ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Earlier this year, the American Red Cross carried out a successful text messaging campaign, raising millions of dollars for Haiti. And that has spurred lots of interest in the use of social media in fundraising.
But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, charities are finding that some of these new fundraising methods need to be handled with care.
PAM FESSLER: It's close to midnight on the last day of March and Graham Marsden is in his living room glued to his computer screen.
Mr. GRAHAM MARSDEN (Communications/Marketing Specialist, Northern Virginia Family Service): Two hours left. We've got to get into 10th place. And let's hit refresh. And we're still in 11th.
FESSLER: That's not good news. Marsden works for Northern Virginia Family Service. And the nonprofit has to be among the top 10 vote getters by midnight to win $50,000 in an online charity contest sponsored by Pepsi. This is going to require a desperate last-minute appeal.
Marsden replies to the latest Twitter posting by a contest blogger.
Mr. MARSDEN: Hmm, we're in 11th place. Please help.
FESSLER: He doesn't expect the blogger to vote for his group but hopes some of her Twitter followers might. This is what fundraising 2010 has come to. Marsden and his co-workers have spent much of the past month trying to build a network of online support, encouraging people to vote daily and to get their friends to vote too.
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FESSLER: And they're not just using Facebook and Twitter. Northern Virginia Family Service also has an updated website and a YouTube video to promote its cause.
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Unidentified Woman: It's a really desperate need. You're finding more and more families lining up every day...
FESSLER: The nonprofit runs a food pantry and wants to win the contest so it can buy a much needed walk-in refrigerator and freezer. And they've had some success. They almost won in February, competing against hundreds of groups nationwide.
Mr. MARSDEN: This is such a big culture shift for us, to change our messaging from maybe one e-mail a month out to our supporters to, you know, three, four, five times a day reaching out to them on these new channels.
FESSLER: So no matter what happens in the next two hours, Northern Virginia Family Service has already decided one thing: It won't participate in the monthly contest again in April. It's taking a break.
Ms. MARY AGEE (President and CEO, Northern Virginia Family Service): We were worried about voter fatigue.
FESSLER: That's Mary Agee, Marsden's boss. And while she admits she doesn't really understand all this new social media stuff...
Ms. AGEE: It's interesting.
FESSLER: ...she does realize it's important if her nonprofit wants to expand its base of support. But Agee prefers to deal with donors face to face and worries about bugging people a little too much online.
Ms. AGEE: You're not sure how they're receiving these messages about please don't forget to vote, we need your vote, and over and over and over again. 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.
FESSLER: 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?
Beth Kanter writes a blog on social media and nonprofits, and has some concerns about vote-for-me charity contests, which are becoming increasingly popular.
Ms. BETH KANTER (Blogger): 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. You know, it's like treating your donors like ATM machines. Like, you only go to them when you need a withdrawal.
FESSLER: 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 is a good way to tap into a new generation of givers: young people who are more likely to stumble upon a charitable cause online.
Mr. MARSDEN: Four more minutes.
FESSLER: Back at Graham Marsden's house, it's almost midnight.
Mr. MARSDEN: This is my final appeal. I'm tired.
FESSLER: A few minutes later, Marsden refreshes the contest results page one last time.
Mr. MARSDEN: It appears that we did not finish in the top 10; looks like our submission was one spot out of the winning territory.
FESSLER: So Northern Virginia Family Service gets no money. But it has created a lot of buzz and made hundreds of online contacts. Now it has to figure out how to turn its newfound friends into supporters who'll write checks and volunteer their time.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.