Social-Media Contests Bring In Donations and Enthusiastic Supporters
SOMEWHERE on YouTube, there’s a video of a guy named Aaron biking 30
miles from downtown Washington to the suburbs and back
in his underwear.
Aaron isn’t an exhibitionist;
he’s an enthusiastic volunteer
for a nonprofit group called Atlas Service Corps. He promised
to buy a pair of tight white underpants and don them in very
public fashion if he could raise
100 gifts of at least $10 each
on Facebook during this year’s
America’s Giving Challenge, a
contest sponsored by the Case
Atlas Service Corps has
dominated competitions like
America’s Giving Challenge
thanks to volunteers like Aaron, who ask their friends to
give small amounts. In less
than two years, Atlas Service
Corps, which provides non-profit workers from around the
world the chance to work for a
year at charities in the United States, has raised or won
$150,000 in three contests to
see who can best use social-
networking sites to reap donations.
During this year’s Giving
Challenge, Atlas Service Corps
recruited 150 “campaign captains”—people who knew the
charity well or had supported
it in the past—to help solicit
gifts of at least $10 using the
Facebook Causes application.
The captains contacted friends
through Facebook, of course,
but also mailed postcards provided by the charity and held
evening events during which
they called people they knew
as well as donors who had given to the charity in the past.
Atlas Service Corps also
set up “giving clubs” for people who were willing to give a
small amount every day for 10
or 20 days straight.
“Instead of one full-time development person, we had 150
part-time development people who were out there raising money for us,” says Scott
Beale, the charity’s 33-year-
Thanks to those efforts,
Atlas Service Corps received
2,556 donations totaling more
than $32,000, enabling the
group to secure $10,000 from
the contest’s sponsors. The
charity raised about the same
amount in last year’s competition, for which it won a $50,000
prize. It also won a contest
earlier this year sponsored by
Ideablob, a now-defunct project of the Advanta Corporation
that linked small-business
owners with one another.
Building a Donor List
For a charity whose budget
is just $500,000, those sums
are significant. Mr. Beale says
the contests have been important not only for ginning up
gifts but for helping to create a list of 2,500 individuals,
whom the charity now solicits
in more traditional ways.
Mr. Beale says he doesn’t
think the social-media approach replaces other fund-raising tools, but it “provides
such a great opportunity to reinforce the ask and, perhaps
most importantly, to empower
Atlas Service Corps sent
postcards to supporters
to persuade them to give.
While social-media contests
are popular now, they might
not always exist as a strategy. So Mr. Beale says he is
mulling other ways to create
a competitive environment for
donors to give on social media,
such as asking a foundation to
put up a challenge grant.
When the charity isn’t involved in a competition, it uses
social-networking sites to
talk about its work and build
a sense of connection among
its online fans. Mr. Beale says
he’s careful not to hit up Facebook fans and Twitter followers too often for money and
has decided against entering
several contests out of concern
that the timing wasn’t right.
After America’s Giving
Challenge ended in November, he didn’t expect to make
another round of online pleas
until well into 2010. But then
J.P. Morgan Chase announced
that it would give $25,000 to
100 small charities that received the most votes on Facebook by December 11, an opportunity Mr. Beale says was
“too hard to pass up.” Five of
those groups will win an additional $100,000 in a second
round of voting; the winner
will get $1-million.
Mr. Beale has met many
other young, like-minded charity leaders through past online
contests. Now he’s working
with eight of them to create
a common “ballot” to encourage Facebook voters—who can
choose up to 20 charities—to
select all of their groups. “We
think that by working together, we can advance all our programs,” he says.
says. “It would be really, really
difficult.” Ms. Berrent, though,
suggests that executive directors of big charities might be
able to use their own personalities and networks to raise money as volunteers have.
secretary at the Salvation
Army, wonders what his group’s
11,000 Facebook fans add up
to. “Are they our employees?
Are they existing supporters?
Are they brand new?” he says.
“If all we’re doing is attracting
ourselves, we’re not being very
His charity is slowly embarking on an effort to get more information on those Facebook
People who study social media
say that for now charity officials
should not worry about quanti-
fying each Twitter follower or
“Look at the more-qualitative
measures of return right now,”
says Allison Fine, a Chronicle
contributor and an expert on
social media. “Look at the relationships that are being built,
look at the increases in the size
of your networks. If you expect
it to work financially like direct
mail, you are going to be disappointed.”
