate, and you make some good, balanced points here. Thanks for posting it, will be fwding to some coworkers.

  • 2. Maureen Backman  |  April 24, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Thanks, Patrick!

  • […] 3, 2009 Last month, I gave my take on The Washington Post’s revelation that Facebook Causes is ineffective for nonprofit […]


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