Social Media ≠ Fundraising

This week a friend sent a link to an AP story — Is your Facebook ‘charity work’ doing any good? — focused on how nonprofits can’t expect social media/networking. This prompted one of my patented long-winded replies. I figured I’d share it with a broader audience here.

These articles alternatively amuse and frustrate me. They group all “social networking” together in one phrase, and then spend all their time talking about Facebook and annoying ad campaigns. Then the article is over 500 words later and you feel dumber for it — you have no idea what to do next.

To me, social networking is not a fundraising system or method. It’s part of an ecosystem of relationship management, co-creation and social participation. And there’s no “one way” or system or technology or platform to make it work for you. Moreover, not everything WILL work for you.

Consider… go back and read the article and wherever it talks about “social networking” substitute “direct mail.” Is anyone suggesting that direct mail, on its own, is the savior of fundraising operations? Does anyone propose that direct mail is a way to reach everyone you want to reach? Is it the only way to maintain a relationship?

We have a spectrum of tools available to us today that weren’t available 10 years ago and certainly not 20 years ago. It requires that we learn some new techniques along the way, but the baseline fundraising proposition must remain the same: “we do X (something good) for you and for the ‘community and we deserve your financial, emotional and public support, please help us and your fellow man.” That’s it.

What I would say about social networking is that it’s different from all prior fundraising technologies in one fundamental — and market-changing — way: It allows donors to find and talk to each other. Rather than being a one-to-many communications model, it’s many-to-many.

Just think about that for a bit. This offers tremendous upsides, but also tremendous downsides. If, for example, your nonprofit is not behaving well in the world (in the eyes of some donors), they can spark a revolution against your current leadership, strike out on their own to create a competing service and so on. Because they can find one another now, they can use the social networking fabric against you.

Scary? Well, yes. But so long as you behave in a way that’s engaging, open, supportive and so on in your public communications, tribe leadership and interactions, you likely have little to fear. The nonprofits that put old-school fundraisers on the social media bandwagon will regret it — because those folks will use it as a bullhorn / bully pulpit, and that will fail gloriously and publicly.

Social media is, more than anything else, a leveling of the playing field and the productive networking of a formerly passive audience. What happens next is up to the people that use it — both in the nonprofits and in the philanthropic community (which now includes tiny players, not just the rich).

Transparency, openness, honesty, creativity, fun, sociability, seriousness of purpose, and tribal leadership are required to make social media work for you / with you. Anything less and the results will likely be unpleasant.