Nonprofits Find Social Media Present New Challenges

Charities are always looking for new ways to raise funds, and for some, reaching out electronically with social media tools like Twitter and Facebook is a perfect match.

For example, the American Red Cross' successful text-messaging campaign raised tens of millions of dollars for Haiti. It spurred charities' interest in the use of social media, but nonprofits are finding that some of these new fundraising methods need to be handled with care.

Northern Virginia Family Service, a relatively small nonprofit in Virginia that helps needy families, participated in a new Pepsi Refresh contest, hoping to receive some of the $20 million Pepsi is giving away this year to nonprofits and individuals that win the most votes online for their charitable proposals.

The group wanted to win $50,000 so it could buy a much-needed walk-in freezer and refrigerator for its food pantry. It has used Facebook and Twitter as well as an updated Web site and a YouTube video to win support.

Graham Marsden of Northern Virginia Family Service

Graham Marsden is the communications and marketing specialist for Northern Virginia Family Service, which has used Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and an updated Web site as part of its outreach. Pam Fessler/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Pam Fessler/NPR

The competition has been fierce.

One night late last month, Graham Marsden, the group's communications and marketing specialist, was glued to his home computer screen, checking out the contest results. The group had to be among the top 10 vote-getters to win, and it had been lately. But with a midnight deadline looming, it was just shy of making it on the winning list.

"Two hours left. We've got to get into 10th place," Marsden said, as he refreshed the screen. "And we're still in 11th."

Marsden decided to make a last-minute appeal for votes. He typed a reply to the latest Twitter posting by someone recruited by Pepsi to blog about the contest. Marsden didn't expect the blogger to vote for his group but said he hoped some of her many Twitter followers might.

"We're in 11th place, please help," he typed, attaching a link to the nonprofit's contest site.

Fundraising In 2010

This is what fundraising 2010 has come to. Marsden and his co-workers spent much of the past month trying to build a network of online support, encouraging people to vote for them daily and to get their friends to vote, too.

And they almost won in February, coming in 13th among hundreds of groups nationwide.

But Marsden acknowledged it has been a big culture shift for an organization that generally sends out one or two e-mails a month to supporters. Now, the group was contacting them three, four and five times a day online, asking them to vote.

So, no matter what happened in the next two hours, Northern Virginia Family Service had decided one thing: It wouldn't participate in the monthly contest again in April. It wanted to take a break.

"We were worried about voter fatigue," said Mary Agee, the group's president and CEO. She acknowledged that she doesn't really understand all this new social media stuff, but she says she does realize how important it is if her nonprofit wants to expand its base of support.

But Agee prefers to deal with donors face to face and was worried about bugging people a little too much online.

"You're not sure how they're receiving these messages about, 'Please don't forget to vote, we need your vote,' over and over and over again," Agee said. "We might have that backfire on us, where people will be so turned off to Northern Virginia Family Service that, 'See if I ever do anything for them again.' "

And that's the struggle, as nonprofits try to figure out how best to use social media: How can they turn fleeting, online contacts into the long-term relationships charities need to survive?

'It's Like Treating Your Donors Like ATM Machines'

Beth Kanter, who writes a blog on social media and nonprofits, has some concerns about the increasingly popular vote-for-me charity contests.

"It promotes kind of this transactional relationship between you and your network, even if you're getting new people in because friends are asking friends," Kanter says. "It's like treating your donors like ATM machines. You only go to them when you need a withdrawal."

She says donors have to be cultivated over time and engaged in what a nonprofit does. She also questions whether such contests reward the best vote-getters rather than the best charities.

Still, Kanter says, social media are a good way to tap into young people who are more likely to stumble upon a charitable cause online than they are to respond to a more traditional appeal.

An E-Mail Break

Back at Graham Marsden's house, it was almost midnight. "This is my final appeal, I'm tired," he typed on his Facebook page.

A few minutes later, Marsden refreshed the contest results site one last time.

"It appears that we did not finish in the top 10," he said. "Looks like our submission was one spot out of the winning territory."

Northern Virginia Family Service got no money because it ended up in 11th place. But it did create a lot of buzz in the community and made hundreds of online contacts. Agee was pleased.

"The one thing I've learned from this with the social media is we touched so many more people through this vehicle than we could have ever done through your typical send-out-a-letter or send-out-a-bunch-of-e-mails," she said.

But now, she added, it's time to give their supporters a well-deserved rest and for her group to figure out how to turn all these newfound friends into long-term supporters who will write checks and volunteer their time.

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