Online charity becomes a personal appeal

Now that Twitter and Facebook are saturated with nonprofits, having a social-network presence isn't enough. Meet the newest tactic: the personal campaign.

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

They fall into your inbox like snowflakes: someone is turning 35 and asking for $35 donations to a conservation charity through a Facebook app. Another person has entered a triathlon and has pledged to raise money online for medical research. Or, this time of year, perhaps you see requests for holiday donations that will support inner-city classrooms in need.

Or perhaps you've "donated a birthday" yourself. Just about every nonprofit these days has a Facebook page, an arsenal of online donation tools, and probably a Twitter account too--and for digitally forward charities, that's no longer enough, as Twitter is now packed with nonprofits' soapboxes. So their latest strategy is personalization: appealing directly to a smaller set of loyalists to become fundraisers, who then encourage their social networks to donate a small amount in celebration of a birthday, a physical challenge, or some other milestone.

"There's $300 billion a year donated to charity in the U.S. alone, which is a really, really big number. Music's a $12 billion industry," said Joe Green, the co-founder of Causes, a for-profit company that lets nonprofits leverage Facebook's web of connections to solicit donations and spread the word. A longtime Facebook insider (he was Mark Zuckerberg's roommate in college), Green started Causes in the earliest days of the Facebook Platform as a widget application for members to showcase their favorite charitable causes and solicit donations on their profile but has since added features that make it a vehicle for individual campaigns for "Birthday Wish" campaigns and more recently, the "Holiday Wish."

"It's really scary for most people to ask other people to donate," Green said. "That's one of the things we balance with Birthday Wish, to put on the social pressure but not too much of the social pressure."

It's a tactic borrowed, at least in part, from the sports world. For decades, runners and cyclists and triathletes have been raising money for nonprofits--typically large medical research organizations--by hitting up friends and family members to donate, with the only real impetus being that the fundraiser will be going through some kind of excruciating physical pain in the name of raising awareness of the cause. Donors contribute money, typically, because of their relation to the would-be athlete rather than a long-term devotion to the nonprofit's goals.

"On the surface, it actually makes no sense," Green said of the run-for-charity movement. "You're running around a city to raise money to cure cancer. There's no connection. You're not going to find a cure for cancer in a duffel bag under a tree in Central Park."

Yet the personal appeals work, and racing for charity has become, shall we say, a sport in itself. That's how another individual-fundraising Web site, Crowdrise, got started. Unlike Causes, its roots are in the celebrity world rather than Silicon Valley: "Fight Club" actor Edward Norton was planning to run the New York Marathon last year in support of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, and enlisted tech-savvy friends (and brothers) Robert and Jeffrey Wolfe to help him spread the word and solicit donations online. Several months later, the team decided to turn online fundraising tactics into a product that others could use as well. Crowdrise launched in May, was the official partner for charity teams in this year's New York Marathon, and next up has partnered with the San Francisco Marathon.

"If you ran the marathon, it finds its way into every conversation, and people are so passionate about it and crazy about it," Crowdrise co-founder Robert Wolfe explained. "Online, the genius of that isn't captured in any one place. On Crowdrise we can do that, and create that online community for all those people."

The idea of the supporter as individual social-media fundraiser has swept the charity world. Many nonprofits have been inspired by Charity Water, a small but well-connected organization that builds wells in countries with limited access to clean water. Thanks to a financial and technological donation spearheaded by Michael and Xochi Birch, the couple who sold social network Bebo to AOL for an astonishing $850 million in 2008, Charity Water launched a platform called My Charity Water last year that facilitates birthday, holiday, and other personal donations on its own site with its own branding.

Or there's DonorsChoose, an organization that lets cash-strapped public school teachers petition for donations to help their classrooms purchase everything from new textbooks to soccer balls and which has also launched a personal donation campaign function. Rachel Sklar, an editor at Mediaite and digital philanthropy advocate, used DonorsChoose for a campaign for her birthday earlier this month and let potential donors select among a handful of different classroom projects.

"It importantly creates norms," Sklar, who is in the planning phases of building a social giving start-up called Charitini, said of personal donation campaigns. "It creates social norms within your peer group so that giving becomes something that people are naturally inclined to do."

These sites can be very different in feel--take Causes and Crowdrise, for example. The straightforward Causes is very much based on spreading the word about donations through Facebook's network of relationships and developer tools, whereas the more irreverent Crowdrise ("If you don't give back no one will like you") is a standalone community site with limited entry points to the likes of Facebook and Twitter--a hub rather than a distribution center. And while both have peppered their platforms with game mechanics, Causes awards honors to the Facebook profiles of donors whereas Crowdrise gives members a running point tally of everything they've done on the site, from money raised both online and offline (you can enter donation amounts manually) to "votes" from other members who like their profiles or charity campaigns.

Yet where they're similar is that the personal profile and identity of the fundraiser is front and center, meaning that many donors are contributing because they know the person in question, not because they have a particular affinity for or connection to the charity. Their users are also spurred on by celebrities: Former President Bill Clinton raised money through a Causes Birthday Wish this year to raise money for his own William J. Clinton Foundation, kicking off a re-launch of the Birthday Wish program after a number of changes were made to the two-year-old initiative. Celebrities like Russell Brand, Elizabeth Banks, Jonah Hill, and Ashton Kutcher have profiles on Crowdrise that are highlighted in a holiday giving campaign.

Silicon Valley's elite, who early on embraced how social media could promote "microdonations" to charities and political campaigns--Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes was largely responsible for bringing this to Barack Obama's presidential campaign--is now all about the birthday-donation craze. Dave Morin, a former Facebook executive and current Path CEO, launched a Causes Birthday Wish campaign for his 30th birthday in October to support the construction of a children's hospital at the University of California at San Francisco, a project that counts Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff as its chief benefactor. The well-connected Morin raised more than $10,000 in 24 hours, setting a Causes record.

Morin, along with a few other Valley notables like angel investor Ron Conway, has been at the helm of a campaign to bring the UCSF children's hospital fundraising into the Digital Age, encouraging Causes-based individual fundraising campaigns. Ultimately, not only the top donors will be awarded with recognition on the walls of the new hospital, so will the people and companies who galvanized others to contribute the most, a testament to the importance of word-of-mouth social media in charity fundraising and a thick network of Facebook or Twitter connections can trump a powerful checkbook.

But can there be a downside to putting the individual and his or her social network, rather than the charity itself, as the primary reason for donating to a cause? Does this result in disconnected donors who will soon tire of throwing $25 toward a birthday or marathon campaign every few weeks?

"I'm entirely untroubled with that," Sklar said of the possible issue. "It's a gateway drug, because it lowers the barrier to entry for anything. That means people who might not otherwise get a taste get a taste, and the people who might get hooked get hooked."

Bobby Chang, the CEO of HEAL Together, a consulting firm that works to help nonprofits raise money more effectively through social media and other means, concurs.

"My personal philosophy on this whole thing is if you can actually introduce someone to something new, then there's a possibility that this person will start to think about how they will actually choose the things that they're passionate about and try to drive toward that," Chang told CNET. "It may not at the beginning seem that this will drive a new person to a particular cause, but it will drive that person to think a little bit about what matters to them and maybe get them driving toward their own cause."