Philanthropy Action

Analysis, Interviews, and Reviews


The use of social networking and social media in the nonprofit sector has exploded in the past few years, spurred by successful, widely profiled social media initiatives by organizations like Save Darfur and charity:water. The Obama campaign’s effective use of social technologies for both fundraising and organizing was the icing on the cake. Can there be any doubt given these examples that social networking and social media are must have tools for nonprofits?

Actually, yes.

In terms of fundraising and attracting volunteers, metrics that most nonprofit boards and executive directors highly value, the available evidence suggests that social media is not very effective. To be fair, that evidence is limited. To date, there are only two surveys that we know of, one which we conducted, that have sought to quantify the impact of social technologies in terms familiar to executive directors and boards. In both cases, the results show that social technologies are not delivering much in terms of fundraising or attracting volunteers. While advocates of social technologies rightly point out that these are not the only metrics by which social technologies should be judged, they are the metrics that the majority of respondents to our survey cited as driving their participation. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of respondents to our survey say they are going to increase their investment in the use of social networking.

The mismatch between perceptions, motivations, results and investment suggest a particular challenge for mid-size nonprofits (which we define as organizations with revenue between $1 and $5 million annually). Larger organizations have the resources to experiment, take risks and wait for long-term investments to pay off. If an experiment doesn’t yield immediate results, as for instance happened with Amnesty International’s failed efforts to gain traction in 2008’s “America’s Giving Challenge” , they can chalk it up to a learning experience and move on. Small non-profits, on the other hand, don’t have much choice. They typically can’t afford traditional channels of outreach, marketing and fundraising and so have no alternative but social media.

Midsize nonprofits are caught between a rock and a hard place. They lack the resources to commit to an unproven, and surprisingly expensive, strategy, but they fear being hopelessly “left behind.” For them, and indeed anyone else in the nonprofit space asking how to get value from social technologies, now is the time to take a deep breath and reconsider what social technologies can best be used for and what nonprofit executives can reasonably expect from them.

Our survey, conducted between July 2008 and March 2009 reached out to more than 1000 mid-size non-profits, more than 200 of which responded. We believe this to be one of the best sets of data on the use of social networking by mid-size non-profits and one of the only sets of data on the results they have achieved.

In summary, the survey shows that most users of social networking have had to scale back their expectations. While the majority began using social networking with an expectation that it would help the organization attract donors and volunteers, results have been particularly disappointing in those categories. More than 70 percent of respondents indicated that they had raised less than $100 or did not know whether they had raised any money. The figures for attracting volunteers were not much better. Surprisingly, despite the lack of results, most respondents indicated they planned to increase their investment in social networking over the coming year.

The full results of the survey—and a discussion of what it all means—can be found in our report: Social Networking and Mid-Size Non-Profits: What’s the Use?

Download Social Networking and Mid-Size Non-Profits (PDF)



Rich B

Very interesting survey and findings.

In short, I think a lot of people have been drawn into social media under false pretenses, not fully understanding how it works, and failing to spend the time to cultivate relationships effectively.

For my own NGO, we early on recognized that these tools were great internal community builders and easy ways to push information through new channels for little incremental cost.  In fact, given the current state of technology, a simply piece of code can significantly reduce this cost to nearly zero. Any gain is a gain.

To think that anyone can somehow run a fund raising campaign by social media alone is completely failing to remember that as Community Enterprises our social capital is worth more than a tweet… and to be effective, we must invest in real relationships offline as well.

It is a holistic process, and one that that can certainly benefit from additional mediums, but cannot survive on those mediums alone.


November 09, 2009
Mark Buzan

Social media is as just as much about creating the forum around which people can be enthused about an organization’s cause.  Cutting strictly to dollars raised misses the point of the needed enthusiasm you need to create around a cause in order for donations to be cultivated in the long run.  If you want to move beyond simply relying on one campaign to the next, you need to create communities of enthusiasts for the long run.

Mark Buzan, APR

November 11, 2009
Amanda Zarle

At we are an all volunteer organization that relies heavily on volunteers and “free social media” to help us spread the word. We launched our charitable giving venture in January. In that time, we have seen the many benefits of social media but more specifically Twitter. We have over 2,000 followers which may not seem like a lot relative to Livestrong but our vision is to have small donations make a big impact.

While so many families are struggling to make ends meet, our hope is to connect those with a little extra to families without enough. To date we have raised $75K. The site was incubated, designed, developed and funded by a private agency called Boathouse.

November 11, 2009
Fran Simon

Anyone who was expecting “get rich quick” results should have realized that social networking is just like everything else in life- nothing is easy, nothing is quick, and nothing is free. Using Social Networking for donor and volunteer cultivation and nonprofit communication is a technique that is still in its infancy. It’s just too soon to expect amazing results in terms of donations and volunteerism. The results are in developing listeners and participants who may later become supporters.

