“It’s about how you communicate your message.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg taking the Ice Bucket Challenge, a campaign to promote awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease). (Courtesy photo)

Rachel Beckwith, 8, wanted to help children in Africa get clean water. She asked her birthday well-wishers not to buy her presents but instead to donate money to a water charity. She had raised more than $200 before she died in a traffic accident a month after her birthday.

As a memorial to Rachel, her family and fellow parishioners took up her cause. They told Rachel’s story on Facebook and Twitter — and raised more than $1.2 million.

Rachel’s story is just one example of how people are using social media to promote social causes and changing the status quo of charitable fundraising in the process. Almost half of all Americans learn about worthy causes via social media and online channels, according to Avectra, now part of Abila Inc., which sells software to nonprofits.

Changing lives

Charitable organizations and other nonprofit groups have traditionally relied on mailings, major donor development, grants and social events to raise funds for their causes. These methods still generate most charitable contributions, as only 46 percent of people age 65 or older — the majority of donors — use the Internet, according to the 2013 PEW Internet Research Project.

However, nonprofits and individuals with a cause are increasingly leveraging social media and the Internet to establish a recognizable identity, or brand; attract potential donors and retain existing ones; and get supporters more involved in their cause.

Dancer and cheering crowd
The 2012 offline dance marathon at Pennsylvania State University raised more than $10 million for a children’s hospital. (Courtesy of Penn State/flickr)

“It’s not just about your cause any more,” says Zoe Amar. “It’s about how you communicate your message.” Amar, a London-based marketing and digital communications consultant, cites the Ice Bucket Challenge as an example. The 2014 campaign raised more than $100 million to support research on a relatively rare but devastating neurological disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“Every nonprofit has a compelling story to tell,” Amar says. “You just need to be creative.” Social network users tend to respond best to personal stories told in a compelling way — mostly through attractive photos, cool videos and up-to-date messages.

A compelling story gives a nonprofit an opportunity to differentiate itself, draw attention to its mission and attract new potential donors to a fundraising campaign. Personal stories of aid recipients or dedicated donors do well on social media, as do stunts, gimmicks or humorous challenges. The digital component of the Ice Bucket Challenge involved videos of people dumping a bucket of ice water on someone’s head; Movember encourages men to grow moustaches during November each year to support men’s health.

Man with oversize facial hair
Want to touch? Make a donation. (Courtesy of Darrell Miller/flickr)

More than half of Americans who support nonprofits via the Internet said they were motivated by compelling storytelling, according to Waggener Edstrom, a public relations firm.

Compelling stories alone, though, do not sustain nonprofits if they are not transparent about their administrative costs and how they use the money they raise. Online donors want to know where their money goes and what specific good it does, according to Sandy Rees of Get Fully Funded, a fundraising consultancy. Thus nonprofits should “focus more on the lives being changed, and less on their need to meet their budgetary goals,” she told brandwatch.com.

children around water pump in Africa
Now, they can even play in clean water in a Rwandan village. (Courtesy of charity: water)

A good example of how online media enable a greater transparency is charity: water, Rachel’s favorite nonprofit that provides access to clean water in the developing world. It tracks individual donations and proves completed water projects with photos and GPS coordinates on Google Maps.

A level playing field

Social media have created a more level playing field in the nonprofit world in which small and big, existing and new charities can thrive.

“A nonprofit comprised of one person can create content and share it to tens of thousands of people through social media for free,” Adam Hlava of Generations United, a nonprofit, told brandwatch.com. For example, Jack Henderson, 6, became an Internet sensation in 2011 when he offered to draw “anything” in exchange for donations to a Scottish hospital that treated his younger brother. Jack drew more than 500 pictures and raised close to £65,000 ($100,000).

The size of a nonprofit’s online social network is more important to digital fundraising than its financial efficiency or the magnitude of its financial assets, two major factors in offline donations, according to a 2014 study by researchers Gregory Saxton and Lili Wang.

Getting a great number of “likes” and friends on Facebook is only the first step to building and sustaining a community around a nonprofit’s mission.

“Reach is one thing, influence is another,” Amar says. A small community of highly engaged advocates for a nonprofit can make a bigger difference than a large community of supporters who just click “like,” she says.

Building an online community requires up-to-date, visually attractive communications with friends and supporters, according to experts. For example, the American Red Cross uses social media to thank donors and volunteers individually, post photos and news from disaster areas, publish thank-yous from aid recipients and report back from disaster-stricken areas.

Students in South Africa hit the road on bicycles donated by World Bicycle Relief. (© AP Images)

Some charities even encourage their social network members to run individual fundraising campaigns on their behalf. For example, World Bicycle Relief, which provides bikes to students, health-care workers and entrepreneurs in Africa, asks its supporters to host a dinner, sell lemonade, organize a bike ride or come up with other cool ideas to make a difference. It offers them help in reaching their fundraising goals.

Social media engagement with nonprofits tends to lead to greater engagement overall.  More than half of Americans that engaged with nonprofits through social networks have been inspired to take further action such as donating clothing or food, volunteering or participating in a local charity event, according to Waggener Edstrom.

With the millennials reaching their adulthood, social media’s importance to social causes and nonprofits will only grow, according to experts.

Social media require nonprofits to master digital and communications skills. Nonprofits that need to bolster their staff members’ digital skills can turn to online facilitators or get advice from nonprofithub.org, Wired magazine or Huffington Post.

“Nonprofit fundraisers with digital skills are limited only by their imagination,” Amar says.

In 2012, an American Red Cross shelter received people evacuated from their homes in New York due to Hurricane Sandy. (© AP Images)