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Volume XV, Number 1, Spring 2010
Issue Topic: Scaling Impact
Katie Chun of Harvard Family Research Project discusses the growing momentum and collateral challenges of Facebook as the next major vehicle for nonprofits.
What Is Facebook?
Facebook is a social networking site—a website that allows users to join a virtual community and communicate with others who have common interests. These websites represent a paradigm shift in how we use the Internet. Rather than serving as a one-way resource for obtaining information, social networking sites are “relational hubs” that facilitate a wide range of online interactions: establishing friendships, maintaining long-distance relationships, strengthening professional connections, mobilizing support for causes, and others. Social networking sites enable users to be active participants in their Internet experience.
Developed in 2004, Facebook is the largest social networking site on the Internet, with more than 250 million active users worldwide1 and a global audience that is growing at an annual rate of 153%.2 Facebook is free to use, and anyone with a valid email address can join. After individuals register for a personal account, they create a profile that contains personal and professional content.
Facebook users then connect with other users by adding them as “friends.” Only logged-in Facebook friends can view each other’s full profiles, and friends are notified of each other’s Facebook activity. Friends can find each other by using Facebook’s search engine or by browsing through “networks,” groups of users connected around a common interest, school, or workplace.
Facebook offers a host of privacy preferences, letting users choose what information is available to whom. These privacy settings are one reason for Facebook’s enormous success compared with other social networking sites.
Why Facebook for Nonprofits?
Facebook has emerged as a user-friendly site for nonprofits, largely because its “Pages” feature gives them a way to create a quick and cost-free presence on the Internet. A Page is similar to a profile, except that a Page represents an entity—a nonprofit, a local business, a brand or product, or a public figure—rather than an individual person. Facebook users can “become a fan” of a Page, thereby connecting themselves with that entity and showing public support for it. Pages are useful because they facilitate interaction between the larger entity and the public. Nonprofits may find Facebook especially helpful in accomplishing the following activities:
Fundraising. Organizations can conduct fundraising through Facebook using a feature that allows them to receive monthly payments of funds donated by Facebook members. Facebook provides a virtual “scorecard” that allows the public to view fundraising progress, and individuals can post the causes they support on their personal profiles. The goal is to achieve a snowball promotion effect, fostering a virtual community of Facebook friends with similar interests that align with the missions of various nonprofits.
Information dissemination. Facebook Pages include functions that allow organizations to promote their work by posting mission statements, news, contact information, details on upcoming events, and other items related to their work. Quick and widespread dissemination of information to the Facebook community is useful when spreading the word about events and activities and for increasing attendance at conferences, workshops, and volunteer opportunities. In addition, Facebook’s visibility and global accessibility enables nonprofits to increase the number of downloads or purchases of a product or publication. Further, Facebook saves nonprofits money on postage and mailing expenditures by allowing them to conduct mass communication online.
Mobilizing. key stakeholders and the public. Facebook can serve as a platform for rallying public support. Virtual mobilization can spur large numbers of people to write government officials, corporate representatives, or the media about the nonprofit’s cause. Facebook provides a virtual pathway for the public and key stakeholders to connect personally with nonprofits, creating a sense of openness and transparency. In addition, the social nature of Facebook allows nonprofits to interact with potential supporters relationally rather than pushing the fundraising agenda alone. For example, Facebook users can actively participate on a Page by posting messages and engaging in discussion boards. According to one nonprofit social media expert, Facebook’s fundraising feature “isn’t just about raising money, it’s also about raising friends and awareness, and in the long run, turning loose social ties into stronger ones for a cause may be more important than one-time donations of $10 and $20 right now.”3 Another nonprofit social media expert notes that the fundraising function on Facebook is “a friending tool, not a fundraising tool."4
Data collection. Facebook offers nonprofits both conventional and creative methods to collect data for internal tracking and accountability and to inform decision making. Ways in which Facebook can function as a tool for data collection include:
Online surveys. Nonprofits can use Facebook to advertise, recruit for, and administer surveys online. This data collection method can be used to evaluate any number of topics: how people heard about the nonprofit, why repeat donors give, what changes occur in attitudes or awareness, and so on.
Online tracking. Nonprofits can use Facebook to track financial donations, membership numbers (including the number of active members per week), demographics (e.g., gender and geographic location), and the types of interactions members have with the organization’s Facebook Page.5
Social “listening.” Comments or questions are often posted on nonprofit-affiliated Facebook spaces, such as message boards or blogs. By using Facebook to review conversational exchanges with the public, a nonprofit can keep an ear turned toward potential volunteers, donors, and clients and learn more about who they are and what their interests are.
Limitations of Facebook and Other Social Networking Sites
Facebook and other social networking sites can help nonprofits supplement communication with their key audiences, but should not replace face-to-face interactions and other ways of engaging stakeholders. While a nonprofit’s presence on Facebook can reach a wide audience, it excludes people who do not have Facebook accounts (and are not interested in getting an account).
The nature of online communities presents additional limitations and challenges in terms of translating online representation to off-line action. A direct correlation does not exist between the two.6 Facebook Pages may be easy to join with a simple click, but there is the potential for people to feel that they are “doing good” just by clicking and associating themselves with a cause rather than involving themselves in it. The challenge lies in using Facebook as a catalyst and springboard for real-world opportunities.
Graduate Research Assistant, Harvard Family Research Project
6. Hesse, M. (July 2, 2009). Facebook’s easy virtue. Retrieved July 17, 2009, from: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/01/AR2009070103936.html.