Social Media Fundraising: Unsustainable, Scarcity-Based Begging?

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In a post last week, I noted that Social Media Fundraising is
a) not sustainable
b) scarcity-based vs. strength-based
c) counterproductive if we want to create a better future for our communities

In that post, I addressed the last item – the counterproductive nature of Social Media Fundraising vs. creating real impact. Today let’s tackle the other two reasons Social Media Fundraising is a sirens’ song.

Social Media Fundraising is Not Sustainable
Two of the more common ways of raising money on Twitter and Facebook are
1) Birthday and other one-time asks: “In honor of my birthday, please give to this cause”
2) The Twitter Low-Dollar Ask: Such posts typically start with the Twitter abbreviation RT for “Please Pass this On” (re-tweet), asking folks to give just $5 – and quickly raising $5,000 or more.

Why are these harmful? First, those who donate their $5 based on a Twitter ask are impulse buyers, transforming our causes into tic-tacs and trash magazines on the supermarket check-out line of charitable giving. Just like I wouldn’t head to the store specifically for tic-tacs, most of these impulse donors will not be back to give again, and are especially unlikely to give larger, more meaningful gifts (a whole case of tic-tacs!). More likely, they will “impulse buy” the next cause that comes along, giving their $5 and then moving on again – until they get burned out and stop altogether.

That leads to the second scenario – the “in honor of my birthday” ask (common on Facebook).  These asks more quickly lead to donor burnout. How many of these asks will be successful before we see the diminishing returns that accompany people saying, “Enough, already – if all my Facebook friends get $25 for their favorite cause, I’ll be as broke as the people they are trying to help!”

Lastly, my largest concern is the same concern I have when board members are encouraged to ask their friends for money. History shows that when that board member stops asking (i.e. is no longer on the board), the friend stops giving. The donor was never a friend of the organization; they were only giving because their friend asked. So the organization must then replace those donors, and way too often do so by repeating the same routine – having the new board members ask for a whole new crop of short-term, fair-weather friends.

Like a gala or a golf tournament, these online donations have little residual after the one-time gift. They are not building a large bank of donors; they are building one-time money, and a pretty dead mailing list. With only so many hours in a day, don’t we want to use our limited time investing in income streams that are more renewable?

Pollyanna Principle #4: Strength Builds Upon Strength
More important to me even than the lack of sustainability is the sense of scarcity that surrounds Social Media Fundraising. I saw someone on Twitter describe a “begging bowl” spirit in all the asks. Others mention the non-stop pleading that goes on with campaigns to “please put us over the top” until everyone is sick of hearing about it.

The asking becomes less about the cause and more about the money. And that speaks to a scarcity mindset – the desperate sense that this will be found money, like winning the lottery.

Strength builds upon strength, not our weaknesses. So how can we use social media to build upon what is strong, rather than reinforce the sense of weakness that comes with these “begging bowl” campaigns? Start by shying away from asking for money, and instead using social media for what it is best for – raising awareness and engaging people in your mission and vision.

I’ve seen some terrific campaigns that use social media to (for example) encourage several bloggers to all blog about the same issue, changing up issues monthly for a year. Isn’t that a terrific use of social media? It’s primary use is not fundraising (although money is indeed raised) but raising awareness and generating engaged dialogue.  Instead of focusing on fast money, these campaigns focus on building solid, strong support for their vision of what is possible in the world.

That’s what it means to build upon strength – the strength we all have together to address the real issues (the point of my post last week).

* * * * *

That’s it for my reasons. How do you feel about the “begging bowl” mentality and one-time gifts that are raised on social networks? How do those campaigns make you feel? (Comment button is at the top of this post.)

Do you use a matrix for determining which fundraising strategies will be the most effective (and cost-effective)? If not, the Magic Matrix can help!

25 thoughts on “Social Media Fundraising: Unsustainable, Scarcity-Based Begging?”

  1. Almost all iterations of social media fundraising that I have encountered have ‘initial’ high emotional impact.

    However, in a short space of time Twitter and Facebook, etc have started to become over run with thousands of ‘micro-fund-raising’ campaigns.

    New ‘digital begging bowl’ tools like ChipIn, TipJoy, etc have made it incredibly easy to make donations.

