Fundraisers Atwitter Over New Cash Stream

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When Paige Fogarty signed up to run last month’s New York City Marathon, she did it with the intention of raising money for the American Cancer Society. But instead of just asking friends and family for donations, the 30-year-old lawyer from Astoria downloaded a new fundraising application onto her Facebook page.

That Boundless Fundraising application displayed a thermometer showing the amount she needed to meet her goal and made it easy to donate online. More than 80 of Fogarty’s Facebook friends, including some from elementary school, gave to her campaign. She raised almost $4,500.

“At least three-quarters of what people donated to my fundraising fund came from Facebook, easily,” said Fogarty, whose 57-year-old father is battling colon cancer. “The Facebook application made it a lot easier to get the word out, because people could see it centrally located on my Facebook [page.]”

In this rough economy, every dollar counts. Nonprofits of all sizes are learning that social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are inexpensive ways to tap into new audiences – and new revenue streams. And although efforts to raise money through these types of sites are still in the early stages, some in the nonprofit world believe that social networks will eventually become key sources of charitable donations.

“It’s a growing trend, but it’s still in its infancy,” said Craig Weinrich, outreach coordinator for the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York, about the social media fundraising phenomenon. “This is very similar to when the Internet first came on and e-mail really boomed.”

The majority of the almost 1,800 nonprofit organizations that the committee represents in New York City, Long Island and Westchester are beginning to use sites like Facebook and Twitter, Weinrich said. He believes they are good ways for organizations to reach new people and develop relationships with them. This can eventually lead to donations in the future.

“It will not replace fundraising letters and person-to-person solicitations,” Weinrich said of raising money through social media. But “in the next couple years, nonprofits will figure out ways to make social media a viable fundraising tool for their organizations.”

The American Cancer Society has already begun to explore this idea. It began using the Boundless Fundraising application that Fogarty had put on her Facebook page about a year ago, said Melissa Lee, the society’s Eastern Division Director of eRevenue. The application was successful, because it capitalized on people’s existing social networks, she said. This exposed her group to new audiences.

Most of the donations the society received through Facebook were from first-time givers, Lee said. But the average gift was less than $5.

“It can’t make up the difference in the dollar gap [due to the economy],” Lee said. “But what it can do is help us stay in people’s minds. … The more people who see us, the more impact we’re going to have, and that will eventually translate into dollars down the line.”

That’s what Daniel Buckley, the online communications manager at the Food Bank for New York City, has come to believe.

His organization set up a Causes page on Facebook where people can make charitable donations to his group online. Overall, Causes has raised about $18 million since it was launched in May 2007, Causes’ director of nonprofit relations Matthew Mahan wrote in an e-mail. About 65,000 nonprofits currently use it to fundraise, Mahan said.

In the two years the Food Bank has used it, the group has raised almost $2,600 through the application – without having to do a thing, Buckley said. But that’s not very much cash. “I absolutely believe social networks will become a significant source of charitable donations over time, but they’re not there yet,” he said. “In fact, they’re not even close.”

He’s more excited about how sites like Twitter, and YouTube videos, have increased traffic to the Food Bank’s website. “We almost exclusively use social media as an awareness-building tool and a community-building tool,” Buckley said. “It’s a great place to develop relationships with individuals that hopefully will translate into donor or volunteer relationships down the line.”

Deanna Lee, vice president for communications and marketing at the New York Public Library, would agree that social media is a good way to get people involved in an organization.

Last summer, the library launched an online advertising campaign to combat a looming $28 million city budget cut. The library put a giant red pop-up box on its web page asking people to take action by contacting their local officials and donating to the library, Lee said. At the same time, the nonprofit started a YouTube campaign featuring celebrities speaking about what libraries meant to them.

Almost 10,000 e-mails were sent to city officials during the campaign and about $23 million of city funding was restored. The library also received more than $50,000 in gifts from more than 1,100 donors. About 80 percent of those donors were first-time library donors, Lee said.

“The whole point in using different social media platforms is to tie them together to push them back to the point of action,” Lee said. “Young people don’t want you to just throw information at them. … They want a call to action.”

But not every organization is looking at social media as a way to raise money. A group called Takes All Types is trying to help organizations and institutions like the Coney Island Hospital collect blood donations.

The Brooklyn-based nonprofit builds technology that organizations can use to recruit new blood donors in an area. When that region runs low on a certain blood type, prospective donors receive messages on where to donate on whichever technology they signed up for, said organization executive director Ben Bergman. That technology can include Facebook and MySpace applications or even Twitter and text messages.

“This is the most important new medium on the Internet for nonprofits,” said Sree Sreenivasan, the dean of student affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who speaks to nonprofits several times a month about how to utilize social media. “I can guarantee you it’s going to continue to grow as an important way in which nonprofits connect with the world around them.”

But he cautioned groups against only using social media to fundraise. “It’s not a broadcast channel, it’s an engagement channel,” Sreenivasan said. “It’s for connecting with your audience, seeing what they’re interested in and answering when they ask a question.”

– Clare Trapasso