Avoiding the Sirens Song of Social Media Fundraising

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These days we are inundated with the lure of fundraising on Twitter and Facebook and sites like KIVA.org. A birthday ask on Facebook that raises $5,000. A Twitter campaign that asks for just $10 apiece, suddenly raising $10,000 to help an individual family or a “boy without arms.” Sites like KIVA.org that ask you to lend as little as $25 to a specific small business as a microloan.

I am not suggesting these are not worthy causes. I am, however, suggesting that this is
a) not sustainable (which I will save for another post),
b) scarcity-based vs. strength-based (which I will also save for another post), and
c) counterproductive if we want to create a better future for our communities (today’s rant).

Why Social Media Fundraising is CounterProductive for Our Communities
As I have watched the “raise money fast via Facebook” approach gain traction, and as I have read countless articles about why “nonprofits” (I use the term here because this approach is all about money) should get on the Social Media Fundraising Bandwagon, two stories keep coming to mind – both of which we in community work have heard a zillion times.

The first is the Starfish Story – the one where the boy is on a shoreline surrounded by beached starfish, where he is throwing a starfish at a time back into the sea. When asked what difference his actions can possibly make, given all the other starfish that remain, he replies, “It will make a difference to this one.”

The second is the story of the guy who is driving near a river, when he suddenly sees that the river is teeming with babies, floating along in baskets. There is a swarm of people gathered, pulling those babies out of the river. As he starts to drive away, an indignant baby-saver screams, “Hey, you selfish SOB, we need all the help we can get! Where do you think you’re going?” To which the guy replies, “I’m going up the river, to stop whoever is putting the babies IN the water.”

Pollyanna Principle #6: Individuals will go where systems lead them.
Making a difference for one starfish is not going to create significant change in our communities. If we are continually helping one family, one child, one small business at a time, we are destined to be tossing starfish back into the sea forever.

If, however, we want to ensure starfish are never beached, or babies are not put INTO the river, we can only accomplish that if we create coordinated efforts towards systems change.

The unintended consequences created by the one-at-a-time approach is actually more destructive than just failing to address the real problem.  These efforts reinforce the misguided notion that doing any more than that is too overwhelming to tackle.

These efforts tell donors, “You will have the satisfaction of knowing you helped.” And yet a year later, when nothing has changed for all the other millions of families, those donors become disillusioned. More than one such donor has told me of getting to the point where they are thinking, “Geez, I can’t help EVERYONE. This is just getting silly. I was foolish to think any of us can make a difference.”

Yes, by asking for help for “just one poor boy and his family,” we are actually creating the path to frustration, burnout, lack of impact. We are setting up our communities for an even tougher job of creating a culture of philanthropy, as they will now have to also overcome a reinforced Culture of Can’t – the culture that gives the million and one reasons that creating a better world is impossible.

And now we finally get to the point of my rant: While it is tempting to succumb to the “raise one-time money fast” approach that social media fundraising can indeed accomplish, DON’T DO IT.

Instead, aim your work at creating systems that will keep the babies out of the river. Build community-wide (or nationwide or worldwide) systems that will create equity, peace, health, compassion.

And build community-wide infrastructure for supporting that work. Build infrastructure (for example) for convening groups, so they can more easily work together to create positive social systems – systems that not only prevent problems, but that build strength.

The one-at-a-time approach is a scarcity approach. The we-can-accomplish-anything-if-we-work-together approach is a strength-based approach.

More importantly, it is a vision-based approach, not a problem-solving approach. And as we know from the history of community work, problem-solving approaches do not solve problems. (See the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror. See the years of trying to “end homelessness” or end anything bad for that matter)

Individuals go where systems lead them. The only way we will ever eliminate problems once and for all is to replace existing systems with systems that lead where we want our communities to go – systems that aim at creating something positive, rather than ending something negative. With those systems in place, we will indeed solve our problems. But we will solve them along the way to creating the healthy, vibrant, compassionate communities we all want.

It is not impossible to change those systems. It will simply take aiming at the future we DO want to create, and then creating plans to accomplish that.

