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Meetup Recap: Jen Burton from Causes on Fundraising and Online Communities

Meetup Recap: Jen Burton from Causes on Fundraising and Online Communities

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Jen Burton from Flickr user AmorationThis post was authored by Matt Fairchild who is an online community manager experienced in growing social, mobile, and competitive gaming communities. He blogs about community management at and can be followed on Twitter at @Scav.

At this month's packed Online Community Meetup (also referred to as #OCTribe), Jen Burton, director of Community and Support at, spoke about Facebook's largest fundraising platform and its role in supporting nonprofits. The conversation focused largely on the Causes platform itself, along with the editorial and community features built-in to help nonprofits engage donors. You can see her full slide deck from the presentation on Slideshare here.

With over 150 million installs, Causes is one of the largest apps on Facebook. But unlike other top apps, Causes is dedicated to a singular purpose: making it easier for nonprofits to raise money by connecting with their communities. Any nonprofit can become a partner - all for free.

An Example of Causes: Birthday Wish

Jen introduced Causes' Birthday Wish feature as the first example of how the Causes community can use social structures to create value. Facebook already has a system in place for recognizing your birthday and alerting your friends. With Birthday Wish, you can donate your birthday to a cause of your choice. Instead of receiving a flurry of gifts you don't really want, you can instead divert that into donations through Causes' platform.

Every Cause Is a Community

Anyone can create a cause, and everyone who creates a cause becomes a community manager. Jen put it more specifically, calling Causes "a network of distributed communities." Causes facilitates these communities and combines them together, though Jen was quick to differentiate them from a software as a service. The site's strength lies in how anyone can create, promote, and grow a cause, but Jen also points out that this can create weaknesses as well.

Strengths of the Causes Network

  • Massive number of people
  • Ability to utilize social networks to drive a message
  • Singularity of focus
  • Anyone can create, promote, and grow a cause

Weaknesses of the Causes Network

  • Massive number of people
  • Distributed nature
  • Confusing site architecture
  • Anyone can create, promote, and grow a cause

Jen then repackaged these weaknesses as opportunities. Causes' goals for 2011 include a redesign and a deeper focus on key features. "It's messy," Jen said. "We're working on that." The goal is to become the best place online for giving, and they're well on their way to achieving it.

OCTribe Meetup from Flickr user AmorationThe USD Restriction

Prospective donors will find that Causes, through their partner Network for Good, only accepts U.S. dollars. While Paypal is able to handle international currencies, you have to know who you're sending the money to while you collect. Network for Good, on the other hand, doesn't need to know the destination. This makes it much more flexible, allowing readers to donate to a general cause like "Stop Animal Abuse." These donations could then benefit a wider variety of nonprofits.

How Causes Works (From a Community Standpoint)

You get an email. You see someone's blog post. A friend tweets about it. A Facebook update catches your eye.

Causes is thoroughly integrated with social media, giving fundraising projects new ways to reach their audiences. For instance, you can embed a widget on your website, or you can utilize an existing fan page.

Lady Gaga is a high-profile example of the latter option. Lady Gaga teamed up with Causes to donate a million dollars to five different youth services in NYC. She runs it through her fan page, where you can vote on how the money is distributed.

Another example, Give India, shows off the community features provided by a Causes page. Notice the different calls to action to give either money or time. It displays donors, fundraisers, the amount given, top recruiters, and much more.

The model is dependent on you telling your friends and networks what you care about. Your Facebook status is a very valuable resource, and Causes realizes someone willing to donate a status update is just as important as someone donating money.

Network Effects and Nightlights

"We believe that you're more likely to get involved with a nonprofit if your friends or family urge you to do so," Jen said. She then described her most recent birthday, when she used the Birthday Wish feature to support Project Nightlight. "Suddenly, my mom is now involved. She's getting the word out. All of a sudden, this woman who lives 1,000 miles away is a volunteer for a company here in San Francisco."

Communicating with Your Members

With the launch of Open Graph integration back in October, Causes now has many more ways to help nonprofits connect with members. You can post general updates to the Cause page, post to the Facebook news stream, send email, or do all three. The Open Graph integration creates a Facebook Fan Page for all new causes, and integrates analytics. You can track your donations directly against your outreach, noting which feed posts cause your biggest spikes.

