Who says social advocates can't raise big money and forge lasting donor relationships online for their causes? Today's South by Southwest (SxSW) panel on slacktivism -- more elegantly and formally called Debunking the Myth of Social Media Fundraising -- offered a rousing antidote to the notion of ineffectual, click-and-give philanthropy. Urban Dictionary defines slacktivism -- a portmanteau of the words "slacker" and "activism" -- as "a way of pretending to care while sitting ... in front of a computer playing WoW." Such detachment, the panelists asserted, is becoming less of a factor in today's cause-wired, text-aided giving arena: the outpouring of mobile contributions to victims of Haiti's January 12 earthquake and donor retention strategies being crafted to hang on to many of those donors over time should be proof positive that online giving has, at last, begun to evolve and inform even the most traditional philanthropy circles.
[Evgeny Morozov, one of the critics of slacktivism, wrote in a Foreign Policy Magazine article last fall entitled "From Slacktivism to Activism" that he is skeptical of numerous digital activism campaigns "that attempt to change the world through Facebook and Twitter." He said the desire to instantly connect with others online around ever-new causes poses a threat to more productive uses of time, such as brainstorming solutions to the world's ongoing problems.]
Combining research data with personal anecdotes, panelists Stacey Monk (Epic Change); Brooke McMillan (the Lance Armstrong Foundation); Donna Wilkins (Charity Dynamics), and Frank Barry (with Blackbaud, the fundraising software firm) made a strong case for the potential of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to raise money and awareness -- not simply as tools in one-off fundraising campaigns but also in efforts to build richer and more sustainable donor relationships across the socioeconomic spectrum.
There are dozens of commonly-held misperceptions about the use of social media in advocacy, the panelists said, and here are five of them:
Myth One: Social Media Aren't Very Effective. Not true, said the panelists. Social media can be effective in breaking down geographic boundaries, building communities of donors who otherwise would not be able to connect, and bringing in contributions from many more people than before. Monk says her nonprofit has raised nearly all of its money via Twitter, to build classrooms in Tanzania, buy school supplies for the students there and provide skills training inside and outside the classroom -- including social media skills aimed at helping them to learn more about other people from around the world. While the panelists agreed that using social media to fund-raise can take time, as it's all about relationship-building and not simply a matter of learning the technology.
Myth Two: Major Donors Do Not Exist in Social Media. Not true, said McMillan, and cited the example of @fatcyclist, the Twitter handle for a man who blogged and Tweeted to raise some $800,000 over the course of a year for Livestrong, Lance Armstrong's cancer research foundation. With social media, Barry said, "major donors" are no longer just wealthy individuals. Now they include individuals of all income levels adept at using their social influence online and off to engage others around giving to a cause.
Myth Three: No one Raises Money on Twitter. Guess again, said the panelists. For one, look at Twestival, the regional, national, and global fund-raising campaigns staged on Twitter to benefit a variety of causes. Then look at TweetsGiving. Both micro-blogging fundraisers have increased donations year over year, suggesting such campaigns are sustainable. To be sure, Monk said, "when you first get on Twitter you don't know what you're doing there." But soon, she added, you discover that "Twitter engineers serendipity" -- all sorts of connections that can be leveraged to raise money and awareness over time.
Myth Four: Building Community Does Not Help You Raise Money. Also not true, the panelists said. Social media campaigns allow nonprofits to reach new donors and build the relationships required to raise funds from previously untapped sources. Nonprofits, said Monk, "shoot themselves in the foot" when they put a "give" button on their Web sites. Causes need, instead, to humanize fund-raising by using social media to engage donors in the cause. "Authentic connections between humans create movements, and movements raise funds," Monk said. "...Social media should humanize the process of giving, not automate it." Storytelling, the act of humanizing your cause to engage donors, is critical, she added. "If the word 'donate' is in your Tweet, you're doing it wrong," said Monk. To emphasize the point, Monk says she writes the Twitter handles of donors on the walls of the classrooms they're helping her to build as a way of showing them both her gratitude and their impact, and it works.
Myth Five: Social Media Cannibalize Other Fundraising Channels. Au contraire, said Monk. "Social media are just additional tools. Donors want to be able to choose" the way they give money to a cause, she said, and sites like Facebook and Twitter give them the option to give in new ways. Besides, the panelists agreed, social media offer an effective way for causes to reach the hearts and pocketbooks of Baby Boomers, the largest-growing demographic using Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. Both Wilkins and Barry said multi-channel fund-raising strategies proved most effective, citing a recent Blackbaud/Charity Dynamics study. One finding: organizations that use email effectively to fund-raise also tend to use social media more effectively, as well. "My job didn't exist a year ago," said McMillan, the social media evangelist at Livestrong.
For more on the subject, check out the study on social media in fund-raising released last month by Charity Dynamics and Blackbaud.
Still not convinced? Come to the NTEN annual conference in Atlanta in April to hear some opposing views on the subject and a debate over the challenges to online giving that exist. My panel on Slacktivism will feature Nancy Lublin, CEO of dosomething.org; Jacob Colker, Cofounder of The Extraordinaries; Wendy Harman, social media director of the American Red Cross, and Aaron Smith, of Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, which is conducting ground-breaking research on the use of social media by Generation Y. Hope to see you there!
--By Marcia Stepanek
(Illustration by Jumpingsack for istock.com)