It is not just because it has speed, reach and costs literally nothing to spread awareness and raise funds, that the nonprofit world is leveraging social media. The biggest potential to effect social change is activated by putting popular Web 2.0 tools and technologies in the hands of users, as they are then empowered to dedicate themselves to social causes, charity 2.0 evangelists say.
In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Paull Young, director of digital engagement at Charity Water, said that social media is "all about people more so than technology". The New York-based nonprofit organization raises money to build wells to provide clean drinking water in developing nations.
Therefore, charities need to shift from being in "command-and-control", to using social media tools to enable their supporters to take up their message and mission and spread it to the world, he explained.
Stressing that the donor experience is paramount, Young said a humanitarian organization must be able to come up with ways to expand the experience its donors have with Web 2.0 tools. For instance, Charity Water links fundraisers and donors to the specific water project they contributed to, with photos and GPS coordinates in Google Maps.
Social media: strategy, not solution
Social media is a major channel that Charity Water uses to communicate with its audience, said Young. It enables "both our brand and our supporters to spread our message, share content to educate about the water issue, and importantly, fundraise", he pointed out. Charity Water's Twitter account has a significant following, with more than a million subscribers.
Social media is also a critical component of Charity Water's digital strategy, Young added. According to him, Charity Water raised over US$9 million in 2010, of which 70 percent came via digital channels. He also added that its online fundraising platform, where people create their own Web pages to campaign for donations, generated nearly US$6 million in 15 months, with over 6,000 fundraisers receiving 72,000 individual donations.
It is important to remember that "at the end of every Twitter account and Facebook profile is a real person, not a wallet", Young emphasized. Social media merely provides a platform; what charities must focus on is how to produce inspiring content to communicate, engage and build trust with the user audience, he said. This authentic connection, he noted, can then lead to long-term donors and life-long supporters.
Siegrid Saldana, community manager at Give.sg, a Web portal that links individuals and communities with Singapore-based charities and helps facilitate online fundraising and donations, concurred. In an e-mail, she said social media is a "great and amazing tool" for nonprofit initiatives because it is quick, easy and cost-effective to spread the word and expand their reach.
But at the end of the day, the effort an individual or an organization puts to further their cause is not just about social media, she noted.
"Social media in virtual philanthropy is about empowering everyday people, making it easier for them to help their favorite nonprofits to magnify the social impact and make a difference," Saldana pointed out.
To exemplify the power of social media, Saldana referred to the Charity Bike 'N' Blade 2010 event. Its organizers set up a fundraising page on Give.sg, and using social networks to publicize the event, raised S$380,000 (US$293,726) in total--nearly triple the target.
Playing for funds
The mobilizing and fundraising power of users is also evident in social gaming.
When Farmville creator Zynga held two campaigns of Sweets Seeds for Haiti--for the victims of the Haitian earthquake in January 2010 and a school building project--the company raised more than US$1.5 million within five and 17 days respectively. Farmville players buy using Farmville currency the sweet seeds--limited-edition sweet potato crops that can boost their game score--with 100 percent of the proceeds going to providing food for Haitian schoolchildren.
A Zynga spokesperson said in an e-mail that social games have the power to make a significant social impact. In-game campaigns featuring social goods, such as Sweet Seeds for Haiti, rally players together to contribute to a good cause and at the same time, enjoy game play. Zynga's base of around 215 million makes the social game "the largest possible platform to effect positive and massive change by users", she added.