In Part 2 of this post, I have tackled the scarcity / nonsustainability reasons why Social Media Fundraising is Counterproductive.

For more about The Pollyanna Principles – you can read Part 1 of the book here.

28 thoughts on “Avoiding the Sirens Song of Social Media Fundraising”

  1. Hildy –

    Thanks very much for this incredibly thoughtful piece. I think you’re exactly right – we would be much better served if we could figure out how to cure things rather than treat symptoms.

    But I strongly disagree with your assertion that small scale social media experiments aren’t worth our time. Yes, I would love to cure cancer, and I give significantly each year to research based organizations for that reason. BUT, every day, I run into families struggling to pay the medical bills associated with cancer, and my $25 means a heck of a lot to them, and to me.

    We can’t stop pulling babies out of the water. We need to work on both sides of the issues. Social media, by nature of its immediacy, is perfectly suited to these kinds of tangible, short term goals, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  2. Holly:
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. And I agree – you will actually see that my post specified that when we aim at creating a positive future, we acknowledge we can only accomplish that if we do indeed address today’s problems. We address those problems as one among many steps towards creating something lasting.

    However the reverse is not true – when we focus primarily on today’s problems, we tend to ignore the future we are creating.

    My fear as we encourage organizations to focus on these approaches is that in their quest for please-dear-God-some-infusion-of-cash, organizations will succumb once again to ignoring the forest as they focus on the trees.

    The key is in seeing the forest AND the trees. And because I don’t see lots of that happening in social media fundraising, I fear we are creating unintended consequences that will continue to create a lack of meaningful community change.

    Thanks for allowing me to clarify.

  3. Hildy,

    Your post is very refreshing in a world that has been swept up in the Twitter, Facebook, etc frenzy. At times it almost seems like a cult. In fact, you may have seen Peter Deitz’ blog post a few months back about how social media would do away with traditional fundraising in a few short years. I strongly disagreed with that notion as well. The nonprofit sector is sorely undercapitalized and we need to completely change that system (the financial system for nonprofits) in order to be able to address the many problems we are facing. Social media is not going to do that. It may help, but it won’t restructure how we fund nonprofits. To do that we need to completely rethink how nonprofits account for their money, how philanthropists invest and how nonprofits build their organizations. These are all huge endeavors, but that is the only way things are going to change.

  4. Thank you, Nell!
    And Gregory, I’m laughing. Old Mark Twain telegram:
    FROM PUBLISHER: Need 2-page short story two days
    FROM TWAIN: No can do 2 pages 2 days. Can do 30 pages 2 days. Need 30 days to do 2 pages.

    Given the choice of fast or short, I opted for fast. Will take your advice to heart, though!

  5. An interesting, well thought-out piece. However, I have to disagree with the basic point you are making.

    You are correct, of course, that it is far better to find a way of stopping the babies being put in the river than to raise money to pull them out. I can’t see anyone disagreeing with that. However, I don’t see what that has to do specifically with social media fundraising. Social networks, online, Twitter et al are simply tools to be used in the same way as direct mail, major donor, face-to-face, legacy, etc., etc.

    I work for an international cancer research charity and we use all of the methods listed above as well as social networks and other online methods. Your argument about pulling the babies out of the water is just as true for the traditional methods of fundraising as it is for the the newer ones. A recent case in point in the UK was the DEC appeal for the victims in Gaza. This was a mass market television appeal. Should we give money to help the people who have been bombed out of their homes? Using the logic of the babies in the river, surely we’d serve everyone better if we could take actions which would achieve peace and negate the need for such appeals? Again, I can’t see too many people disagreeing. Obviously, there is a need NOW and the victims DO need help, but how much better if we could solve the situation for the long term?

    However, that has nothing to do with social media fundraising. It was a TV appeal. It could have been a direct mail appeal. It could have been people shaking collecting cans in the high street.

    We campaign to raise money to fund research into the causes of cancer. If I can increase the level of donations we receive (and I do) by utilising the social networks I have built up, then I will. I’ll also use all of the other methods because they all bring in money. In fact, we have been able to build committed networks of people who support our cause and our aims in geographic locations which would have been impossible without the internet and social networks.

