Jul/Aug 2007

Facebook Opens Up — Philanthropy Rushes In

by Tom Watson, onPhilanthropy.com and Garth Moore, onPhilanthropy.com

One of the few large and still independent social networks announced huge changes recently — changes that may well have a large effect on causes and philanthropy online. Facebook opened its platform to outside developers, allowing members to create applets and leverage its 30 million active users. Inevitably, this means e-commerce and linking other social tools and blogs to the Facebook experience, which had been a closed network.

And it also means philanthropy.

One of the new mini-applications within Facebook is Causes, added by San Francisco's Blake Commagere's new group called Project Agape. The applet allows users to invite "friends" to join campaigns for nonprofits, issues, and political candidates. Dozens have already been added. It also allows for donations, and then ranks Facebook users by how many supporters they've recruited and how much money they've raised.

The money is, well, peanuts at this point — the system measures single dollars and most causes have raised less than $100. A few big-name causes such as Save Darfur have raised a few thousand dollars. The upside is probably in the network of 20-something peers that savvy causes can attract using the platform.

Even in the super-hot market for so-called Web 2.0 companies, Facebook remains stubbornly independent and iconoclastic. Technology entrepreneur Marc Andreessen explains the Facebook advantage on his blog:

"Facebook is providing a highly viral distribution engine for applications that plug into its platform. As a user, you get notified when your friends start using an application; you can then start using that same application with one click. At which point, all of your friends become aware that you have started using that application, and the cycle continues. The result is that a successful application on Facebook can grow to a million users or more within a couple of weeks of creation."

Replace "application" with "cause" and you get a sense of what a social network with the power of Facebook can mean to organizations and why I believe social entrepreneurs should seriously consider building social networking applications even while they fund and build world-changing organizations.

I did a quick check on Facebook by running a query on all the groups that my "friends" — a very loose descriptor on social networks — belong to. Results were interesting. The fastest-growing groups in my network are political or linked to the blogosphere (or both). Then there are the fun and goofy groups (a la "Bryan and Matt's Excellent Alaska Roadtrip"). But there were also some small, grassroots causes that could easily pass for social ventures — and some larger causes that are taking advantage of the power of social networking.

Here at onPhilanthropy, we've seen just how potent that platform can be. Just months after creating a Facebook group for our Future Leaders in Philanthropy community, there are more than 200 members signed up. We'll be watching to see how Causes develops — and how the philanthropy sector uses the growing Facebook platform in general.

So, how can you make the Facebook generation work for you? You can get started in five easy steps:

  1. Join Facebook. Visit http://www.facebook.com/ and start a free account. From there, click into the Application list and select Causes for your application menu. Then, click the "Start A Cause" button. You'll walk through a few screens to fill in your mission ands goals. Finally, you'll publish your cause on Facebook. The whole process will take you 20 minutes.

  2. Make contact. Find a few well-connected and eager young friends to help join and promote your Facebook Cause. Ask your organization's employees or interns with Facebook accounts to join your cause. Use your monthly newsletters to promote your new cause and provide a link for your online housefile members to join.

  3. Promote your Web site. You can extend your communication beyond the social networking sphere by promoting your Web site. Use Facebook to mention online surveys, newsletter subscriptions, or special donation campaigns about your organization. Be sure to use friendly URL shortcuts in your Convio tool for the URLs you post on Facebook.

  4. Set goals. Every campaign needs a goal and your Facebook campaign shouldn't be any different. Tell your Facebook causes group the goals for your cause (donate a specific amount, invite five friends, visit a volunteer sign-up page, build a friend-raising page). Facebook users are motivated, they just need direction. Let them know where you stand and how they can help.

  5. Communicate. Facebook users are not a static audience, either. They like to communicate. You might consider hiring a volunteer administrator from the group to help send messages, update news items, and recruit new friends and contacts. Make sure this person is knowledgeable with Facebook's functions and enjoys communicating through social networks. The administrator's enthusiasm about your organization needs to be infectious.

While the platform seems limited in scope and functionality, Project Agape developers promise more functionality with a series of releases this fall. These five steps will be enough to get you started in this new realm of online fundraising. Be realistic, however, because social networking is still very far from helping your organization make any total annual online giving or recruitment goals. But endearing your brand and mission to the Facebook crowd now might give your organization a whole new donor base for the future.

Facebook Opens Up — Philanthropy Rushes In | Convio