    As the economic situation continues to deteriorate, and the traditional donor base dries up, many more ‘foundations, non profits, causes, charities’ will activate ‘social media’ donate-to-us campaigns. I see this leading to donor fatigue, and the risk of ‘non-profit’ spam.

    We need to shift our thinking from a donation based mind set to a sustainable business model based mind set.

  2. I respectfully disagree, Gregory. I believe these campaigns are initiated out of good intent. What we have found, though, is that the systems in the Community-Benefit arena are rooted in a self-perpetuating scarcity-based, one-at-a-time mindset. And individuals go where systems lead them.

    The introduction to the Pollyanna Principles actually addresses this very thing as one of the root causes for why the sector has not created the world we all want. (That whole introduction is available to read online for free here )

  3. Steve:
    Your comment reminds me of a blog post I did last year, for which I caught a lot of heat from a number of fundraising bloggers: Direct Mail Fundraising is Junk Mail. That post is here: (Oh good, now folks can start the hate mail all over again!)

  4. I agree that social media can be a part of a long-term fundraising vision and can indeed build support for a cause. This strategy, in turn, I believe, creates long-term donors who genuinely believe in what your organization is doing. Thanks for the post! 🙂

  5. This is a very thought-provoking article. Thanks for posting it, since this is a discussion the fundraising community needs to have.

    Once question, though – do you have any statistics or data to support your claim that “those who donate their $5 based on a Twitter ask are impulse buyers, transforming our causes into tic-tacs and trash magazines on the supermarket check-out line of charitable giving”?

    My experience in fundraising has almost always been that any conclusion needs to be tested before it’s accepted. And then continually re-tested. Do you know of an organization that has raised money via twitter, and then seen none of those donors donate again? I’d be very interested to see some real figures to support this idea.

    If even 2% of the people who donate via twitter go on to donate again, then your response is about the same as a prospect mailing, and significantly cheaper, since they basically paid to become prospects. Does that make sense?

  6. Robert: Thanks for your comment!
    Glenn: No statistics except the anecdotal – I talk to lots of people and ask the same questions over and over.

    As for rate of return, two things. First, asking a yes/no question – “Will we raise money?” – is not the best way to make decisions. It’s why I posted the link to our decision-making matrix. The best question is, “What are our options, and which are the most effective, given our circumstances and our needs?”

    Second, though, your mention of prospect mailing is making me smile, as I have posted a similar post to this one, some months back, specifically regarding direct mail and ITS ineffectiveness at creating the kinds of deeply engaged relationships organizations need to be maximally effective. That post is here:

    The bottom line is that we can either keep aiming ONLY at money, or we can engage real friends of our causes – the kind who will do anything for us – volunteer, get us contacts, spread the word, and oh-by-the-way give us money. When all we ask for is money, we leave all the rest of that good stuff on the table.

    You might check out the intro to my FriendRaising book, which is here – more detail on this same concept.

    And thanks for being so engaged with the issue!

  7. As someone who has been fundraising on her birthday for many years – online and offline — I have many, many repeat donors. The last few years, the donations via social media channels have included a fairly healthy percentage of repeat donors – not twice, but three and four times. Yes, they might have started as an impulse donors, but through cultivation and network weaving – they come into the community.

    Such donations are transaction in nature and harmful as you describe – if you’re not willing to build a community or network around the Cause.

    That’s my two cents! Or make that $215,000

  8. One way that we can use social media to build on fundraising – is using it to tell you story, build relationships over time – versus the begging and solicitations.

    And the friend asking a friend, if the fundraiser develops a relationship with that friend – than the friend of friend becomes a donor.

    Anyway, I’ve documented a lot of types of campaigns over the past three years as well as implemented several – and the ones that use story telling and relationship building with social media are the ones that are successful.

    Campaigns that are designed a begging bowls or pledge drives or telethon will annoy people – and they will tune them out

  9. Hi Hildy,

    Again, I find myself respectfully disagreeing, and for many of the same reasons as my comments on the other post. That is, you are really just disagreeing with some of the tactics people are using with social media fundraising, but your headline blames the medium. To save time I’ll just address the “impulse buying” point.

    In the “real world” we raise large sums of money through a long standing (almost 30 years) direct mail campaign. This is based around the impulse buying notion. It takes the form of a prize draw or sweepstakes. Sometimes it hits the doormat when the potential donor is in the mood, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s very much like the chocolate bars at the supermarket checkout – sometimes the impulse grabs you, sometimes it doesn’t. As you point out, these donors will more than likely donate to the next cause that uses the same tactic, so the argument could be made that they are not really engaged with us at all.

