Correction to This Article
This article used outdated figures regarding the popularity of Facebook's Causes application. As of last week, 235,000 nonprofit organizations were using the application, of which three had raised more than $100,000 and 88 had raised $10,000, according to the developer. The story also incorrectly said that 25 million members of the social-networking Web site had joined at least one of the causes. That number represents active users; another 25 million members considered inactive have joined at least one cause.

'Causes' Social Networking May Be All Talk, No Cash for Nonprofits Seeking Funds

The Nature Conservancy and Students for a Free Tibet are the only two organizations to raise more than $100,000 through Causes.
The Nature Conservancy and Students for a Free Tibet are the only two organizations to raise more than $100,000 through Causes. (From The Web)
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By Kim Hart and Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It seems foolproof: nonprofits using the power of the Internet to raise money through a clever Facebook application. After all, the Web earned gobs of cash for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. And besides, going online means sending fewer fundraising letters, which makes it appealing to penny-pinchers and environmentalists alike.

But it turns out that approach doesn't always work. The Facebook application Causes, hugely popular among nonprofit organizations seeking to raise money online, has been largely ineffective in its first two years, trailing direct mail, fundraising events and other more traditional methods of soliciting contributions.

Only a tiny fraction of the 179,000 nonprofits that have turned to Causes as an inexpensive and green way to seek donations have brought in even $1,000, according to data available on the Causes developers' site. The application allows Facebook users to list themselves as supporters of a cause on their profile pages. But fewer than 1 percent of those who have joined a cause have actually donated money through that application.

The data conflict with the lessons many nonprofits took from Obama's presidential campaign: that a well-run organization could raise huge amounts of money online. The problem is, nonprofit fundraising requires considerably more outreach than many political campaigns, which do not require as much relationship-building because they revolve around highly visible candidates.

Research shows that Internet and e-mail are generally considered the least successful nonprofit fundraising techniques, according to a report by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

"The prevalent fantasy among nonprofits during the early days of the Web was that a random person would come to your Web site, see that they could donate, and donate a million dollars," said Aaron Hurst, chief executive of a California nonprofit, who has blogged about the ineffectiveness of Causes. "But that wasn't true then and it isn't true on social networks."

Since it was launched in 2007, Causes on Facebook has become the leader among a growing number of social networks -- including Twitter, MySpace and Gather -- used by nonprofits, which have been forced to find new ways of developing resources as contributions from wealthy donors and foundations decline during the recession. Causes is free for nonprofits but it costs them staff time to develop and maintain.

Data available from the Causes developers on Facebook show the application's meteoric rise since its founding. More than 25 million of Facebook's 200 million worldwide members have signed on as supporters of at least one cause, making it the third-most popular of the more than 52,000 applications on the site.

But just 185,000 members have ever contributed through the site, which sends credit card transactions on Facebook to the Bethesda-based Network for Good to distribute. The median gift through Causes is $25. The majority of Causes' participants have received no donations through the site.

The median charitable donation through more traditional means is $50, according to the Center on Philanthropy.

The idea behind Causes was to take advantage of the vast circles of online friends connected through social networks to reach potential donors and volunteers on a more personal level. People will donate money, albeit in small amounts, to help a cause that a close friend or colleague supports, the application's developers say.

"People are much more altruistic if they get social credit for it," said Joe Green, one of the founders of Berkeley, Calif.-based Causes, who said the application has raised $7 million overall. "The social incentive is to show on your profile how many volunteers you've recruited or how much money you've raised."

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