The other side of the figures: Causes reaches $20 Million in Donations

by Amy Sample Ward on January 29, 2010

Earlier this week, an announcement on the Causes Application blog broke the news that over $20 Million has been donated since May 2007 via donors using the social networking application.

There’s been quite a lot of talk in the last year about the opportunities for fundraising online, generally, as well as the best practices for organizations leveraging social media for campaigns (as well as the idea to use free tools to raise money in hard economic times).  There’s also been a bit of controversy around the Causes application specifically, due to it’s decision to abandon the MySpace platform and offer it’s application/services only to the Facebook community. (You can read more about the MySpace/Facebook move here, here, and here.)

Here is the graph of donations on Causes since it launched in May 2007:

Some of the additional data provided from Causes in their announcement, includes:

  • 400,000 people have made at least one donation
  • $25 median donation amount
  • 35,000 causes have received at least one donation
  • $2.1 million raised by 2009 America’s Giving Challenge participants
  • $4.5 million raised through the Birthday Wish feature

Despite the initial awe and excitement around a number like $20 Million, I want to take a moment to think about the other side of the data.  There certainly is more to the story and I hope you’ll share your perspectives as well.

Social networks are still for engagement, not money

Fact: Of the hundreds of thousands of organizations registered as possible beneficiaries in the Causes application (Washington Post data), only 20 organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, Doctors Without Borders and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, have raised over $100,000 using Causes.

Context: Organizations can’t assume that applications like Causes or simply the use of social networking sites like Facebook will translate into new revenue streams supporting the organization.  Yes, of course, I would advocate that organizations who are eligible ensure that they can be listed as beneficiaries of causes on Facebook (visit the FAQ here) but doing so is an enough of an action to replace your other funding work.

Fact: Causes Birthday Wishes (make a donation campaign for a charity of your choice tied to your birthday) accounted for a third of all donations in the past 6 months.

Context: Birthday Wishes are campaigns started by enthusiastic supporters.  You may not know them, and you may have never heard of them.  But you need to get to know them fast!  Be sure that you are connecting with the passionate volunteers going out and raising money for you: thank them, support them, encourage them.  And be sure to share invitations for the fundraiser and those that donate to his or her campaign to join your organization outside of facebook (on your enewsletter, your action alerts, an offline event, or something else to keep them on your list).

Fact: 400,000 users have contributed to a cause at least once.

Context: That’s a lot of people. How many fans does your organization’s Fan Page have, or how many members are in your facebook Group?  Probably not 400,000.  How many of your fans or group members are in your database, though? The most difficult part to applications like Causes is that you don’t get the data.  With so many people donating to causes, maybe only once, it’s crucial for the benefiting organizations to reach out and encourage donors to connect with the organization directly – that way they may find out more about your work, help you and take action, or even donate again.

Skewing the numbers?

Lastly, I can’t find any data to shed light on my question but I would love to understand if the numbers Causes is touting reflect only the funds raised on facebook, since they stopped allowing the users on MySpace to access the service.  I think it would be unethical and obviously skewing their own data.  I’m incredibly frustrated at the lack of transparency from Causes, especially around this issue.

What do you think?

Would love to hear your experiences, any lessons learned or best practices, and ideas.

—–
Update:

Luise asked to see the comparison of growth of facebook users during the same growth period of Causes donations so I whipped up a simple chart:

  • http://www.issuelab.org Luise

    Nice post, Amy! It’s always refreshing to see folks take a second look at the numbers and really question what they mean. It’s a great exercise (especially given some of the recent ‘controversy’ around causes) and we can all learn to contextualize when data is released with a particular agenda attached. That being said, Causes can be a great tool, and none of this is to belittle the way it’s helped folks support their missions.

    For IssueLab, Causes hasn’t been a particularly helpful tool. We’ve used it in conjunction with fundraisers and a campaign for Open Access Week, but research dissemination just doesn’t strike a real chord with many – and especially not with their wallets.

    It would be interesting to look at your graph (donations on causes since May 2007) and compare it to the growth of users on facebook (and myspace) for the same period.

    Anyways, thanks again!

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Hi Luise-

      Thanks for joining the conversation! I’m glad to have started something valuable – I think that data in the social media space, especially when targeted at nonprofit organizations who are already looking at so many numbers involved in their work, can lead to many frustrations and confusion. Thanks for sharing IssueLab’s experience with the tool – very helpful to know!

      I made a quick chart of the number of users on facebook based on the Timeline they provide (http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics#/press/info.php?timeline/) and used roughly the same date scale as the Causes chart so we can compare. I added it into the post above.

      Thanks again!

      • http://www.issuelab.org Luise

        Wow, this is great! I’ve layered the two images with one being transparent, and it looks like in most recent months, the Causes donations growth has a faster rate than the facebook users growth. This can be deceptive (and I’m thinking about skewing due to large donors, significant world events, large organizations’ causes campaigns etc.) but nonetheless very interesting! Thanks Amy!

        • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

          Thanks Luise!

          I think that part of the skewing could be from the America’s Giving Challenge, which took place in the Fall of 09 and raised $2.1 million… so, yes Causes was the application used but it was clearly the participation in a campaign spurringa great deal of donations. Here’s the link from the Case Foundation:

          http://www.casefoundation.org/pressroom/releases/america%E2%80%99s-giving-challenge-inspires-more-105000-donations

          This is definitely something to watch over the next few months as it’s the “off-season” for fundraising campaigns.

