This article used outdated figures regarding the popularity of Facebook's Causes application.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.
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'Causes' Social Networking May Be All Talk, No Cash for Nonprofits Seeking Funds
Green acknowledged that the amount of money raised per member is not large. But he said that Causes allows small groups to raise money they otherwise wouldn't.
He said Causes raises almost $40,000 a day across its groups, up from $3,000 a day a year ago. "The biggest successes have been tiny nonprofits who don't have the name recognition of the big guys."
But in the majority of cases, that theory hasn't translated into significant dollars. Fewer than 50 of the 179,000 groups on Causes have raised $10,000, and just two -- the Nature Conservancy and Students for a Free Tibet -- have cracked the $100,000 mark.
Hurst jumped on the Causes bandwagon shortly after it launched. The chief executive of the San Francisco-based Taproot Foundation, which recruits professionals to perform pro bono work for nonprofits, he figured creating a Causes page would bring in plenty of new donations. Taproot spent about $3,000 in staff time developing the page, Hurst estimates.
Six months later, Taproot's Causes page had netted $30, all from existing donors. The group's page still exists, but the staff has largely abandoned its upkeep.
In 2007, Eric Ding, a Harvard postdoctoral researcher, used Causes to create the O Campaign for Cancer Prevention, which raises money for cancer research at a Boston area hospital. The group now has 4.6 million members and has raised nearly $85,000, less than 2 cents per member.
Nevertheless, Ding, 26, was very satisfied with the effort. "That's a lot of money that didn't exist before," he said, "especially with recent funding cuts for cancer research."
Alan J. Abramson, an expert on philanthropy at George Mason University, estimates that less than 3 percent of all fundraising is done online. "Nonprofits raising money through the Web is growing, but it's still pretty small," he said.
Even e-mail campaigns are generally more likely to raise significant amounts of money than Causes, according to a comparison of Facebook's data with widely accepted philanthropic benchmarks. Those data show that 1 percent to 3 percent of a nonprofit group's e-mail list would donate money when solicited, at an average of about $80 per person. That would have brought Ding's cancer research group $3.7 million, more than 44 times what he made on Facebook.
For the Nature Conservancy, which is the top fundraiser on Causes with $198,000, social networking was never primarily about raising money. The group has four staff members devoted to representing it on social networks, but uses Causes mostly to circulate news stories and event announcements.
"I definitely think it's first and foremost a tool for brand and reputation," said Sue Citro, the group's digital membership director. "It definitely does more for influence than for fundraising."
For Washington resident Elliott Bisnow, who concluded a weeklong fundraising campaign for Nothing but Nets on Twitter and Facebook two weeks ago, social networking was an experiment in recruiting friends to a cause that he's passionate about: preventing malaria by distributing mosquito nets to African children.
About 280 people donated a total of $8,000, far less than Nothing but Nets collected at a recent fundraiser, but more than Bisnow could have donated himself.
"It's an experiment that shows social media is a great way to touch more people," he said, "but it may have a ways to go in terms of raising money."