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Creative Fundraising For Charities Includes Social Media

As charities and social service agencies are feeling the crunch in tough economic times, creative fundraising with technological tools has become another avenue for reaching donors.

The world of Web 2.0 is helping some groups to find new, easier ways for people to give money through interactive methods. But while giving through social media tools and texts may be easier for the donors, it can be problematic for the recipient groups.

In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, cell phone users were encouraged to donate $10 to relief efforts by sending a text to a specific number. The donation appeared on later phone bills. While the convenience of this creative fundraising effort translated to people giving millions of dollars , those who work on behalf of charities say it may be an isolated example.

Sandra Miniutti is Vice President, Marketing, and CFO for Charity Navigator, which rates the financial health of 5,500 charities to help donors make informed giving choices.

“I don’t think that most donors will use this method of giving at other times of the year,” she says. “It’s doubtful that folks are going to give to their local food bank via text donations. And it’s doubtful that a local food bank would offer that option.”

That’s because text donations present specific challenges that could be difficult for a charity to navigate, Miniutti explains, especially for a smaller organization. Donors who send money by text message are anonymous to the charity. Fees to process the donations are high, and the financial gifts can take 90 days to arrive at a charity.

Smaller charities may not be able to take advantage of the creative fundraising technology, agrees Christopher Whitlatch, Manager of Marketing and Communications of The Pittsburgh Foundation. The foundation promotes charitable giving and connects interested donors with critical needs in the local community.

“Certainly, the American Red Cross has been successful with their mobile giving platform for Haiti relief,” he says. “However, the domestic violence shelter down the street doesn’t have access yet to these same platforms.”

According to the Red Cross’ two month report on its efforts in Haiti, more than $32 million was pledged through the texting for $10 donation campaign.

But that $32 million is a drop in the bucket of the almost $1 billion in donations for Haiti relief that Miniutti says the largest charities are reporting. Even the $1 billion number can be deceiving.

“Although $1 billion sounds like a lot, total giving in America is around $300 billion each year,” Miniutti says. “I think text donations have helped increase the amount given to Haiti, but I’m not convinced that text giving is going to be enough to offset the declines in total giving we’ve been seeing because of the recession.”

Creative fundraising through social media tools and texting would probably appeal more to younger donors, meaning the impact could only grow along with the influence of Gen Y.

“Young adults and teens are extremely comfortable texting,” she says. “So it is highly probable that over time, text donations will become a bigger part of the revenue mix for charities.”

Joe Godfrey, the Academic Director for Audio Production and Web Design & Interactive Media at The Art Institute of California — San Diego, says fundraising by texting and tweeting would appeal to his students more than traditional, direct mail pieces.

“The thing about tweeting is it seems so much more honest than unsolicited requests,” he says. “We’re very suspicious of things that we didn’t ask to be sent to us. That’s the mindset of this generation.”

The community aspect of social media tools used by charities may also appeal to younger donors. It can empower donors as well as benefit the organization, says Whitlatch of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

“Social media allows an organization to listen to the community, respond to specific interest issues, and create a discussion around topics,” he adds. “Social media breaks down the traditional ivory towers of a nonprofit and gives access to anyone that is interested.”

One example of a charity that tapped into the community aspect of social media came last year with LiveStrong’s ChalkBot, a robot that reproduced tweets in water-soluble paint on the route of the Tour de France. Painted about eight hours ahead of the racers, the tweets came from the charity’s community of cancer survivors and supports and were meant to inspire the race’s participants and fans. Examples of the messages included “my mom climbed over mt cancer” and “it’s about doing it strong.”

The community aspect of giving through social media and texting helps encourage even more giving, Godfrey says.

“You get caught up in the excitement and pretty soon you’re donating, too,” he explains. “You’d never see that with people sitting at home … reading their mail. It’s a group momentum.”

Regardless of any success seen through these creative fundraising techniques, the downturn in the economy is having severe negative consequences on nonprofits.

According to Miniutti, giving in America in 2008 was down almost 6% from the year before, the biggest drop in the more than 50 years that such data has been tracked.

“Will the $5 and $10 text messaging gifts for Haiti relief efforts be enough to reverse this downward trend in giving?” she asks. “That remains to be seen.”

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