How charities can use their social skills

By Matilda Macduff 27 August 2010

Social media really has revolutionised the way people interact. We’ll happily share details of our private lives with the world, posting pictures we might not want our parents/employers/future in-laws to see in public online spaces, and allowing ourselves to be contacted any time, anywhere. There’s a new facebook feature which is literally a tracking device, updating your status as you move, which I find slightly terrifying.

But has social media changed the way people interact with charities? Every organisation seems to have someone dedicated to spreading their message online – and I say ‘spreading their message’ deliberately, because I think this is where online communications come into their own. For raising awareness of a cause or a charity, social media is invaluable. But converting that awareness to action (particularly of the financial kind) is another matter.

Of course there are some cases where online appeals for money have been very successful – notably the Disasters Emergency Commission’s announcement on twitter following the Haiti earthquake, which resulted in donations of £8 million. But these are still remarkable. There is a big difference between ‘liking’ a cause on facebook, and going a step further and clicking on a charity’s website to read about their work, or even making a donation or finding out how to ‘get involved’. I wonder how effective online fundraising appeals actually are – on a personal level, I currently have several invites to donate to various facebook friends running marathons or doing sponsored events for charity, and yet I haven’t responded to any of them – in fact I’ve never donated money to a friend who has just contacted me via facebook. Perhaps this makes me a bad person, but someone telling me face-to-face why they’ve chosen a cause will always move me far more than an impersonal generic facebook invite. Sites such as Bmycharity, justgiving or virginmoneygiving have undoubtedly made the practicalities of fundraising easier, but it would be interesting to know how many of the donations made on these sites are generated purely through online contact.

What social media is good at is creating awareness of a cause or event, or fuelling a debate. Many charities have launched incredibly successful online campaigns which have got people talking (or tweeting) about an issue. The World AIDS Day red ribbon campaign led to virtual red ribbons appearing across the web, and hopefully drew a fair few visitors to the charity’s site to find out more. Earlier this year USA Today’s #AmericaWants twitter hashtag competition generated 60,000 tweets reaching more than 67 million followers, with the most tweeted charity rewarded with a free full page ad in the paper, worth $189,000, and a whole host of free online coverage (won by a charity dedicated to helping people coping with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide, To write love on her arms).

For campaigning charities, social media is an excellent free platform for getting a message to the masses. But for charities in need of funds, it seems that the gap between online followers and dedicated donors is still a tricky one to overcome.