Nonprofits should not throw in the towel. It’s time to adjust expectations, look for efficiencies, and refine best practice in NPO social networking.

November 11, 2009

This is particularly useful given how in vogue it has become for all non-profits to develop a social networking strategy. I’m from India, where most non-profits are still figuring out how to develop an online strategy—information like this is great because it will hopefully prevent many of these organizations from investing time and resources in efforts that won’t give them the returns they are looking for. I wrote a post about your survey for the newspaper I work for in Delhi:

November 12, 2009
Rosita Cortez

Social media provides an opportunity for small non-profit to reach wider audiences. Those who adopt social media solely expecting to raise money will fail. Nonprofit, big or small, need to learn a few things before experiencing some success with social media:

1- Learn the language of Social Media

2- Cultivate your audience

3- Learn to listen to your constituency

4- Involve your constituency

5- Do the ask!

Social media provides an equal opportunities for small and big organizations. At this point, there are no metrics for evaluating the impact of using social media. In addition, nonprofits have just began adopting social media. I would be unfair to declare it a “ failure” when it is clear we are only starting to use it.

Rosita Cortez
Social Media 4 Nonprofits in Plain English

November 12, 2009
Kirk Ogden

At our organization we are finding that social networking adds value in cultivating present relationships and in allowing those relationships to more effectively advocate on our behalf.  The easier for our constituents—employees, alumni, donors, advocates—to share quality, the more likely they are to do so.  Our biggest challenge going forward is maintaining the quality.  Given the costs, this article certainly brings up questions of return on investment in a resource-limited environment.

November 12, 2009
Tim Murray

Interesting article. I think one major aspect of social networking is the unknown results that might come of it. 

We may go into it trying to raise money, which apparently doesn’t work so great as of yet, but considering the low cost to implement, it seems worth while to do as much exploring as possible just to see how it can add to your non-profit in ways other than fund-raising/volunteers.

November 12, 2009
Jen Hunt

I think the article would have made a stronger case if it had compared the results with those of other approaches. As it is presented, it is hard to conclude whether the response generated by social media is more or less effective than traditional methods.

November 16, 2009


While we don’t make a direct comparison, I’m fairly sure that most fundraising campaigns bring in more than $100 or the organizations running them would no longer exist.

November 16, 2009
Peter Mahoney

While I appreciate the caveats given in paragraph three that suggests available data is limited, and that “these are not the only metrics by which social technologies should be judged”, I feel this article has missed the boat by overlooking those points.

The problem is if we continue to gauge the success of new forms of social engagement using the same measures as we did the old, of course they aren’t going to come up trumps.

The best possible use of these tools is still something we’re very much trying to figure out. But it’s fair to say, measuring their success may not be based in a traditional model of dollars and volunteer counting.

Yes, I believe it will bring in both of these. For several higher ed organizations in particular it is. But you can’t measure success based on social media as an independent system. It is not. It’s part of our overall set of tools.

Who’s to say that use of Twitter failed, simply because no one followed the giving link you sent two weeks ago? It’s entirely likely someone was following your Twitter stream, checking Facebook updates from you every other week, and also enjoying your magazine and website regularly. That person may well make a gift via the latter of those two vehicles. It does not mean the former ones were a waste of resources.

We engage people through a variety of streams. But chances are each person is only going to give, or sign-up to volunteer, through one.

Anyway. Those are my two-cents. Where can I give them? smile

December 01, 2009
John Haydon

I’d have to agree with Mark Buzan. Fundraising is only one small return from social media. The biggest return, if used correctly and creatively, are relationships.

A big difference between small non-profits and medium-sized non-profits is their willingness to take risks (ie. be creative). And the most common (and uncreative) way to use social media is to put the ask first. “Oh, if we make a Facebook Page, how many fans can we get? How much money can we make?“

December 10, 2009
Adam S

I think the issue is not that social media doesn’t work, but that most small/medium organizations just assign the responsibility to the youngest person on staff.  If a non-profit works with someone that is already established as a social networker and not a novice there can be more return.  I know several social networking things that have worked.  But all of them were a result of a social networking person partnering with an organization, not a non-profit starting a social network initiative.  A blogger I know raised $60,000 in 15 days to build 2 kindergartens.  Another musician blogger I know started leading trips for child sponsorship and bringing other bloggers.  The publicity both resulted in direct trackable child sponsorships, but also a lot of information.  At least by word of mouth many said that they later sponsored children but not through the original links.  I know of a small church who’s pastor is a big social networker.  He is raising $20,000 a year in support of a local elementary school.  He gave presents and one uniform to every child in the school from social networking fundraising. 

So I think the article and most non-profits are starting the wrong way.  Instead of creating a social networking strategy, they need to reach out to social networkers and give them tools and stories.

December 15, 2009

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