The Social Appeal of Social Fundraising

Associations are fully entrenched in the world of social media—using various tools to communicate with and engage their audiences. But is it an effective tool for fundraising? The answer is no—and yes.

Imagine pouring concrete in the shape of a canoe. Now picture painting and sealing the concrete, ensuring the canoe floats, and racing it against other concrete canoes. This is exactly what engineering students across the country are doing this spring, culminating in a national competition, partially funded by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Foundation.

“We want to build a stronger connection between our followers and those we are supporting.” —Natalie Zundel

“When’s the last time you were on Facebook and pulled out your credit card? It’s not transactional. It’s relational.” —John Haydon

If you think entering the National Concrete Canoe Competition is a feat, look at the strategy the foundation uses to raise money and awareness for this and other foundation initiatives in the age of social media. While the canoes might rank among the more intriguing topics on ASCE’s Facebook page, Natalie Zundel, the foundation’s senior manager of major gifts, knows it takes a lot more than “likes” to support concrete canoe-building.

Zundel arrived at the foundation in 2011, when it had zero social media presence. In a world of rapid-fire posting and blurs of tweets, she moved slowly and deliberately, first building brand awareness, then participating in Giving Tuesdays (a widely supported campaign to create a national day of giving at the start of the holiday season), and now—three years after the ASCE Foundation debuted on Facebook—carefully choosing words to support a fundraising appeal.

“We want to build a stronger connection between our followers and those we are supporting—like the Canoe Competition,” she says. “This year, we want to pull back from saying, ‘Without the support of the foundation …’ And, instead, we will say something like, ‘You helped inspire students to make concrete float.’ That connection is a better setup for fundraising in the future.”

Zundel learned early that haste is the kiss of death in using social media to further fundraising goals. She took the time to secure the support of senior management, made sure she had adequate, dedicated staff, and mapped out the foundation’s goals—more about building awareness and community than gift-giving. At the end of the day, Zundel sees the foundation’s social media presence as “another tool in our fundraising toolbox.”

With more organizations using social media tools in their overall communication strategies, it seems like a natural segue to use the same tools to fundraise. A survey conducted last fall by social CRM provider Avectra, for example, found that three-quarters of nonprofit organizations believe social media will have a moderate or very positive impact on fundraising efforts this year. But so far, these tools are proving more effective at stewarding relationships with donors than bringing in donations.

Purposeful relationship-building cannot be overemphasized, says Boston-based online marketing consultant John Haydon, who wrote Facebook Marketing for Dummies. Of course, social media is all about connections, but an organization needs to be steadfast about nurturing its followers.

“Fundraising is essentially all the activities that revolve around having people donate,” Haydon says. “No one’s going to give you money unless they like you and trust you—whether it’s a new car or a cause.” He says this tends to be lost on the internet, because people get caught up in the technology and forget that social media is about building rapport.

“Gateway” Tools

Julie Dixon, deputy director of Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication, coauthored an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review last year that explored the dilemmas presented by social media today. The consensus, she writes, is that social media has not proven to be an effective, standalone fundraising tool. However, through social media we gather and process much of our information. Dixon calls “liking” a cause on Facebook, blogging or tweeting about it, or adding an organization’s logo to a social profile “gateway actions.”

She says smaller associations in particular have a leg up on large organizations with social media. “They can be experimental and take more risks,” she says, because they tend to be smaller and less bogged down with red tape and approval processes for new ideas.

Dixon says one of the biggest challenges of social media is that it takes time—time that doesn’t pay off immediately. “Organizations struggle with finding the time and knowing which platforms to use,” she says. “Demographically, they’re all different. The more you diversify, the more time it takes because you need a unique approach to each.”

Furthermore, there are countless ways to stumble when using social media: being off-message, falling prey to the lure of replying without thinking, signing up for Twitter and then realizing there’s not enough content to make it effective, or failing to have rules about how to reply to a confrontational Facebook post.

Haydon says, in general, donations via social media are very low, and he advises clients not to use the medium to ask for money. “When’s the last time you were on Facebook and pulled out your credit card?” he asks. “It’s not transactional. It’s relational.”

The Downside to Directness

At RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Projects Rebecca Flick says making a direct ask for donations via social media has yielded “crickets,” but her organization has found success thinking about the long term. She understands that many of RESOLVE’s followers, who may be facing infertility, have large out-of-pocket expenses and can’t afford to give today. But they are valuable activists, so the goal is to touch them positively and hope that they become donors in the future.

“When we ask for our social media community to engage and spread the message, we see a big response,” she says. “People are familiar with our needs because we have been communicating, so events like our walks—which are peer-to-peer asks—have a lot of support.”

RESOLVE doesn’t steer completely clear of fundraising on Facebook. During the organization’s year-end appeal, board members and major donors gave a predetermined amount every time a certain post was shared. That campaign, usually implemented on a Friday, resulted in the organization’s highest social media reach. “An average Facebook post might get 3,000 impressions,” Flick says, “but when we ask people to share for fundraising purposes, we’d reach 40,000 to 50,000.”

At the Center for Social Impact Communication, Dixon says she is particularly interested in the peer influence of social media.

One of the center’s surveys showed that 39 percent of respondents get involved with causes that have affected someone they know.

For all associations, there’s still a good deal of trial and error when it comes to fundraising and social media. “It’s experimental, much like we were doing with email 15 years ago,” Zundel says.

That’s when the instantaneous feedback—the listening part of the relationship—becomes invaluable, because a share is an endorsement. For example, when the British “Keep calm and …” saying recently became popular here in the United States, Zundel posted to Facebook: “Keep calm and support civil engineers.” She couldn’t have predicted the response. Not only does it remain one of the association’s most-shared posts on Facebook, but the association has printed the phrase on stickers, which are sought out at conferences.

“It took on a life of its own,” Zundel laughs. She says it went viral, but not in the global sense of the word. “We want it to go viral among the members and potential members,” she says. “You have to be hypersensitive to who those people are.” And if you’re Zundel, you have to hope that this year, they’re hyper-interested in concrete canoes.


Melanie D.G. Kaplan

By Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Melanie D.G. Kaplan writes regularly for the Washington Post and is a contributing editor at Smart Planet/CBS Interactive. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!