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We all have guilty pleasures. Whether it's a favorite show on Bravo, the tabloid magazine we read in the check-out line at the grocery store, or that box of Girl Scouts cookies hidden in a desk drawer, there are certain things we become attached to and will not give up, on pain of death.
In fundraising, many of us share a guilty pleasure: social media fundraising.
We dream about it, discuss it with colleagues, and love reading articles and blog posts about it. Whether it's a platform highlighted in the latest issue of our favorite trade publication or a conference that always has at least one session on the topic, we just can't help ourselves.
Why? Why do we spend so much time obsessing about an activity that, in reality, doesn't generate all that much income — in fact, just 1 percent of total revenue from online donations?
The answer, I suspect, lies in our own use of social media, our often-overzealous boards, and misguided expectations.
...and why shouldn't you? It's a great way to stay in touch with friends and family members, who entertain you with their pictures and videos, share things you like, and keep you informed of their career moves. As long as it's not abused, social media also provides a convenient, low-cost respite from the daily grind.
And that's where things start to get interesting. Because most of us enjoy the time we spend on and with social media, we naturally start thinking thoughts like: If I like this as much as I do, others must like it, too. What could possibly go wrong if I used social media to raise money for our organization?
Okay, Rule #1. Just because you benefit personally from engagement with an online tool or platform doesn't mean it should be used in your professional life. Good fundraisers know that personal preferences should never be confused with the likes or preferences of potential supporters. Enjoy social media for what it is and, in your professional life, use it to share and connect with supporters and the general public about your organization's mission or issue — and don't worry so much about using it to raise money.
This is maybe my number-one pet social-media peeve. Too many board members out there believe there's a direct correlation between the number of followers an organization has on social media and the number of people willing to support it. This is simply false.
If your board members are in the dark about how social media works, its strengths and weaknesses (from an organizational perspective), and the role it's best suited to play in forging support for your organization or cause, it's your job to educate them and suggest a digital fundraising strategy that reflects reality.
Here's a situation I hear about all the time. An organization's chief fundraiser is sitting in on a board meeting when a board member suddenly suggests that social media should become the focus of the organization's fundraising strategy. For some inexplicable reason, the head fundraiser forgets everything he or she knows about the subject and begins to agree.
Soon, other board members are carried away by enthusiasm for the idea, and before someone can say "My Space," budget targets have been set, resources have been allocated, and directives for staff have been finalized. It isn't until our head fundraiser walks out of the room that he or she realizes (no doubt, in horror) what just happened.
How can you prevent such a scenario from happening? Easy. Educate your board. Not about social media, but about how your organization uses social media — and the thinking behind that strategy. Help them understand how fundraising on social media often disappoints — and why.
Share the numbers with them and encourage them to ask questions. Head off the bad decision they would like to make by being proactive and spending time on a discussion of fundraising tactics that actually make sense. Boards get excited about results, so keep the discussion focused where they live.
When our expectations are high, we tend to believe everything is possible and anything we do is a lock for awards and accolades. Social media is no different. We have a flash of digital inspiration, work with staff to turn it into a social media campaign, and — especially in light of last year's ALS Ice Bucket Challenge — expect it to go viral by the end of the week.
Sadly, wishful thinking and spending valuable time and money on would-be viral campaigns is not the best use of resources. Content tends to go viral when the organization providing it isn't trying — and for reasons no one really understands. My own observation is that "viralness" has a lot to do with being authentic and having a story (backed by compelling content and images) that your audiences can relate to. It's not about being "cool" or "edgy;" it's about standing for something, something real and genuine.
Guilty pleasures are fine and, in our busy, always-on lives, even necessary. But they're called "guilty" for a reason: indulged in moderation, they won't hurt us or lead to something we regret later. Keep that in mind when you start thinking about how you can incorporate social media into your organization's fundraising efforts.
I love social media and am a frequent champion of its ability to bring like-minded people together, foster group learning, and inexpensively spread the word about a worthy cause. Let's keep our focus on those qualities and not let our personal use of social media cloud our judgment when it comes to fundraising.
This piece was originally published in Foundation Center's Philanthropy News Digest Philantopic Blog in October 2015 and is reprinted here by permission of Philanthropy News Digest. It was written by Derrick Feldmann.
Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and creative agency that works with nonprofits to increase their impact, and co-author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, to be published in January by Wiley.
Image 1: U.S. Department of Agriculture / CC BY
Image 2: Derrick Feldmann