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September 15, 2010

Making Causes on Facebook Work

Remember in 2009 when the Washington Post told us that Causes on Facebook were ineffective for fundraising? Tell that to the Earth Island Institute, whose cause, "The Cove" - Save Japan Dolphins" has raised nearly $105,000 and built an active online community of almost 900,000 members. But then look at The Girl Effect's Cause, which, despite having one of the most viral nonprofit videos, has only garnered 2,300 members and under $2,500 in about the same time.

Causes has been hugely popular among nonprofits, as it allows them to tap into the peer-to-peer networking power of Facebook and initiate a fundraising cause for the nonprofit they like. The application currently has over 100 million installed users and 500,000 cause communities (started by those users) that attract over 1 million media views per day.

About 15,000 nonprofits have partnered with Causes, which grants them free access to a back-end account that lets them track progress and communicate with cause constituents. Collectively, nonprofits have raised $28 million from the application, which now brings in about $200,000 a week. But why the discrepancies between nonprofits? 

Curious as to what to make of this, I visited Causes' hip DC office off Dupont Circle to talk with Matt Mahan who has the enviable title, VP of Impact. The simple answer is logical - it's about how much care you put into it.

Causes' DC crew
Causes' DC team members (left to right): Matthew Mahan, VP of Impact; James Windon, Director of Business Development; Sydney Fleischer, Office Manager

"One thing we try to do is coach nonprofits on how to reach out to their cause members and cause creators, and give them the means to make it go somewhere," Matt said, pulling up the Save Japan Dolphins cause page on his laptop. "These guys have been at it for almost two years now, making it their primary online community."

One of the common lessons any online guru will press is that online fundraising doesn't just happen when you slap a big pretty donate button on your website. Online donors need to be engaged, welcomed and cultivated, and any new supporter who receives a direct correspondence from the nonprofit itself is exponentially more likely to donate and organize her/his peers than one who hasn't.

The same if-you-build-it-they-just-might-not-come ethos applies to Causes, of course, and Matt's team is working hard to make online community building easier. "In Facebook you have this vast sea of 500 million people, so part of our approach is to empower the philanthropic identity of those individuals," Matt said.

Impact scorecard Some of Causes' most recent innovations are in the features they've added to the Causes tab on people's profile pages, which includes messages from people associated with your cause, and the impact scorecard that lets you keep track of your cause's metrics (i.e. fundraising, recruiting and "karma"). Matt estimates that since making these improvements, the profile tab has become a substantial contributor to cause page traffic.

"It's something Facebook users use to see how they are doing," Matt said. "It's their personal 'do-gooder' scorecard that shows them how they and their friends are changing the world."

Another recent innovation is Facebook's OpenGraph API, which allows cause administrators to post updates on members' Facebook wall feeds (unless they opt out), making each cause member a potential broadcast platform for updates.

Despite these viral mechanisms, Matt is careful to point out that the nonprofit's role in prompting, reporting successes and coaching is essential. One option we discussed was for nonprofits to create a best practice guide for its cause members.

For someone who hasn't visited the cause they administer since the marathon they ran two years ago, the new interface is almost unrecognizable - and for good cause (bad pun). The clunky fundraising thermometer has been replaced by interactive impact graphs. Rather than scroll down the page to post multimedia, administrators can do that and more directly from the publisher interface (pictured below) which Causes added six months ago.  

Publisher interface

Causes has also extended the fundraising functionality of its popular Birthday Wish tool by launching a dedicated site last July that simplifies the process of generating a Birthday Wish. "What we were really grappling with was the question of how to facilitate organic action and offer better guidance," Matt said, "This gives them a front door to the Birthday Wish."

He then added, "On average, an active Birthday Wish raises nearly $100. Now imagine if you had 100 cause members creating and actively promoting their wishes - that's $100,000 in one year. Again, this is where community building and coaching come in."

Causes has certainly faced competition along the way, with the ongoing development of third party applications and integrated website event tools offered by Convio, Blackbaud, Artez or Global Cloud. Matt believes Causes' edge lies in its unique integration with Facebook. However, it's doubtful that Causes would be where it is had it not evolved in functionality. (Included in that evolution are Causes' project pages, which allow nonprofits to promote a new, fresh aspect of their work and encourage individual causes to raise money for it - this helps keep causes more timeless and relevant.)

But as Matt puts it, the key takeaway for any nonprofit using causes is to "be disciplined in rolling out consistent engagement."       

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