July 15, 2010

Guest Post: Getting the Most From Your Facebook Fans

The following is a guest post submitted by John Karr, digital-media director for the Asia Foundation in San Francisco.

It describes an effective campaign his organization recently completed for its Books for Asia program.

It also includes a video that was created as part of the effort. Mr. Karr's post follows:

Has your charity experimented with Facebook as a source of donor-driven philanthropy? Were the results positive and the return on investment worth the effort?

If so, then you’re among a fortunate minority. Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, recent research suggests that social-media fund-raising campaigns bring only a small return on investment, if any at all.

A 2009 survey by the Non-Profit Technology Network, Common Knowledge, and The Port found that 61.1 percent of respondents reported no results for fundraising through social networks, and 37.8 percent report raising “$0 to $10,000.”

According to a November 2009 Philanthropy Action survey, 70 percent of 256 midsize nonprofits surveyed indicated that they had raised less than $100 or were not sure whether any money had been raised from social networks.  

In contrast, we believe our recently concluded campaign promoting The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program on Facebook is an example of a successful social-media effort because we relied less on direct appeals for donations. Instead, we employed interactive gaming concepts now widely popular on Facebook to connect our audience more deeply with our core mission.

This campaign, Choose a Book, Change a Life, proved successful on several fronts: our Facebook followers increased from 600 to more than 24,000 in five months; more than 40,000 Facebook users were exposed to the Choose a Book, Change a Life application; nearly 30,000 of these impressions converted to active participants; and we raised $10,000.  

How did we achieve such results? Based on recent survey data, we concluded early on that a direct fund-raising appeal on Facebook would present a challenge.

We felt this view was confirmed by the experience many were having with the Facebook fund-raising tool Causes – an application that connects tens of millions of Facebook users to more than 235,000 nonprofit groups but has raised a relatively small amount of donors funds. So rather than engage users in a direct solicitation, we decided to explore alternatives.

We looked at models like the JPMorgan Chase’s Facebook application, Chase Community Giving, which engaged users in allocating the $5-million the bank pledged to partner charities.

By following the lessons of social game developers, Chase engaged more than 2 million Facebook users in a dialogue on philanthropy. We found that these types of interactions could easily evolve into creative fund-raising solutions like those undertaken by and the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA).

Both organizations partnered with Zynga, the largest game developer on Facebook, to allow players to purchase "virtual goods" branded with the and HDSA logos within specific Zynga games. These virtual goods raised more than $130,000 on behalf of HDSA and and enabled players to connect with and donate directly to causes like’s clean-water projects in Haiti.

These innovative approaches appealed directly to an audience's desire to engage in philanthropy, while avoiding direct solicitations. They established an exciting relationship between Facebook users and real-world outcomes, which helped deepen the experience and, hence, expand audiences.

With these lessons in mind, we set out to design an application that was easy to build and easy to share, engaged Facebook users in a dialogue on our project, and promised some measurable real-world outcome.  Our goal was to create an experience that a core Facebook audience would be attracted to and that we could subsequently offer to potential partners and donors.

We kept the concept simple: With a developer, we created a Facebook application that invited people to vote for their favorite children’s book from a list of five popular storybooks, and we promised to deliver copies of the winning book to a group of students at the end of the campaign.

In addition, voters could watch a short video that introduced the featured school and the students who would be receiving the books. Over a five-month period, we carried out three campaigns, each focusing on a school in Thailand, Bangladesh, or Mongolia.

During the voting process, the application prompted users to share the experience with their friends on their Facebook wall and displayed a running percentage for each title to allow users to keep track of the voting. If their favorite book was falling behind, we encouraged them to alert their friends and ask them to vote. When Books for Asia delivered the “winning” book to each school, we posted a follow-up video on Facebook that showed the glowing faces of the students as they received their new books.

The first two campaigns from Thailand and Bangladesh resulted in a huge spike in our fan numbers and generated publicity on other blogs and Web sites. Before the start of our final campaign in Mongolia, we leveraged this visibility and reached out to a major book publisher, Pearson, which agreed to donate the next round of books to the Mongolian students through its We Give Books program.

Just before we launched the campaign, an anonymous donor, impressed with the campaign’s online success and powerful message, pledged $1 for every vote cast during the campaign, up to $10,000. We quickly exceeded the target, garnering a $10,000 donation.

What are the lessons here?

Social networking, and social media in general, can work for nonprofit groups. While surveys suggest the return is limited, it depends on how you deploy your investment.  

Social media connect you with your greatest asset: a large audience of sympathetic individuals willing to engage. Many private donors are beginning to understand this value and wish to partner with organizations that demonstrate skill at cultivating social networks.

So while a nonprofit group might not find success through a direct online appeal, there is real value in developing relationships on social networking platforms like Facebook.

A viral platform, powerful story, and “real world” impact -- these are the key elements to a successful social-media campaign and the lessons we applied to our Choose a Book, Change a Life campaign.

And, of course, a little friendly game competition can go a long way.