Hello, Arkansas? Yeah, Its Facebook

June 15, 2009       Mark Hrywna      

Michelle Miles isn’t all that much different than most teenagers. The 19-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., attends Pulaski Technical College, plans to pursue a nursing degree, and works at PetSmart.

She also can email 5.3 million people — nearly twice the 2.8-million population of Arkansas — through the Facebook Cause she created called The Race to End Cancer to aid the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Foundation (ACHF).

With a schedule too busy to allow her to volunteer at the hospital, Miles said Causes gave her another avenue to help. Miles spent as many as 10 hours a week on the Cause when she first started it. Now, she checks it daily just to watch it grow, getting messages from members around the world. “I’m shocked at how fast it grew,” she said.

But, she’s not as shocked as executives at ACHF. In addition to the more than 5 million potential donors that ACHF can message via Miles, the Cause raised more than $45,000 during the past year — an average of $124 a day — without foundation staff lifting a finger.

The Cause added 4.7 million new members, or an average of 13,000 per day, between May 2008 and May 2009; all with virtually no connection to or help from ACHF, which actually got to the dance late, finding out about it months after it was up and running.

Miles would send weekly emails inviting friends and members to invite their friends to join, setting fundraising goals and updating members on the Cause. “I tried to make it as personal as I could, to get closer to it, not just be the administrator,” she said, adding that each fundraising goal the Cause has set was met.

The $50,000 in donations received since its inception through Facebook’s Causes application might not seem like much, especially to a hospital foundation that raises $7 million. But as Direct of Development Jennifer Selig described it, the $50,000 is “a nice part of annual giving with absolutely no effort.” Added Selig: “Imagine what that effort could be with a strategy.” She compared it to a recent event that raised a similar amount, but involved eight staff members and an auction.

Though she’d been in regular contact with Network For Good, which processes the donations, and had been receiving donations for about a year, Selig finally got in touch with Miles this past May. The plan now is to try to celebrate Miles’ achievement while strategically planning for the foundation’s social networking effort.

ACHF recently hired someone to take over direct marketing efforts and social networking will fall under the person’s purview, Selig said, estimating about a quarter of the new hire’s time will be focused on various online efforts, including email, social networks and the Web. And it’s not just Causes, but the hospital’s 1,200 fundraising events each year that can be promoted through Facebook and social networking, she said.

Friendraising is the first step, before fundraising, said Selig, and a lot of organizations are just learning about social networking and its potential.

The hospital foundation’s annual three-day radiothon raised the same amount it does each year, about $300,000, however, this year there were more online donations, something Selig attributes to Facebook.

The radiothon averaged $2,500 in online donations the first day, $3,000 the second day and $3,600 the third day, compared with $380 and $2,000 each, respectively, during last year’s event. Selig thinks the traffic boost in the online donations page was because the two DJs hosting the event were on Facebook during the radiothon, communicating and providing updates to their huge list of Facebook friends.

In the year since it realized a Causes page existed with 2.8 million members, Chicago-based Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA) has had a crash course in social networking and multichannel marketing.

“It really turned into an interactive opportunity,” said Ben Tanzer, senior director of strategic communication at PCAA. It’s not exactly clear what will become of fundraising on Causes but it will always be a communications platform that’s incorporated into the organization’s overall strategy. “It’s never quite clear how someone’s going to find us,” he said, whether through the Cause page, Web site or a blog.

Tanzer said if the PCAA hadn’t done anything last year, donations likely still would’ve been coming in through the Society Against Child Abuse (SACA) Cause, but he credits their social networking activity with a boost in Web traffic. “A year ago your mother-in-law wasn’t on Facebook; now she is,” he said.

PCAA has become more active with its blog and also established a Twitter profile. “These are the kinds of things I assumed were possible. It’s really jacked up our Internet use,” Tanzer said.

PCAA’s search engine rankings have improved as a result of its Internet activity, according to Tanzer. “I don’t think you would’ve gotten to us as fast a year ago,” he said. “As an organization, and chapters, we really dominate the first couple of pages on Google. You can’t really control that,” he said.

The goal is to create as many platforms and portals as possible, providing people with different opportunities that the organization eventually will cross-link, and as Tanzer describes it, cross-pollinate. PCAA is focused less on fundraising and more on “helping to refine the message so when people learn about the organization they get what we do,” he said.

PCAA has a development team of three and a staff of about 25 to 30 nationwide. Tanzer spends some time on social networking strategy along with two interns with some time devoted by a development person focusing on email and another marketing employee.

“Facebook will always be a great communications platform for us, and for people who can figure it out there are substantial fundraising opportunities,” Tanzer said. “We really didn’t get it yet last year,” he said, particularly little things like Facebook Events. As an example, Tanzer said he could ask his wife over dinner to attend a PCAA event, or he could invite her through Facebook, allowing her to also send an invitation to “every mom our kid goes to school with.”

Anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of the donations received through Causes are anonymous, according to Tanzer, which he described as a reflection on the millennial generation. “People will post photos all over Facebook but they won’t give you any information,” he said.

Donors who provide their name and address are added to PCAA’s direct mail database of 35,000 and its online donor database of 30,000, in addition to receiving e-newsletters. Donations have come from all around the country as well as internationally.

Like the hospital foundation, PCAA was unaware for some time that a Cause was raising money and gathering members on its behalf. “We found out this was fairly common,” said Tanzer. The organization had created a fan page about a week before being contacted by The NonProfit Times last year regarding its Causes page. PCAA eventually connected late last summer with the Causes co-creator, Evan Kalish.

A junior accounting major at the University of Connecticut, Kalish co-created SACA shortly after the Causes application became active on Facebook in May 2007. At a loss for why the Cause has drawn so many members, Kalish suggested it might be because it was an early adopter, before many Causes were established.

Kalish remains the administrator for the Cause and that’s fine with PCAA. “We try to be super-deferential; it’s their thing, they run it,” Tanzer said. If the organization is putting out a new direct mail piece or some other news release or blog post, they’ll ask Kalish to post it, but it’s entirely up to him.

Kalish spends five to six hours a week administering the site, posting content, checking discussion boards and walls, and replying to messages. He emails the entire membership about once a month. An administrator of a Causes page can email announcements to its entire membership as often as three times as week.

“What they took on themselves was incredible,” Tanzer said. “Once we found them, they couldn’t be more excited, it’s very invigorating.”

Said Tanzer: “We want to create a movement, and you can do that on Facebook. Why can’t we be a moveon.org, or a Komen?” NPT