April 05, 2012

How and Why Causes Gain Momentum Online

Reuters/David McNew/Newscom

In the past few weeks and months, social media have helped many groups unleash widespread advocacy efforts that have won the attention of millions of people and ignited large-scale public debates.

Supporters of Planned Parenthood, for example, used Facebook and Twitter to inspire protests after Susan G. Komen for the Cure said it would end support to the organization. Invisible Children used a YouTube video to start a campaign to make the public aware of abuses committed by the warlord Joseph Kony, in Africa.

And the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida has fueled a massive online debate about race relations and gun laws and sparked large protests nationwide.

What is it that makes these events spread online and generate support?

The common thread is that the organizers found a way to help anyone relate to the cause, says Stephanie Rudat, an online activist and co-founder of Alliance for Youth Movements, a digital advocacy organization.

"Every single person I'm seeing involved and playing some sort of role in advocating or participating in finding justice sees something for themselves in each scenario," Ms. Rudat says. "There's a sense of empathy."

In the latest episode of Social Good, Ms. Rudat shares lessons from recent events and advice for nonprofits on how to spread messages online.

Allison Fine, a nonprofit leader and expert on technology and communications, discusses how charities and foundations can more effectively use social-media tools to spread their messages and raise money. Ms. Fine incorporates suggestions and questions from readers into her podcasts and invites you to e-mail her at Look for new installments on the first Thursday of every month.