Nonprofit Support

All previous features are available to everyone. Causes also offers dedicated nonprofit support. It's free, but you have to be a valid nonprofit organization to get it. Access brings you bulletins, donation tracking, custom fundraising project creation, petitions, communication with donors, and administrative options. "Free Data!"

In the example shown, a nonprofit was able to view the almost $400,000 raised over a period of time. They could also manage custom donor choices, which Jen took a moment to emphasize.

The goal of this outreach is to build relationships with donors, rather than the donate-and-forget relationships of older initiatives. Effective Causes community managers give recognition to their donors, nurture that relationship, and close the loop - telling everyone "what happens now" once the fundraiser ends.

Make Donations Mean Something

"We found donor choices to be really effective. Rather than just saying 'Hey, give me a hundred bucks,'  you can turn it around and say '$100 buys this for a child in need.' It's much more meaningful to the people involved and they can sense the impact they're having."

Jen returned to this theme later: the importance of communicating a cause through real, visible actions. Setting a goal of raising $500,000 is intimidating and hard to visualize. Setting stepping-stones along the way makes it achievable.

OCTribe Meetup participants from Flickr user AmorationCase Study: Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California

Case studies have shown surprising results.

In 1995, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) used "old school" methods to raise over $600,000 to aid victims of the Kobe earthquake. After raising that 600 grand, the JCCCNC didn't just walk away ­- they continued engaging with their members and seeking opportunities to do good. Last month, unbeknownst to Causes, they set up a fundraising project in response to the 2011 quakes.

On the Causes platform, they've raised almost $400,000 so far. This is where Causes noticed something interesting: this was more than the Red Cross, a vastly larger organization with much higher name recognition, had raised on the platform.

Members of the Causes community are eager to connect with smaller groups, which is why a regional nonprofit like the JCCCNC could outperform larger organizations. Recognizing this, Causes facilitated a matching grant with The JCCCNC continues to maintain their page with bulletins, posts, and videos of donations in action. "That kind of constant contact is something that people really care about giving," Jen said.

Another case study, this time with Trees, Water and People, showed similar results. Constant engagement helped this nonprofit, which builds solar air heaters in poor reservations, more than double their goal.

The Importance of Editorial

One thing Jen works on from the community side is content. The community team at Causes works with donors and nonprofits to provide guest content for their pages. This gives people a chance to get their story out, and has a huge effect on engagement.

Sneak Peaks

Coming up next for Causes:

Redone Fan Page Tabs

  • Fan Page tab integration
  • Project and general giving tabs for pages
  • Simple setup for nonprofits (or any Fan Page admin)

"You can do a tab right now," Jen said, "but it's really lame. This is what we're doing to make it better."

The new Fan Page tabs are being rolled out to around 100 of their top nonprofits, with Causes actually offering to make the tab for them as a way to show the feature's potential. After a soft launch at the end of April, the new tabs will be available to all users.

Featured Project Emails

  • "A whole new editorial project"
  • Causes will write emails and other content on a detailed level, targeting specific groups
  • Video content, copy, calls to action
  • Rolling out to selected partners at start, with a larger effort in the next few months

For example, they sent out a test to people interested in Causes relating to animals, pointing members to a specific event underway.

Investing in Nonprofits

The increase in editorial, addition of new features, and constant improvement is all dedicated on investing in nonprofits. Causes doesn't take a penny from a single donation (Network for Good does charge 4.75%.) Causes is a .com and not a .org, so it does work to generate profit, mostly from advertising, sponsorship, and user-driven "tips." The end result, though, is a singular focus on investing in nonprofits.

Q&A Session with Jen Burton

Q: How does your platform assist smaller communities? How does it assist efforts for a for-profit organization to have events to raise money?
A: That falls outside of our key competency, though there are lots of different ways to promote those kinds of events using the online community. For instance, you can create a cause for the event to get people out and get people excited leading up to it. "Here's how much we raised!" "Here's a note from the director." That's one way for an organization that's not a nonprofit, but that wants to get involved in charitable giving, to get involved in our platform.

