The use of social media for philanthropic non-profit organizations (NPOs) has been well-documented on blogs all over the internet – it’s rapidly becoming a more widely-accepted tool for promotion and (sometimes) fundraising.

The best use of social media from a charitable org perspective is for raising awareness. Just like many for-profit companies are using it to raise brand awareness, non-profits can do so as well – often with great success. Some great examples of this are the American Cancer Society and the 1010 Project. Both organizations use Twitter to raise awareness of their cause (Cancer and poverty in Kenya, respectively). The American Cancer Society tweets facts about cancer and news about the Society, while the 1010 Project tweets facts about Kenyan poverty and interacts with followers.

Another great use of social media for philanthropic NPOs is to recruit new volunteers. This is closely linked to raising brand awareness; as more people become aware of your organization, your pool of potential volunteers widens. Plus, with social media, you have an easy way to contact them. In the case of Facebook in particular, people who become supporters of a “Causes” page are those who already have some interest in the organization – so the likelihood that they’d be interested in volunteering is significantly higher than that of a random person off the street. Social media enables you to target volunteer coordination efforts specifically to people who are already interested. 

Social media can also be used to get current volunteers and interested parties fired up and active about your cause – having a near-constant level of contact about your efforts keeps the cause fresh in people’s minds. On Facebook, your organization can create groups and events to connect volunteers with one another. It also enables you to listen and respond to supporters, giving you feedback on what they’re interested in, how they can help, what they think of your organization, etc.

Two companies who have really gotten social media in a philanthropic sense right are the Nature Conservancy, and, surprisingly, the for-profit corporation Target. Chances are if you’ve been on Facebook at all in the past year, you’ve gotten an invitation for an application called (Lil) Green Patch. This app, which was developed for The Nature Conservancy, enables users to trade virtual plants with each other, and for every ten plants a person receives, sponsors contribute money to save one square foot of rainforest in Costa Rica. The Nature Conservancy’s social media strategy is simple and effective: “find where people spend time online and engage them in those places.”*

Retail giant Target has taken a slightly different approach. Target gives 5% of their income to charity, which amounts to about $3 million per week. For their “Bullseye Gives” campaign, Target allowed Facebook users to vote for their favorite charities. They then divided the $3 million according to the percentage of votes – for example, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital received 26.6% of the votes, so they received 26.6% of the money ($797,123).

While social media is a great tool for philanthropic organizations, it does have limitations. The main one is that it really is not an immediate donation-gathering device. Many organizations tend to think that “if we build it, they will donate,” which simply isn’t the case. Social media users are wary of being “sold” something, even if that something is a cause to donate to. Social media is much stronger as a tool for raising awareness – and through increased awareness eventually increased donations can come. Plus, social media may simply not be the right market for soliciting donations. Michael Nilsen of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, an industry research and advocacy group, has said that “These sites are attracting younger people who probably aren’t in their giving prime yet,” he said. “But it’s a great way to spread awareness and build relationships that could lead to donations in the future.”**

So, social media can be a great (and powerful) tool for charitable non-profit organizations. It’s excellent for raising awareness, coordinating volunteers, and getting people fired up. While it does have limitations, they are certainly possible to overcome with a strong social media strategy and a little bit of time and energy.

How does your favorite non-profit use social media? Tell us about it in the comments!

*Chaudhuri, Saabira. "Innovative Giving: The Nature Conservancy and (Lil) Green Patch." FastCompany. 15 Dec. 2008. 28 May 2009 <>.

**Hiskes, Jonathan. "Facebook, Twitter, MySpace become latest way for organizations to connect with potential donors and raise awareness." Charlotte Business Journal 31 Oct. 2008. 28 May 2009 <^1726170&brthrs=1>.

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