How Social Media Is Transforming Philanthropy

How Social Media Is Transforming Philanthropy


Philanthropy: It’s a word that conjures images of grand, old family foundations, gala benefits, and PBS underwriters. It’s so mired in tradition and upright duty that it is all but synonymous with a wood-paneled boardroom. But thanks in large part to the advent and proliferation of social media, today’s philanthropic organizations are connecting with their donors and the public in ways that are anything but old-fashioned.

While traditional approaches such as direct mail, phone calls and walkathons are still relevant, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are now even more invaluable tools. Simply put, “no one can afford not to” use social media, says Richard McPherson, the chief innovator of Next Generation Fundraising, a consulting service based in the Philadelphia area. “It’s become essential.”

Connecting With Donors
Because most of us associate social media with what McPherson calls “all that big, popular Lady Gaga-type stuff,” it’s easy to overlook how important it has become for those trying to bring attention to serious causes. Now, he says, “People expect to see videos of work they support. Once you have a new way to connect and tools to do it, that’s a powerful combination.”

He notes that these days some of the most social media savvy nonprofits, including big health charities like the American Heart Association and Susan G. Komen Foundation, have been using sites like Facebook to promote signature events. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has also conducted particularly successful campaigns: Last year, after netting 1 million Facebook fans, the organization commemorated the milestone by holding a “We Like You, Too!” awards sweepstakes that the public could enter by “liking” it on Facebook.

It’s a model of direct involvement that reflects the influence of Kickstarter, the crowd-sourced fundraising website that now, McPherson says, provides more money for American arts projects than the National Endowment for the Arts. By literally putting power at people’s fingertips, Kickstarter and other forms of social media are changing what it means to be a volunteer and activist.
That shift comes at a pivotal time for philanthropy. In an analysis of global giving titled “Next-Generation Philanthropy: Changing the World,” Bill Woodson, managing director at Credit Suisse Private Banking U.S. and head of Family Wealth, found that during the past five years there has been a gradual move from traditional corporate giving and family foundations to an increased focus on individual giving.

Although “nothing replaces personal introductions and face-to-face meetings” where high-level giving is concerned, says Julia Chu, social media “has dramatically transformed the philanthropic landscape.” Chu, the head of philanthropy for Credit Suisse Private Banking, U.S., adds that although most non-profits are able to broadcast their messages over Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, “the real art is to create a dialogue to enable fans to not just follow you but to become an advocate and to raise funds on the cause’s behalf. The greatest degree of success is when they see your cause adopted as their own.”

Measuring Impact
Persuading potential donors to connect and give money to an organization is a nonprofit’s perennial challenge, and articulating an organization’s structure and impact is something that cannot be easily accomplished via a Facebook post. That is precisely the problem a new web platform called Sparkwise was created to solve. The interactive, customizable interface, which was conceived by the Bay Area firm Tomorrow Partners and launched in March 2013, allows advocacy groups to present information, statistics, news, and stories related to their work in a variety of skillfully designed and highly visual ways, such as videos, photos, and graphs; each data point or piece of multimedia is presented in a constantly updating widget.

Gaby Brink, the firm’s founder and creative director, says Sparkwise was the result of many conversations that “kept coming up around, ‘How do we really measure impact?’ Impact is not so easy to track and measure, so how do we derive meaningful insight from the data we collect, and how do we use that data to gain a deeper understanding of the communities we serve so we can meet their needs more effectively and engage audiences?”
Sparkwise’s research and development was supported by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In designing the web interface, Brink and her team spoke with numerous foundations and nonprofits involved in healthcare, education, and other sectors to learn how they used their data and to better understand their needs. Since its launch, the platform has gained 2,358 users.

McPherson thinks Sparkwise could have a considerable effect on the way organizations communicate with the public. Not only will it spur them to look more creatively at ways that measure impact, he says, it will summarize and catalog impact in a way that’s accessible to the layman. “It will sort of go beyond ‘does my gift or this organization make a difference?’ It will help people understand their causes and issues in a better way,” he says.

While social media and tools like Sparkwise represent a brave new world for many advocacy groups, they’re steadfastly traditional in one important respect. “It’s the oldest rule in philanthropy,” says McPherson. “You need to be where the donors are.”

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Rebecca Flint Marx has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, and GQ online.

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