    The real point, however, is that for almost 30 years this fundraising method has raised hundreds of millions of dollars which we have used to fund cutting edge cancer research. It IS, therefore sustainable. Of course, it is not the same people donating all of the time, just like the methods you mention in social media. I agree that I might contribute to a friend’s cause once, maybe twice, but at a certain point I will probably say “enough is enough”. However, I’m just one of many, and as long as we all act out of step and the pool keeps growing, then the tactic will continue to produce valuable income.

    Would I rather have more committed donors? People who care passionately about the cause? People who will get involved, take part, come up with ideas? Of course I would – and we have thousands of donors like that and spend much of our effort in nurturing those we have as well as building communities of new ones. But we also have people who want to go for the “impulse purchase” and their donations are just as valuable. Indeed, in terms of cash flow, these donors are some of the most important. If I want to build long term relationships it takes time, effort and money…..oh, and did I mention more time?

    Is it worth spending this time? Of course it is, and we have many, many programs in place to do just this. However, if I need £1m next month, the “impulse buy” program will deliver it time after time, year after year. I must also say that I do not want to do a disservice to these donors – their donations are extremely important to our work and we value all of them.

    As I said previously, we need to employ every tactic and strategy which will provide the results we are looking for. We need committed, engaged donors and we need impulse donors. Saying that one is good and one is not is counterproductive. Each of them provides us with a different benefit.



  10. Beth and Jack:
    Thank you for such thoughtful replies. The one thing we all appear to agree on is that the power of relationship-building is the power on which we can build a future. And that is my deepest concern – the amount of time we waste seeking quick cash because we did NOT build a future in the past. If what we are doing now is creating tomorrow, we need to be sure we are not building into the core of tomorrow the same internal problems we are seeking “quick cash” to heal today.

    Just some quick thoughts, as I am going undercover a bit today, to prepare for the launch of The Pollyanna Principles in the next few days on the road. But please, all, keep up the great discussion!

  11. Beth: One other thought as I am quickly re-reading all these responses before heading into my day. And that is that I will bet most people’s birthday fundraising efforts are not as successful as yours, because – well – you’re a bit of a rock star. You have attained that status precisely because you are terrific at building relationships. It’s why you teach this stuff!

    Most community organizations who are considering these efforts are not at the place of innate wisdom you are at, to know how to use these tools for relationship-building rather than just quick cash. (It’s why they rely on you to teach them, and why we all appreciate your own blog so much!). Further, most do not have the following you have.

    To those organizations, I continue to suggest that they weigh social media fundraising against all the other strategies available to them, and weigh each of those strategies against objective decision-making criteria on a matrix (again the reason I linked to our decision-making matrix in my prior post – )

    In complete admiration for all you do,

  12. Hildy: Actually was thinking about your post – and I think that it isn’t the tools so much as how you use them.

    I didn’t start out as a rock star – my first effort was pretty modest – and just started slowly, with small projects – not an idea that social media save the organization, or that donors were an ATM machine…

    So, I think that organizations should not be discouraged from experimenting thoughtfully with the tools as long as they use best practices of fundraising — relationship building, story telling, donor stewardship, etc.

    I don’t think that it is an either/or – or looking at the cost/benefit of other tools.

    I just a slide show about all this – if you’re a visual person – it might make sense.

    Anyway, got your book – hoping to find the time to read it in the next few weeks.

    Also, in complete admiration for all you do too!

  13. Beth:
    Your comment here is the perfect example of what you do everywhere – build relationships. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your experience here!

    PS – Can’t wait to hear how you like the book!

  14. Found the blog to be thought provoking and tapped into many of the same thoughts and concerns I had. Also, found the responses from Beth and Jack added to the discussion.

    Also, thought your second response to Beth hit the nail on the head. While I applaud Beth for the success she has experienced, I do believe she is the “exception to the rule”. (I trust she laughed at the RockStar image.) Having been fundraising for 20+ years, I am often surprised at how good I am when I work at a well known charity and but sometimes “not as good” when I work at lesser known ones 🙂 Name recognition and cache do play a role. Will continue to Twitter @CentralNassau and add content to my Facebook page (for all 14 Fans)

    Best of luck to all and keep up the good work for the nonprofits you serve!

