Limited Face Time

July 15, 2008       Mark Hrywna      

Technology is fast. At any second a GPS unit can track your location and text messages can be sent between continents. Emails packed with data can be received within minutes, if not seconds.

So what takes so long for nonprofits to acknowledge an online donation through the Causes application on Facebook?

The answers vary, but in most cases, nonprofits are only just starting to develop strategies for how to handle Causes donations via Facebook, others are beginning to direct some resources to it, and still others have yet to realize they’re receiving donations.

On May 1, The NonProfit Times made $25 contributions to 10 different Causes on Facebook, selecting the top five Causes (based on number of members) as well as five national organizations in a range of categories. While an immediate generic notification is sent by email to the donor from Network For Good, which processes donations for a cut of 4.75 percent, none of the nonprofits corresponded directly, by email or regular mail, at presstime, some six weeks after the donation.

For many nonprofits, they’ve only just begun to catch up to Causes, which was launched in May 2007 by Project Agape. The Berkeley, Calif.-based start-up firm touted more than $2.5 million in donations in its first full year for nearly 20,000 different registered nonprofits, with more than 12 million Facebook users among 80,000 “Causes.”

More important than the money raised, say supporters of Causes, is the engagement of Facebook users with the organization. The social networking site first was available only on college campuses, but has seen the average age of a user reach 35.

Even some of the largest national organizations have only received a dozen or more donations via Causes and many said they were developing strategies in the coming months. Nonprofits generally respond to donations made on their Web Site or by mail within several days or weeks, but some either were unaware they were even getting donations via Causes or haven’t yet focused resources on Facebook.

“No one should be throwing out their postage meter and entirely relying on online fundraising or on friend-to-friend fundraising, but it’s an important piece of the picture and it’s an increasingly big piece of the picture,”said Katya Andresen, vice president of marketing for Bethesda, Md.-based Network For Good.

“It’s a new tool in the hands of thousands of people,”Andresen said. “You can’t replace all fundraising but it’s worth cultivating.”Groups might not see a huge return, but a lot of people might become acquainted with the cause and end up donating to it in the future.

Though he wouldn’t call Causes a passing fad, “it’s a fad that hasn’t really caught fire yet,”said Rick Christ, a managing partner with in Warrenton, Va. Very few Causes have raised $10,000 but many more have raised smaller amounts, he added. Although fundraising on Causes is peanuts for most nonprofits right now, “clearly, this is the front end of a wave,”said Christ, calling it one of the key trends in online fundraising.

Nonprofits will see more advocacy online and more contributions online elsewhere on the Web in the future, rather than on their own sites, Christ said. More people are going to do more things on their own, whether through social networking sites, or other places like Second Life or eBay.

“Nonprofits need to be aware of the whole Internet, not only their own site,”said Christ, who tells nonprofits that at any given moment, there are more people passionate about their cause not on their Web site than on their site. Nonprofits can either try to generate as much traffic as Facebook or go where the traffic is and “empower people to do more where they are,”he said, and right now, that’s Facebook. “When you dominate a market, you need to go to that domination and be part of that action because the niches within Facebook are bigger than the other markets that are out there. Facebook is just today, it might not be tomorrow, MySpace is yesterday’s thing,”Christ said.

“It’s possible that some of your charities don’t know about the gift yet. It’s not a knock, it is however, a built-in flaw in the process,”Christ said, and something that time will probably resolve.

Since anyone can create a Causes section regardless of whether they work for the nonprofit, it’s usually a volunteer or supporter who starts it without having access to the nonprofit profile, and hence to donor contact information, according to Randall Winston, director of nonprofit relations for Causes. Being a nonprofit partner with Causes gives a nonprofit employee access to a system through which they can create a nonprofit profile and manage the Causes benefiting them, which allows them to disassociate from causes they don’t want benefiting them, thank donors, or contact creators of a cause.

A critical step in the Causes process is where Network For Good asks donors if they want to share their personal information with the individual charity. A “yes”and the nonprofit can continue to communicate directly with the donor, but a “no”and the nonprofit only gets the donation (a minimum $10 and a recommended level of $25).

Though he didn’t have any statistics compiled on how many donors share their information with the nonprofit, Winston estimated about 40 percent. Donors have only had the option of sharing their billing information with the individual nonprofits since February, when Network For Good took over processing donations from JustGive.

Ben Tanzer, a spokesman for Chicago-based Prevent Child Abuse America, which benefited from almost $10,000 donated through the “Society Against Child Abuse”cause, said the vast majority of donations have been anonymous, estimating as much as 90 percent.

Network For Good takes an administrative fee of 4.75 percent from each donation before passing it on to the nonprofit (which would make NPT’s $25 donation about $23.81 to the charity). Nonprofits are alerted immediately of a Causes donation through online donation tracking reports and the contributions are processed on or around the 15th of each month, Andresen said.

However, becoming a partner does not give a nonprofit direct control over administering Causes, Winston said. They must reach out to the Cause creator and be added as an administrator, which is what the largest Cause on Facebook did. “Support the Campaign for Cancer Research”benefits Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard University in Boston, and has raised almost $70,000.

