Sunday, August 9, 2009

The more than 5 billion minutes spent on Facebook every day around the world may not be a waste of time. The Causes application on the social networking site gives users an opportunity to make an impact.

“We formerly had only a group on Facebook, and we quickly realized that we were limited by that arrangement, no fundraising, being featured on members’ profiles, etc.,” Brooks Powell of the nonprofit Gordie Foundation wrote in an e-mail. Mr. Powell is educational programs coordinator for the foundation, which provides young people with the information needed to understand the dangers of alcohol. “We have found that posting announcements, creating goals for fundraising and managing discussion threats are very worthwhile features,” he said.

The Causes application was created on May 25, 2007, by the independent company Causes “to build tools for people to mobilize their friends for collective action, spread the word to friends of friends and acquaintances and eventually launch movements that span local communities or even the globe,” the firm says on its Web site.

“I think at the most basic level we are trying to empower anyone who wants to have a positive impact on the world to be able to have that impact,” said Matthew Mahan, nonprofit director for Causes. “There is power in collective action.”

Any user with a Facebook account can start a cause, but the cause must be a nonprofit 501(c)3 registered with GuideStar in the United States or Canada to receive donations. During Causes’ first year on Facebook and MySpace, 19,445 nonprofits received $2.5 million in donations. A little more than two years later, users have increased from 12 million to 70 million and raised more than $10 million for 53,000 nonprofits.

In most cases, causes are started by individual users who are not part of nonprofits, according to Mr. Mahan. However, once the cause gains enough members, the creator is able to choose which nonprofit is best aligned with his or her goals and which will receive his or her fundraising efforts.

“We are in many ways changing the relationship between the donor or supporter and the nonprofit organization,” Mr. Mahan said. “We are empowering people at the grass-roots level and help[ing] them organize around outcomes and goals, and then nonprofits are joining them. We are leveling the playing field between nonprofits and less organized supporters.”

Mr. Mahan explained how social media tools give individuals with a cause the opportunity to spread their messages and connect with others who share the same views.

“The average American has felt increasingly powerless to act upon the major problems and concerns they read about in the newspaper, so social media gives people an easy place to discuss those issues and take collective action,” Mr. Mahan said. “We are just trying to give them the tools to do that.”

“The things that drive people to action have a lot to do with social relationships,” said Joe Green, president and founder of Causes, who started as a grass-roots political organizer. “The ideology is not going to get them out of bed; their friends are going to get them there. What’s going to move you from motivation to action is the social relationships. We have the ability to hopefully give the tools for people to do that online on a really massive scale.”

Luisa Navaro, 19, of Dallas is the Boston College Circle of Trust charter member for the Gordie Foundation cause on Facebook and has been involved with the foundation for approximately five years. Ms. Navaro spreads awareness about the foundation by getting people to join the cause on Facebook. She also coordinates events on campus, receives donations and encourages Facebook members to invite other friends to the cause.

“Facebook has been a great contributor to recruiting people for Gordie,” Ms. Navaro said via e-mail. “Many people also donate on the Web site. I love it because it keeps me updated and on top of events and also makes it easier and faster for me to invite people [into the cause]…. It makes it easier for me to communicate messages to group members at B.C.”

Mr. Powell, who manages the Gordie Foundation’s Internet presence, said, “Once set up, the maintenance side of the Causes app[lication] is very simple. We add news articles, set fundraising goals, send out announcements and invite new members to join on a regular basis, and when we do, it is extremely user-friendly.”

The Gordie Foundation cause has 2,604 members who have donated $4,375 - a small percentage of the nonprofit’s overall donations, but Mr. Powell is happy with any contributions that are made.

“Prior to adding the app there was no vehicle for collecting donations through Facebook, so I suppose you could say it is a substantial increase over where we were,” Mr. Powell said.

“Given the number of nonprofits who have taken advantage of this avenue for outreach on Facebook, I can tell it is making a huge impact,” Mr. Powell wrote in an e-mail.

The $10 million raised through the Causes application, half of which has come in the past six months, has come from 192,000 users with an average donation of $25.

Mr. Mahan said the main goal of Causes, which is based in Berkeley, Calif., is to get individuals involved.

“We want everyone to participate,” Mr. Mahan said. “People will eventually take more impactful action. Maybe this year it’s just joining a cause and inviting friends to join. Next year, it’s signing petitions and sending letters, and in year three it’s donating money.”

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