  • http://www.alyssagardina.com Alyssa Gardina

    Amy, great post – I love your analysis of the numbers and insight into Causes and other social giving networks. I, too, have been frustrated with the lack of disclosure from Causes, as well as the difficulty in getting smaller, regional causes the same recognition Causes gives to larger nonprofits.

    I’m most interested in the $25 median donation amount. To me, that seems quite high, especially for giving facilitated over a social network.

    I think you are completely right – social networks are for engagement, conversation and awareness. Organizations, particularly those that are less well-known than the big Causes earners, will have to spend a significant amount of time building cause advocates before translating that to actual donation dollars.

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Thanks for sharing, Alyssa!

      I’m really happy to hear from someone working in a small organization about your experiences with Causes specifically, as well as your thoughts on fundraising in social networking.

      The $25 median donation surprised me as well. I wonder, though, if the high percentage of Birthday Wish donations has something to do with it… In a Birthday Wish campaign, the default donation amount is the age the person is turning, and as more and more people 35 and older join and use facebook, and thus have the chance to participate in Birthday Wish campaigns, I wonder if donations to match age or raising the average donation. That’s not to say that everyone is 25, but that people may be more apt to check the $25 box (when there is an other, 10, 25, 50, etc.) when the person is 25 or older instead of doing their age at a non-traditional giving amount of a high number.

      I really like your point about organizations building cause advocates before they can expect big dollar amounts coming in and wonder if you have had any experience building cause advocates around the Womens Museum or have been supported as an advocate for another cause yourself – if so, please share!

      Thanks again for joining in.

  • http://www.communityorganizer20.com Debra Askanase

    Amy – such a worthwhile examination of the facts. And understandably frustrating to do so without all of the facts. In light of that great graph you whipped up (thanks, Luise!), I find the $20m not that startling: Think of the growth of older age groups on Facebook, the growth of the Birthday Wishes Causes and the growth of Facebook adoption, and that pretty much accounts for the higher numbers. The biggest question that this leads me to is: what could and should Causes do to increase the likelihood of more donations to smaller nonprofits? What could Causes do that would make the difference for them between $100 raised and $5,000 raised? I know it’s a larger conversation about culture of social network giving, but I wonder if Causes itself changed…would giving patterns change?

    @askdebra

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Thanks for adding such a great dynamic to this conversation, Debra!

      I really love your questions, and think that, as you say, if Causes changed, the giving patterns within Facebook would change, too. Beyond the questions you raised, I’d also include: what would and could Causes do to encourage repeat donations and build cause champions (to use the phrase Alyssa used)?

      Nonprofit organizations, campaigns, and cause-related groups have functionality and options decided by the platform and applications at this point still, so as much as I pull for organizations to be strategic and engaged in tools like Causes, if fundraising, giving, citizen philanthropy (whatever you want to call it!) is to change or increase, Causes will need to recognize its role in that process and make changes that address issues like those raised in the questions you and I have posed. Will certainly be paying attention to see if it happens!

  • dougmcisaac

    Thanks for your analysis. I’ll be referencing your post in a presentation next week.

    This parallels my experiences so far as well. You can get tens of thousands of people to join a cause, but find that comparatively very few open their wallets.

    I think as social tools evolve we’ll see more money donated, but for now the focus should be on using social media to further engage / educate.

    Doug McIsaac

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Doug. Do you have any examples you find particularly good at showcasing the ability for organizations to build numbers but not dollars in social media? I think Luise’s example is great because, as she says, it’s a hard topic to raise money around anyway – so not a huge surprise that social media isn’t the panacea.

  • http://www.thekbuzz.com Shannon Aronin

    Hi Amy, responded a little over on my post at theKbuzz, but…

    This is a really good analysis. It breaks it down very clearly, and I agree Causes is FAR from perfect. I would think that one way they could open up to smaller NPs is to provide more data about the donors who give through it. NPs need to be able to continue those relationships more easily.

    But despite the disappointments with Causes, I am SO encouraged by its growth. It’s getting to scale, and like everyone else, hopefully improving as they go. I certainly would never suggest that more than a handful of NPs have gotten significant money on Causes… YET. But I would like to believe we will get there, and that the process will get easier for smaller NPs to compete.

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Thanks for joining in, Shannon!

      I definitely agree. I think we can only get better, online fundraising can only grow, and our strategies and approaches can only improve.

      I wonder though if we will see something new replace (I use that word cautiously) Causes; a situation in which it takes more than changes to a tool to improve it as much as the community wants. It will be interesting to watch and I hope that our technologies begin to more closely follow the desires of the users and organizations leveraging their networked power in the development – instead of just thinking up great, new, “cool” things and building them.

      Thanks again!

  • http://www.thekbuzz.com Shannon Aronin

    Could not agree more. And because of their tight relationship with FB (I think many people don’t even realize it’s a 3rd party app!) it really limits competition for say NTEN or Convio or whoever to try and create a new tool that would do better. Wonder if Facebook would make the decision to create the same partnership today?

    • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

      Well, I think they would given the fact that Sean Parker is tied to both Facebook and Causes!
      (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Parker/)

      Agreed though that the tight connection certainly makes it harder for a lesser-known group to break in.