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Are charities looking in the wrong places on social media?


When one speaks of the social web, it is sadly common that the conversation quickly drifts towards public social networks such as Twitter or Facebook.  Such is the huge numbers of people using these sites, it’s easy to assume that they are automatically the best place for you to give your attention.  In the non-profit world, I’m far from convinced that it does any good.

Last year for instance, research revealed that so called slacktavism was rife on Facebook.  The study found that the more public was the token of endorsement, the less likely those people were to offer more substantial support later on.  If the initial act was a more private one, such as signing the petition for instance, then they were actually more likely to give time or money later on.

So, in other words, likes on Facebook typically resulted in lesser involvement with that cause.  A similar conclusion has been reached by a recent study by sociologist Kevin Lewis of the University of California, San Diego, UNC Chapel Hill psychologist Kurt Gray and  London School of Economics.

The research looked specifically at non profit activity on Facebook via the Causes.com app to gauge the success of the Save Darfur Coalition campaign that hoped to end genocide in Sudan.  It emerged that of the 1 million or so people that joined the campaign on Facebook, a whopping 99.76% of them didn’t donate any money to the cause, resulting in fundraising of around $100,000 in total.

Whilst the average donation received was similar to offline campaigns ($29.06), the donation rate was pretty awful.  What’s more, just as with the previous study, when people joined the campaign of their own volition, they were much more likely to donate than when prompted by friends.

“The study is an important counter-balance to unbridled enthusiasm for the powers of social media,” said UC San Diego’s Lewis. “There’s no inherent magic. Social media can activate interpersonal ties but won’t necessarily turn ordinary citizens into hyper-activists.”

In the case of the Save Darfur campaign, the Causes Facebook app appears to have been “more marketing than mobilization,” Lewis said. It seems to have failed to convert the initial act of joining into a more sustained set of behaviours. For the vast majority of the members, he said, “the commitment might have been only as deep as a click.”

Which as a finding is perhaps not all that surprising, especially given the general levels of cynicism around people and their behaviour whilst on Facebook.  However, that shouldn’t cause non-profits to discount the power of social media, but rather to focus their attention on other areas.

There have, for instance, been a number of successful projects in the citizen science field that have recruited a large number of people to do valuable work on charitable or scientific projects.  It is perhaps telling that the primary motivator for participation in these citizen science projects is an intrinsic passion for that particular topic.  Few participants do so for peer publicity.

So by all means cast Facebook aside, but don’t please discount the social web as a means of achieving some outstanding results for some very good causes.

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