Crowded roads ahead for charity 2.0

Using Twitter and Facebook to spread awareness and raise funds is all the rage, but will the space become so diluted that individual groups' effectiveness is undermined?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
6 min read

Way back in February, the Web's elite were all abuzz over the "Twestivals," a series of events around the world that were organized online to benefit Charity Water, an otherwise small nonprofit organization that funds the construction of wells in developing countries. They ranged from small in-home gatherings to massive nightclub bashes, but there was one general, common hook: spread the word, donate, and tweet about it.

Months later, with Twitter practically bursting at the seams, is this strategy still sustainable?

One part fundraiser and one part publicity blitz, the big-picture hook of "Twestival" was that social-media tools like Twitter and Facebook--with their unprecedented capability to spread the word--could potentially change the face of the nonprofit world. In challenging economic times, the inexpensive use of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social outlets to solicit small donations from the masses rather than relying on a few deep pockets has drawn extra buzz for Charity Water and its founder, former New York nightlife promoter Scott Harrison.

Charity Water's message: that one in six people on the planet don't have access to clean drinking water. Charity Water

"We really maintain a presence on about ten of the social media platforms," Harrison said to CNET News on Tuesday. "We're sort of everywhere we need to be, because it's as simple as a sign-up."

"Leveraging social media is absolutely the right way to go," commented Toby Daniels, director of the Think Social initiative at New York's Paley Center for Media, a research project dedicated to applying the past few years' social-networking craze to real-world problems. "The message travels at lightning speed through Twitter, through Facebook, through any of these different channels. People love to share (it) because it's part of their social identity--things that look good, things that make them look good. Everyone is motivated to increase their social capital, and they do that by donating money, by visibly supporting a cause, by donating their time, by recommending other people to donate."

The new-media community has welcomed Charity Water with open arms, and in turn, the nonprofit--which uses Google Earth to map locations of wells and has a Web site full of photos and video taken in the field--has reached out to the Web's luminaries as some of its charter supporters. Last fall, Charity Water hosted a campaign to encourage people born in September to solicit donations from their friends in lieu of gifts. Prominent figures in social media, like Facebook exec Dave Morin and Mashable founder Pete Cashmore, participated in the drive and spread the word to their massive Twitter and Facebook followings, who were eager to jump on the bandwagon. The September campaign raised about $965,000, Harrison said.

"The reason why Scott's been so successful in these areas that people are challenged on is that he's done the most progressive thing," said Elliot Bisnow, organizer of the "Summit Series" entrepreneurship group, which promotes young business leaders' involvement in nonprofit efforts. "He's kind of ahead of the curve on every step." And in this case, being ahead of the curve has meant seeking out the Twitterati rather than Hollywood to spread the word.

But this was before Twitter's growth really began to explode. The latest numbers from traffic firm ComScore peg the microblogging service's June traffic at 44.5 million unique users around the world--in February, when the Twestival events were held, it was less than a quarter of this size--and Facebook has rocketed past a quarter of a billion. Charity Water has been joined in social-media prominence by nonprofit efforts and initiatives from the Bob Woodruff Foundation's Tweet to Remind project to support injured war veterans; to the Twitter-prominent Acumen Fund, an investment organization dedicated to alleviating poverty; to the "Facebook for Good" campaign that kicked off when the social network hit 200 million active users.

As the Web is flooded with more and more charity initiatives, both large, well-established ones and new nonprofits created specifically with harnessing social media in mind, problems can arise. At best, donations could be spread too thin, rendering many organizations less effective.

Of more concern is the fact that the influx of charities and nonprofits to platforms like Facebook and Twitter could result in noise, congestion, and outright apathy. Spreading awareness of a good cause grows difficult when that good cause starts to seem like spam. If one tweet after another is seeking donations, people might just get fed up.

"My filter is set pretty high," Toby Daniels said, "even though I think I'm very connected to the nonprofit space, and obviously invested in the social media component of that."

"I am a little concerned," Elliott Bisnow said of the potential for the "Charity 2.0" trend to reach a tipping point sooner rather than later. "People are more careful with scrutinizing what they give to now...There were way fewer nonprofits even ten years ago than there are today. There are tons and tons more organizations, and you can't just have a fundraiser anymore or send out messages or a newsletter or an e-mail. You can't just do that and expect to raise money."

The Acumen Fund is another nonprofit organization that has gained a prominent following on social media services like Twitter. The Acumen Fund

We may already have a case study of what can happen when, for better or for worse, there are too many people out there trying to do good. In April, The Washington Post published an investigation into the actual effectiveness of Causes, one of the applications to gain early prominence on Facebook's platform. At the time, there were a whopping 179,000 nonprofits with Causes profiles, which allow for easy online donation transactions that are then broadcast in donors' news feeds, but the Post noted that the majority had not received a single donation.

Experts in the nonprofit space say that while any upstart organization--like any start-up business--will want to have a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter, that it's dangerous to rely too heavily on them. In order to be successful on Twitter, or on Causes, or with a Facebook fan page or YouTube channel, there needs to be legitimate promotion and effort, not to mention physical resources.

Toby Daniels pointed to the case of Charity Water.

"They're big in social media, but they're small in the scheme of things, and their biggest problem now is scale," Think Social's Toby Daniels said. "You cannot scale a business, or any type of organization, if you don't have infrastructure, and you don't gain infrastructure by having a Twitter strategy or a Facebook strategy or anything. You need staff, you need operational resources, you need to have all your business systems in place."

The truth is that Twitter and Facebook may fall from favor in the charity world if they grow so big and crowded that it puts a damper on effectiveness. Organizations that want to stay on top of a social media strategy will have to look elsewhere. And Scott Harrison said that Charity Water is already making its next steps.

"We're launching a brand new Web site," Harrison said, adding that it was built with the help of Michael Birch, who co-founded Bebo and sold it to AOL for $850 million last year. The focus, Harrison explained, is to make it possible for individuals to launch their own Charity Water donation campaigns.

"It goes into beta in a few weeks as part of the September campaign, so it'll allow people to 'give up' their birthdays again, but not just September," he said. "People can be creative. They can run marathons, they can skydive, they can give up weddings and anniversaries, they can get their schools involved, et cetera. And it will tie every dollar to a Water project. We're tracking each gift down to the project it's funding."

Harrison says he has no plans to give up on Twitter, even as it grows so big that it may be less effective.

"I don't think you'll see us pull back," Harrison insisted. "If anything, we'll be, maybe, creating more unique strategies for each of our (social media) presences."

And others in the digital charity space say that even if the power of a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page wane, that they'll have been well worth it.

"We've already spread the word to about 3,000 more people that we wouldn't have access to otherwise," said Melissa Kushner, founder of a small school supplies charity called Goods4Good, of the effectiveness of social media tools, "and so that would be a coup in and of itself."