This morning’s Washington Post article, “To Nonprofits Seeking Cash, Facebook App Isn’t So Green”, takes some not-very-new shots at Causes, the friending and fundraising app on Facebook, while not providing any new insights. From the first sentence, “It seems foolproof: nonprofits using the power of the Internet to raise money through a clever Facebook application. ” my antenna went up because this article was entering Causes and Facebook through the wrong door; the dollar per donor door.
Let’s begin by deconstructing the article itself, which according to my friends at Network For Good, contains a number of inaccuracies. Causes and Network for Good have a partnership to process donations made through Facebook. One huge point of ongoing misinterpretation about the number of causes on Facebook requires clarification. There are around 250 thousand causes on the Causes platform. A cause does not have to be associated with a specific nonprofit, and most of these, over 200,00 aren’t. That leaves about 46,000 nonprofits that are connected to a cause. But, of these only 8,000 are using Network for Good, meaning they’ve created an official profile, can use their npo dashboard, and can raise money. Therefore in trying to determine the average size of donations, it is more accurate to use the 8,000 active fundraising efforts for nonprofits rather than the 176,000 used in the Post article. When the universe of causes that includes the Green on Sundays groups is included in the overall cause number, divided by the total amount of dollars given resulting in an itty bitty average gift. This is enormously skewed by the number of inactive causes on FB or the number of causes who never intended to raise money using Causes. So, according to Network for Good’s data, 8,000 causes have actively raised money using Causes for a total of $7.5 million — or an average total of donations to each cause of over $930.
The news here is that there isn’t any new news. This issue first surfaced last year. Beth raised the question then of how much was being raised on Causes and what that means for fundraising via social networks. Conor also raised similar questions and issues. Givvy took a look at the numbers last year and saw pluses and minuses. The only reason to run with this old news that I can think of is that the the recession has made fundraising more difficult this year,which in turn has made fundraisers more anxious (which I didn’t think was possible since they’re such an anxious bunch to begin with!) and Causes an easy target.
But, looking at the success and drawbacks of Causes to date is helpful in assessing where we are in the Connected Age with fundraising. Here are a few thoughts about the importance and lessons of Causes to date:
1. Causes enables a lot of people to “support a cause.” In old thinking that meant only one thing: give us money. But in connected thinking, it means that each one of us is can be more than an ATM for our causes. Causes on FB enables us to tell our own world – distinct from the world – about the issues, campaigns, orgs that they are passionate about. We can bring our networks of friends, our ingenuity, our passion, our time, our expertise to support causes. It enables lots and lots of people to learn about causes and to share them with their friends easily, quickly and inexpensively.
2. Episodically, Causes has demonstrated the amazing power of distributed fundraising for causes. Last year’s Giving Challenge sponsored by the Case Foundation is a perfect example. Beth and I were commissioned by the Foundation to assess the Challenge late last year. We found that the Causes Giving Challenge on Facebook raised a total of $571,686 from 25,795 unique donors for 3,936 causes. That’s an average gift of just over $20, a very respectable amount in the online direct mail world (if one feels compelled to measure things that way). What was important about the Giving Challenge experiment was that it showed what could happen through this mechanism when it was engaged and ignited in the right way; meaning a time limited competition in which the bar set by the Foundation wasn’t the dollars raised by each cause but the number of friends raised. The winners of the Giving Challenge raised significant sums (meaning tens of thousands of dollars, which is a lot of money to small orgs that won) and friends using Causes – most of whom were first time donors to their cause.
3. The Washington Post article calls Causes “largely ineffective.” Well, that depends on how one defines effectiveness. And this is one place where the Causes folks have some culpability because they have raised dollars raised as a critical measure of their application’s success. This is what I call malmeasurement, grabbing onto an easy data point and equating it to success whether it fits or not. Using dollars raised as a critical measure of success has allowed others to hammer Causes without much cause. Remember that the overwhelming number of Facebook users are still under 25 years old. This is very young for donors, and it is unreasonable to expect them to give the number and size gifts of their parents and grandparents.
4. There is a framing issue here. If Causes was judged on awareness only it would get an A+ – there are very few mechanisms that enable communities of people to learn so much about causes so inexpensively. So, let’s reframe: what if Causes was judged the number of people who know about a cause who didn’t know about it before; the number of people who increase their involvement with that cause by sharing information with friends about it, organizing an event, blogging and tweeting about it, and so on; the number of people who have self-organized an event for the cause. I’m sure there are other meausres, but you get the point, what measures we use to define success will utlimately define us and while dollars in might be easy to measure it’s not alwasy the best one to use.
This leaves us with is the spigot issue. I was speaking at a conference last year when a development director asked, “How do I get money out of Facebook?” Oy, or for my lovely readers from the midwest, Ugh! The broad public perception that Causes is a spigot that when turned on will start a gush of donations to causes needs to change. This does not mean that Causes can’t be useful for raising money, the Giving Challenge is proof of lots of money being raised by lots of activists and causes in a short amount of time. But as Frogloop noted last year, “The problem is that the same challenges apply in any medium — you need to cut through the noise, develop a list of supporters, get those supporters to pay attention, and encourage those supporters to do something.” This takes work and constancy and resilience and patience – nothing qualities that journalists and online watchers are known for! The bottom line here is that Causes isn’t just about raising money, it’s also about raising friends and awareness, and in the long run turning loose social ties into stronger ones for a cause may be more important than one-time donations of $10 and $20 dollars right now. Our rush to judge this application effective or ineffective over a very short time period with a primary user base of very young people is off base.