    I agree with you that raising money to treat the causes rather than the symptoms is the way to go. However, in my humble opinion, you are conflating two unrelated things – the aims of the appeal and the means by which the appeal is delivered.



  6. What a wonderful illustration of accepting the things we cannot change (the tide that strands starfish) though we adapt and help other adapt, and those we can and should work to change (someone putting babies in a river).

    I find nonprofits willing to develop a vision equivalent to a river without babies, but VERY unwilling to measure their progress towards such a vision. They feel they are too busy saving babies. And no one wants a baby to die because resources were shifted to long term advocacy.

    As you say, this is precisely the scarcity mentality. They need to see how changing the community could attract new volunteers and new energy. They need to recognize how collaborative efforts could be so much more effective and not just a resource drain.

    I have been warning my client organizations for some time that social media fundraising and activism could make the organizations weak and irrelevant if they do not demonstrate effectiveness at making their community better.

  7. Jack:
    I could not agree more. I’ve had the same problem with all those tools, and you are correct that social media is just another tool. That said, the reason I have chosen to address this specific tool is that organizations are being urged STRONGLY to use this new tool, and are being given these very specific examples of how this tool will help them. So my point was not that this tool is different from the rest – it was, however, to point out to those who are being urged at every corner to get on the bandwagon of social media fundraising that there is a “dark side” to consider.

  8. Jane:
    Thank you for your note. I might suggest, however, that it is not that organizations are unwilling to measure, but that current systems are stacked against their doing so. There are no off-the-shelf measurement tools that address real social change, and no time in the day – nor funding to make time in the day – for doing so (again, a systems thing). One thing I urge in The Pollyanna Principles is that there be better infrastructure for measuring what matters, because individuals will go where systems lead them.

  9. There is a very dark side to ANY media – especially for nonprofit organizations that are hungry for means to connect from the margins.

    We have to ask how social media can contribute to building community and depth in relationships rather than reinforcing cultures of bureaucracy and a shallowness in relationships.

    As I watch NPO’s jump on the social media bandwagon, I can’t help but notice that how it is used depends on the organization’s culture and orientation toward building a constituency.

    And how they play it quickly reveals if they are about starfish or systems.

  10. The thing that nonprofits (and business too) forget about social media is that it’s, well, all about the social. It’s simply an avenue for connecting with people and allowing them to share. That’s at the heart of all social media – sharing. When nonprofits clearly understand the role and purpose of social media, they can learn to participate in that sharing culture and bring additional resources and awareness to their missions. Whether that’s issue education or fundraising, nonprofits can and should participate in that community, if only because it’s a way to better connect with the public they serve – particularly as social media adoption (particularly by younger generations continues to explode).

    To respond a bit to the pulling babies out of the river analogy, if at least some folks aren’t pulling babies out of the river, then it begs the question of why it’s a problem worth fixing, right? If it’s not worth saving a baby, why would society put effort into stopping them from being put into the water to begin with. Without action by people and organizations at the local level – helping one family at a time – I don’t think you’ll ever have the power to change the structure/systems necessary to prevent larger problem. Social media is an excellent way to continue that local work, the local pressure, the local outrage, the local volunteerism – whatever the case may be – *while* nonprofits continue their work on systemic improvements. Besides, I think we’re in a transition period and not long from now, viral memes *will* be able to affect social structures and systems in a way we haven’t noticed to date.

  11. Thank you, both TidySum and Scott – it is indeed (as you both point out) the social side of Social Media that has the power to make a difference.

  12. Hildy:

    Beth Kanter had a good dialogue going on her blog about this same issue. I agree with you in that I wrote, “I guess I look at it like this: if you give a hundred people tools to lay bricks, you’ll likely get a hundred small structures. If you give a hundred people the tools to lay bricks and get them working off a shared plan, then you can build anything you want. I am all for equipping believers of a cause to go out to the world and do good…but I am less enthusiastic of sending out a swarm of independent mavericks.”

    You can read a great summary at http://bit.ly/1utUJY.