Q: What is the best way that people can look over a list of communities, and pick and choose between them?
A: I wish our search was better. Search is hard. [Chimes from the audience in agreement.] You  can go to and click on donate, and you can browse and click through the projects available there. You can also go to our application homepage on Facebook and search for organizations, causes, and charities related to specific terms.

Q: Do causes expire at a certain point?
A: Only if you want them to. Causes recommends breaking it into manageable chunks. Emphasize what $25 gives you, rather than "let's raise half a million."

Q: If I donate my Facebook page to raise money for causes, do I get a receipt from that for my taxes?
A: Yes. When you donate through our platform, within a minute after hitting complete, you're going to get a receipt that covers all of the information, including what nonprofit is going to receive your item. If you itemize, you can deduct.

Q: Do you place a dollar value on a Facebook page?
A: We do! But the IRS doesn't. (Yet.)

Q: Of your install base, how many of them come back to engage in a cause for a second time?
A: We have 150,000,000 installs on the FB application. For second-time users, it's not as many as we'd like - but it's a really good number. Pretty significant.

Q: I'm going to give 100 bucks. I want a video of my hundred dollars in action.
A: One of our goals with the feature email project is to be able to send info to donors saying "we've done this, and here are examples of what we're doing." One of our goals is to keep people in really good contact with the organizations they're donating to.

Q: What has the response been from advertisers for the call to action video project?
A: The #1 challenge has been inventory. It's a really unique program working with several different ad partners. It's the first time anyone's said "serve ads, then give the bulk of that ad revenue to the nonprofit." The price is set by the advertisers and ranges from $0.10 to $0.45. The number one problem is finding enough partners that are ready to take a chance on this. We're going to be doing some custom projects with brands. We do a lot of brand-sponsored campaigns, like with Campbell's Soup and General Mills. For instance, they can sponsor a campaign where if you join Campbell Soup's cause, they donate a pound of food.

Q: Do you have criteria for brands you're willing to work with?
A: I'm not involved in the bizdev part. I know we haven't partnered with anyone at this point that we'd have to deny. We do have some rules, but it hasn't become a conflict yet.

Q: Is there any kind of due diligence or transparency you do on causes?
A: That's a really big issue. Say they've got their paperwork and they're legal, but 90% of money goes to administrative costs? We do make recommendations for strong causes. We don't track administrative costs. As a for-profit company, we do have a burn rate. But that's something our investors have to worry about. We are transparent and urge people to do research. If they're concerned about a nonprofit, we encourage them to do research and see what works for them.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about what happens when community management and public relations (PR) become in conflict? [Jen Burton wears both hats by managing the PR firm they work with at Causes.]
A: I first got involved in dotcoms in 1998 at Amazon, where I held roles in customer service, product marketing, and community management. I was most recently at Digg. At Digg there were a lot of PR issues, and as the community manager there I had to work very closely with PR. At Causes, we don't have "PR." There is an agency, but there was nobody really active in managing the process. I offered to help fill that role. So the question is what happens when they conflict? We haven't had that problem at Causes yet. Generally things go pretty well because we're about doing good in the world. There are no PR nightmares like we faced monthly at Digg. The hardest thing I have to do is help my team decide whether or not a cause violates our Terms of Service.

We all have to know how to talk to people. Community Managers sit between the community and the company. You have to know how to talk to different audiences.

Q: Is there a place our community members can go to learn best practices?
A: We just launched Right now it's very much FAQ-y, in that people are asking questions and we answer them. It's not as much conversation as we'd like, but it's young.

Q: Why is Causes a .com and not a .org? Why a for-profit and not a not-for-profit?
A: We do operate very much like how a .com startup operates. We've taken VC investments, about $16 million. We have a couple of cofounders. A guy named Sean Parker. Joe Green is other co-founder and CEO. Our purpose is to serve the nonprofit community.

Photos: Amoration

Becky Wiegand is the Webinar Program Manager at
@bajeckabean on Twitter

  • Thanks for sharing this and appreciate the linkback on the photos. Looking forward to our next OCTRIBE event on 5/25!