  15. I really *really* agree that this kind of fundraising doesn’t result in sustainable change in support of the issue at hand. And I say that as someone that has done some twitter begging and certainly has responded to some.

    Ultimately, I think these tools can be a way to bring attention to a cause — giving deeper education and getting deeper commitment than you can do in 140 characters. Creating, in essence, the kind of relationships that Beth is talking about in her comments.

    But there’s another reason I worry about the sustainability model — it doesn’t build a financial fix into the system of change. So, it’s wonderful for people to use Twitter to donate to food banks but even more wonderful would be how to figure sustainability into those programs at the grocery store — so there’s more of a link.

    I think that it gets to easy to get busy with the kind of fundraising we all do all the time and not to get to building the relationships or building models that genuinely promote change.

  16. Thank you for your informative post. I also appreciate your remark in the comments about these efforts being “initiated out of good intent.” That was certainly my plan when I started one of these for an event my church will be sponsoring toward the construction of another well in a region of the Sudan. My effort was as much toward the fund-raising as it was toward experimenting with these tools. My conclusion, quickly, is that something like a “micropayment” doesn’t work. In any case, your points are good quite valuable to a relative newbie like myself.

  17. Kurt:
    Of course these efforts are done with good intent. We all want to do the right thing – it’s just knowing what the right thing is that sometimes eludes us!

    You may find some of the articles re: resource development in our online library helpful – you’ll find the library here:
    and the specific articles re: resource development here:

    I hope that’s helpful – and thank you so much for sharing your experiences!

  18. This information has been very helpful. I have long throught that many non-profits are unable to create a real partnership with their donors. I am raising supporters to partner with me in order to teach English in China.

  19. Hildy,
    I’m new to the fund raising world but it seems to me that we are missing the point when non-profits beg for money. We need to find ways to engage people, not just their checkbooks. By asking for money in lieu of active participation in our causes we are neglecting the most valuable part of the process, a real live person whose skills and ability are worth more than money. I believe the money will come more often from a person who truly cares and feels connected to a cause. Social media is a great way to introduce people to causes but it is lacking when it comes to involvement. I believe it is more valuable to have a person show up once a month to walk the dogs at the shelter than for them to just write a check. Unfortunately, we have become a society where participation is more easily achieved by financial means. It would seem obvious to me that in tough economic times more people would be willing to donate their time than their money. The result of that would be two-fold. They see the direct result of their effort (i.e one big smiling dog) and they feel connected to others who share their commitment. I know from personal experience that the most joy one can receive comes from spending time with people I care about and doing things that matter. Money helps but it will never be more important than humanity and a commitment to the common good.

    • GR: Yes absolutely! I also think you will find that the more you spend time in the social media arena, the more you will find it to be an excellent way to engage with people’s hearts & minds. I can speak personally for the real live friends and supporters with whom I have personally connected by engaging online. Eventually, those relationships move from Twitter (as an example) to email to phone to in-person. And that is all based on exactly what you are suggesting – real relationships based on shared passion.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here!

  20. Hildy,
    Maybe we just started one of those relationships? My passion is just to bring people together and stop the divisiveness that seems to grow worse every day. We really need each other now more than ever. When I think of all the time and money that is wasted each day, when there are so many causes that barely get by, it just bothers me to no end. I realize this is extremely quixotic of me to think I can change the world via social media but I have to try something, lest I lose hope. I just know there are many, many good hearted people out there who have been marginalized by tradional media forums and have given up. I never give up, no matter what. It’s just too important to the future of the world. I don’t want to be remember as the generation that blew it. Thanks for making the effort to be someone who makes change happen. Keep up the good work.

  21. If the URL and post and comments weren’t datestamped, I might not have known most of this discussion occurred almost two and a half years ago. I think the same anxieties still surround fundraising on social media, but it has moved forward to become more professional, established, and measureable.

    It might be fun to re-read everything swapping in “direct mail” or “phone solicitation” for social media fundraising. When those methods were new, they similarly weren’t well understood (or, so I imagine).

    It would be foolish to ignore what will grow to 1 billion reachable, online donors on Facebook in the coming years. Are some organizations going to cannibalize their existing relationships? Will feelings be bruised? Absolutely. For online fundraising to support the nonprofit sector the same way that direct mail has (and it must), you gotta break a few eggs.


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