The collaboration between the hospital and the Cause creator likely gave them a bit of a head start compared to other nonprofits. Creator Eric Ding was working at the facility and started the page to see how it might help, and continues to monitor it, said Lindsey O’Neill, development officer for the hospital’s Biomedical Research Development. She started to keep a closer eye on donations coming through Causes as early as last summer.

The hospital’s average gift, based on almost $70,000 from about 2,500 donors, is roughly $28. The cause itself has more than 3.2 million members, meaning that less than 0.8 percent of the membership has made contributions.

“In terms of our stewardship of a Causes donor, I have to say that currently, and unfortunately, our touch points are limited,”said O’Neill. Since she also manages a portfolio of major gift prospects and donors ($25,000+), smaller gifts such as those made via Causes “often don’t get as much time spent on the follow-up as we would like,”she said. The development office has a staff of almost 60 and aims to raise $80 million this fiscal year.

O’Neill estimated that a majority of the donations through Causes come in without donor information. When larger donations are received with donor information — usually $750 to $1,000 — she replies with a personal email. “Everyone gets the tax receipt and a couple of sentences [from Network For Good], but I would love to develop something more personalized,”she said. Developing a more strategic standard system for handling Causes donations, including thank you and acknowledgements, is on the agenda for this year, O’Neill said.

While it would be nice to get donor information, O’Neill said it’s not unlike an anonymous donation. “We’re grateful to even have this source of support because it’s not something we thought would be as successful as it has been,”she said.

Causes donors are not added to a house list, O’Neill said, as the organization believes the best way to connect with them is electronically, rather than conventional direct mail. “We also feel that this is a relationship where solicitation isn’t something that we want to be heavy handed about with this group, though we would like to maybe excite donors to make gifts again by providing them updates on our progress,”she said. “We clearly think the online/e-communications is just the best way to communicate with this group. This is a very unique group, we wouldn’t want to have any type of outside solicitation or seem less personal or less project-oriented,”she said.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which benefits from the third largest Cause (“Animal Rights”), has a huge social networking presence and a fairly wired population but no specific strategy for Facebook just yet because it’s so new, said Paul Phillips, online fundraising manager. He described as “in flux”how Causes fits within PETA’s “online toolbag.” Donations through the organization’s own Web site are always preferable to a third party so that will remain a priority, said Phillips. As a result, Causes ends up being a secondary way to get donations and probably won’t turn into a primary avenue. “I don’t think we’re alone in that boat,”he said.

For PETA, Facebook is part of general outreach efforts so it’s not leveraged into a branch of online fundraising, Phillips said, but instead usually points back to its Web site for a more traditional fundraising channel. “We’re really at our infancy in taking full advantage of it,”he said.

Phillips isn’t sure how Causes fits because PETA has a large online presence while it’s such a “new piece in the fundraising equation that it isn’t one that we would end up having as much control over”as a standard donation page or email, or any other donation channel. Even with a large Cause, there hasn’t been the quantity of donations to make a determination. “I imagine we’ll be able to answer that as time goes on. This time next year, we’ll have a clearer picture,”he said.

Some nonprofits have a difficult enough time keeping a Webmaster, Phillips said, so they might not be able to take advantage for awhile.

PETA is clearly one of the few most Web-savvy nonprofits, Christ said, and if they put Causes on a second tier of priority, “I wouldn’t argue with them.”He isn’t ready to take money out of a search optimization marketing campaign and put it into Facebook, but the $2.5 million Causes raised in its first year is a good start.

“It’s small but how many nonprofits don’t have a budget of $2.5 million? The growth potential of that is not like a direct mail campaign. It’s not 10 to 20 percent, it could grow by ten- to twenty-fold in the current year, it has that potential,”he said. Christ expects the figure might be greater if you consider donors who visited the Cause but then perhaps donated directly by mail or through the organization’s site.

Too many organizations are flirting with cool, fun things online and not focusing on fundamentals, Christ said, such as opening a PayPal account and compiling their donor information.

Donors who go to the American Red Cross via Causes are entered into the organization’s e-communications strategy, receiving cultivation pieces like newsletters and appeals, as well as disaster alerts and information about store products. “We just start educating them and stewarding them with reports and all of the lines of service we do here within the Red CrossÉto build their loyalty and build that relationship,”said Kimberly Reckner, manager, online fundraising unit, for the Red Cross.

Typically, the Red Cross gathers donor data from Network For Good once a month. So within 30 days — but no more than 60 — a Causes donor could expect a response directly from the Red Cross, Reckner said. Donor data could be obtained more frequently if there’s a major disaster or if the organization knows more consistent data might be coming through. “We might balance it out with the traffic on that site,”she said.

Reckner said the Red Cross is looking to integrate online and offline marketing, including testing offline mail pieces that aim to drive offline constituents to the Web, ultimately making them online donors. “We’re focusing on some constituent engagement and how we can integrate online and offline so we make sure we offer all options, however the donor would prefer to give to us,”she said.

“Overall, the Facebook Causes application has been a wonderful vehicle, allowing us to connect with a population who we wouldn’t reach or make aware of our work through conventional measures,”said O’Neill, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “The support has been amazing, and truly represents the smart, well-informed, motivated, 20-something who wants to be part of an important cause that he or she feels strongly about.” NPT