Indeed, even charities that
are happy with social media say
measuring returns is difficult.
The Nature Conservancy’s Ms.
Citro, for example, says she cannot break down how much of the
$4-million her Plant a Billion
Trees campaign raised through
social media as opposed to e-mail appeals, Web-site visits, or
corporations, although she says
she is certain the networking
Instead, the Nature Conser-
vancy is monitoring how much
attention and how many follow-
ers it attracts on social-network-
ing sites and is using that infor-
mation to winnow the number
of Web sites it uses.
The Nature Conservancy is
also paying attention to how
people use each site and modifying its approach accordingly.
The group has raised more than
$200,000 on Facebook through
a game called Lil Green Patch.
The game’s developer agreed to
donate a portion of his advertising revenue every time someone
uses the application.
But the environmental charity doesn’t see Facebook games
as an area of big growth anymore because people have migrated away from using the site
for games and are instead using
it primarily to share news and
Charities Examine Whether Social-Media Tools Help Raise Money
Continued from Page 11
African Conservationists Raise Money With Blog Posts
Organizations that have not
scored one of those fund-raising
coups are asking lots of questions about how valuable their
efforts have been.
For example, George Hood,
ONCE A WEEK, in a re- mote part of southern Kenya, a few Maasai
tribesmen take a break from
their work in the bush to fire
up a solar-powered laptop and
The men are known as the
For the past two years they
have been chronicling their attempts to save Kenya’s dwindling lion population from
hunters—and using their
blog to raise money for those
The men broke with tribal
tradition by refusing to participate in a lion-killing ritual that often ushers in adulthood. Now they spend their
days tracking lions, helping to
keep cattle safe, and encouraging people who have lost
cattle not to kill the cats in retaliation.
So far, they have saved 50
lions and raised more than
The Lion Guardians’ blog
is the most successful of
about 80 that are supported
by WildlifeDirect, a nonprofit
group started in 2004 to raise
awareness for local conservation efforts in Africa.
The charity does that primarily by identifying local
conservationists on the continent and teaching them to tell
their stories on blogs. In two
years, the blogs have raised
more than $1-million.
Paula Kahumbu, the group’s
executive director, says that
many bloggers are uncomfortable asking for money at
first. WildlifeDirect assists by
running, alongside the text
on each blog, a list of specific ways that donors can help.
Fifty dollars pays a conserva-
Online posts written
by Kenya tribesmen
are helping to save lions.
tionist’s monthly salary, $150
buys a digital camera, and
$100 rents a classroom.
Most of the projects her
charity supports are not registered in the United States, so
it collects the money and gives
it to the local groups.
WildlifeDirect is looking for
other ways to raise money for
the projects, such as running
advertising from companies
that want to reach the blogs’
Africa-savvy readers. Ms. Kahumbu has also started publicizing the blogs on Facebook
and Twitter, and is encouraging the conservationists
to create their own Facebook
profiles. The charity’s operating costs are supported largely by foundations.
The blogs’ readership has
grown to 90,000, and readers’ gifts average $46. But the
blogs’ popularity hasn’t been
enough to overcome the recession. Giving has dropped between 50 and 70 percent.
Recruiting new bloggers
has also become more difficult
as the economic situation has
squeezed local conservationists for time. “There’s really
a sense of hopelessness,” says
Ms. Kahumbu. “We’ve seen
completely blink out.”
Still in ‘Infancy’
Such developments are a lot to
keep track of for harried charity fund raisers and marketers.
How much time individual non-profit groups decide to spend on
social-media tools will probably
come down to their personal appetite for the work.
But fans of the sites emphasize that charities should take
the long view.
“Direct mail has had 25
years to figure out its strategy,
the Web has had 10, and social
media is in its infancy,” says
the Nature Conservancy’s Ms.
Citro. It may not be until the
nation faces another Hurricane
Katrina-like moment that it will
be possible to see how useful online social networks are for fund
raising, she says.
“Unfortunately, maybe the
first thing that will really show
social media’s strength is an
emergency giving situation.”