Charities tweet on social media Nonprofits solicit Web donations from the tech-savvy set Catherine Jun / The Detroit News Want to help the poor? There’s an app for that. More charities are jumping on the digital bandwagon, seeking potential donors through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Forgotten Harvest, southeastern Michigan’s food rescue agency, has been tweeting about its two-week food drive.
The Salvation Army’s perennial Red Kettle campaign got an e-upgrade this year, with a Facebook widget and regional interactive game that collects real donations. In a state beset with record unemployment, some donor pockets have shut. Hoping to tap new giving, charities are experimenting with e-philanthropy, online giving, which continues to grow nationally despite the recession. “We’re aggressive, but we have to be,” said Russ Russell, chief development officer for Forgotten Harvest. Facing a growing need for food in impoverished areas, the Oak Park agency has been tweeting almost every day in December to its 511 followers, hoping to coax food donations, dollars and volunteers for its food collection efforts, Russell said. On a recent afternoon, as many as 100 volunteers packaged 11,000 meals. About a fifth of those gathered were recruited online, Russell said. “If you capture the attention of two or three, they can get the message out to their group, and they can get to their group,” he added. “It’s like a domino effect.”
Since the nation slipped into recession, charitable giving has taken a hit. In 2008, donations registered their first yearly decline since 1987, with $307.65 billion, a 2 percent drop from the previous year, according to the Giving USA Foundation, a philanthropy research organization based in Glenview, Ill. But online giving, or e-philanthropy, grew 4 percent that year. “The growth rate is not only increasing, but it’s increasing at a faster rate every year,” said Jay Love, chief executive officer of eTapestry, a company that sells software and online commerce tools to nonprofits. Predictions for this holiday season are also up — $4 billion in online contributions, up from $3.1 billion in the final weeks in 2008, according to Convio.com. Observers say this in part is due to charities getting savvier with the Internet. In the post-MySpace era, nonprofits that once tinkered with social media sites — posting periodic messages — are fine-tuning their approach. Those that are successful are tapping the viral multiplier effect of friends and friends of friends spreading the word. Ability to tap networks Along with volunteer bell-ringers stationed at grocery stores and shopping malls, at least 165 people in Metro Detroit have downloaded Red Kettle widgets to their Facebook pages. They’ve helped to collect more than $32,000 from their network of family, friends and acquaintances. That’s $10,000 more than was collected last year by the same date, when volunteers sought donations via e-mails, said John Hale, development director for the Salvation Army eastern Michigan division.
Since Tammie Jones, 29, downloaded a kettle to her Facebook page a month ago, she has collected $1,500. Donations have come in from family as far away as Virginia and Texas. “Part of it is the city of Detroit is getting a lot more national attention than ever before,” said Jones, a public policy fellow at the Skillman Foundation. The other part, she says, is the ability to tap her 448 Facebook friends and nearly 700 Twitter followers. “There’s people who I had no idea supported the Salvation Army who’ve given to my kettle,” she said. The southeastern Michigan chapter this year launched an online game, Coin Catch (salmich.org). Players use their mouse to move an on-screen kettle that catches pennies while dodging mouse traps and spiders. The total collected by the end of the game is actually donated anonymously. And each level shows what the donation can buy: 33 cents gets one person a meal; 66 gets a baby a day’s worth of formula. “We wanted to have something that was viral, something that would be fun and educational,” Hale added. Some still a bit reluctant Such methods have moved e-philanthropy beyond terrain once dominated by “donate now” buttons on nonprofits’ home pages, where donors could enter credit card numbers. But not all agencies are ready to embrace contemporary tools. “Organizations are still a little reluctant to spend too much money on this,” said Linh Song of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work, an Ann Arbor agency that now holds monthly seminars on how to raise money through the Internet. She said that many organizationsare curious, but some are still wary of investing in online programs and applications, she said. As nonprofits face rising costs, though, the Internet is a more cost-effective way to raise money, said Lisa Sommer, spokeswoman for the Michigan Nonprofit Association. The United Way for Southeastern Michigan this month has used Twitter to dole out tips on ways to combine holiday shopping with charitable giving: Get an American Express gift card or shop at Ladels Children’s Book Boutique. A percentage of both buys benefits the charity. This year, the chapter will make a concerted online push Wednesday and Thursday — through Google ads, e-mails and social media — for last-minute donors seeking tax write-offs. “We have been very passive about that in the past,” said Ursula Adams, webmaster for the chapter. “Year-end giving’s big online. “We’re just going to get smarter.” She said online giving has so far amounted to less than 1 percent of annual giving, which may be due to the fact that college students are most drawn to such causes, but are only able to give their time. But that translates into advocacy, volunteers and spreading their message, she said. “That’s what really those online efforts are about, ” Adams said Forgotten Harvest’s Russell now posts every fundraiser on Twitter, the agency’s Facebook page and his own personal page. A recent concert at the Majestic Cafe netted $750 for the agency.