    — David Kinard

  13. Hi Hildy,

    Great points! But it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. I, too, would hate to see social media fundraising suck up resources that have been used for successful long-term education, advocacy, and fundraising efforts. But I think that smart nonprofits will add social media as one more tool for engagement and fundraising. It will take some staff time, but so does a web site or an email newsletter. It certainly adds up, but it doesn’t have to kill the broader efforts.


  14. I’m inclined to agree with commenter Jack on the means vs. ends comment in that HOW we raise money matters little when our messaging and communication is weak and does not address both symptom and cause.

    I think the reality that is somewhat implicit here is that:

    1. Nonprofits have to have low “overhead” – we must demonstrate to donors and funders that a certain percent (or less!) of our budgets go to administration;

    2. these silly overhead measurements often mean that organizations are chronically under-trained, under-developed, under-skilled and under staffed in critical areas such as communications and organizational development;

    3. and this leads to messaging around direct impacts, such as number of babies saved, because it’s easy to show “impact” in those simple terms, and hard to show impact in the changes of systems (i.e. number of babies thrown in the river in the first place).

    This, of course, is a bit abstract to make such generalizations when many organizations do practice sound financial management that leads to adequate staffing/training/skilled communications…but I hardly think social media is the culprit here. I’d consider other sources of dysfunction, such as dependcy theory and autonomy/reliability of nonprofit funding.

  15. Thanks for your reply Hildy,

    I agree with Tidy Sum’s point – it’s about building relationships. Social media is without doubt allowing the organisation for which I work to build strong, connected, engaged and loyal communities in a way which would be impossible using the old model. A hammer is just a tool – it can be used for good or ill.



  16. Robert, Nicole, Steve and Jack:
    You all are helping move the conversation forward in a way that is truly helping hone my own thinking. As I head into 2 days on the road to launch The Pollyanna Principles, and as I head into today’s discussion at SocialEdge.org re: some of these same concepts, I will be carrying all this great discussion with me – thank you!

    Please, all, keep up the great discussion!

  17. Your points are spot on. The real problem needs to be addressed

    I do wonder however, if funding through donations is sustainable in the long term. Social enterprise might be part of the solution.

  18. I’m a bit late in responding, having just come back from a 10-day trip, but I had to express my compliments for an insightful and extremely relevant piece.

    The deluge of one-time-money-raising campaigns on Twitter made me uneasy, largely for the reasons you’ve pointed out — particularly unsustainability.

    I believe social media can be useful for NGOs, but as a way of spreading their work and making others aware of what they are doing — broadening their communities.

  19. Thanks for your wonderful insights Hildy!

    As I see it the real power is in social networking. In post Katrina/Rita New Orleans people have come together in new and exciting ways. New networks have formed and community involvement is at unprecedented levels. When a California Friend asked me to describe the phenomenon, I replied “Citizens are coming together to remediate, restore, rebuild and revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the absence of effective government.”

    Karen Stephenson’s work in this arena is quite impressive. See some of her publications here:


    The concurrent arrival of social networking tools like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, NING, BEBO, etc. has made these networks incredibly more effective. It is now possible to easily engage thought leaders, such as yourself, in our quest to systemically address long standing problems.

    I believe these new powers will enable us to continue pulling the babies out of the river while a few of us go upstream to have some discussions with the folks throwing them in. To me, it’s all about engaged, empowered citizens taking charge – and community benefit organizations are the optimal vehicles for doing so.

    Make sense?


  20. Mark:
    You are spot on that sustainability is a huge piece of the issue. When efforts stop worrying about money / survival, they won’t see every tool FIRST for its survival potential!

    Which leads to the comments by Zoe and Ray. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about seed potatoes. When we are worried about survival, we don’t save any of our potatoes to plant next year – we eat them all now. Use of social media for furthering the actual mission and vision of an effort – moving it forward in public thought – THAT is planting seed potatoes. Yes it will grow financial support, but that’s not the main benefit – the main benefit is that your mission will be successful!!

    Thanks to you all for furthering this discussion – it’s certainly giving me great new ways to think about things!

  21. I think social media fundraising has its place but the challenge of fundraising is not sat in front of a screen but to get out there meet people and take on the adventureof helping people who are less fortunate for what ever reason in society.


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