Category Archives: facebook causes

Conflicting data on Facebook: good for university attachment, bad for Cause-related fundraising

(Facebook Wheel of Friendship - photo by jurvetson)

(Facebook Wheel of Friendship - photo by jurvetson)

Despite the online fundraising success of the Obama campaign, the Washington Post reports that Facebook Causes, “hugely popular among nonprofit organizations seeking to raise money online, has been largely ineffective in its first two years, trailing direct mail, fundraising events and other more traditional methods of soliciting contributions.” Only the Nature Conservancy and Students for a Free Tibet have raised more than $100,000 on Facebook Causes, and most of the 179,000 non-profits listed on Facebook don’t even make $1,000 from the site.  This is more depressing when you realize that Facebook usage has swelled to over 200 million.  Twenty five million Facebook users show their affinity through Facebook Causes and their belief in the environment or women’s rights or freedom of choice, but fewer than 1% of such users actually donate.

Other experiments have shown that 1-3% of a nonprofit group’s e-mail list donate money when solicited, at an average of about $80 per person. That is more than 44 times the rate at which such users are donating online through Facebook Causes.

Note: one reader, Will Coley, brought to my attention two blog postings contesting the Washington Post report.  See Fine Blog and  Beth’s Blog.  I don’t find these refutations all that persuasive; sure there are lot of Facebook Causes that are not NPOs (so the donation/cause is not the right statistic) and Facebook has a lot of young users (who are not big donors), but the original motivation of Facebook Causes was to help harness social networks to raise a lot for non-profits, and this has largely been a failure, although maybe it helps Facebook users to identify themselves with other users that share their values.

The more hopeful finding about Facebook comes from a recent paper “Social Capital, Self Esteem and the Use of Online Social Networks”.  [This is a longitudinal follow-up paper to an earlier paper by Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe in 2007 called “The Benefits of Facebook Friends: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites.“] Ellison et al. found in panel survey data they gathered at Michigan State University (MSU) stronger evidence that Facebook usage predicted later increased levels of “bridging social capital” than that “bridging social capital” caused increased Facebook use.  [Note: see below on their strange measure of bridging social capital.]

It’s an intriguing finding, although one should note that the size of the panel is quite small (92 students completed the earlier and later survey) and there was attrition both in whom they originally asked to do the survey (where only 277 out of 800 students contacted responded) and then secondary attrition when only a third of those 277 students then filled out the follow-up survey. [Ellison et al. note that the 92 seemed demographically representative of the 277 students, but one can never know about hidden attributes that might have explained why people would stick with the survey and also explained why these same people would have made more friends.]

Moreover, one would suppose that the power of Facebook to build social capital and bridging social capital is probably higher at a university setting where most of the e-friendships are in the same town, and one is thus more likely to encounter budding Facebook friends in real life.  (Almost all research shows that it is easier to build trust and stronger ties face-to-face, so having a strong geographic concentration of Facebook friends and ‘near friends’,  in an environment where new students are establish friends,  should provide Facebook with the strongest dynamic for friend-building.)

The paper, as I noted in a blog post on the earlier study, uses weird measures of bridging social capital.  Bridging social capital is supposed to measure the degree to which one has social friendships to people of a different religion, or social class, or race or ethnicity.  Their “bridging” measures are more about attachment to MSU as a community and include: “I feel I am part of the MSU community”, “I am interested in what goes on at MSU”, “MSU is a good place to be”, “I would be willing to contribute money to MSU after graduation”, “Interacting with people at MSU makes me want to try new things”, etc.    I definitely had loyalty to my college when I was there, but I don’t know that this necessarily says a whit about how diverse my friendships were there.

With this unusual measure of “bridging social capital”, the researchers found that both higher-esteem and lower-esteem students were likely to benefit by increased “bridging social capital” (i.e., have a stronger attachment to MSU) from Facebook use, although this effect was highest for students with low self-esteem at the beginning of the study.  And they found that Facebook produced greater attachment to MSU even after controlling for general Internet use and measures of psychological well-being.

While their survey doesn’t directly get at this question, it seems somewhat different than the common findings with technology that the socially-rich get richer, and, rather than leveling the playing field, it may fuerther tilt it.  Ellison et al. don’t directly measure level of social capital at the outset, but in their finding that those low in self-esteem may benefit the most (at least in attachment to MSU), it suggests that at least in this domain the socially unattached may benefit more.

For more information, see :

Charles Steinfield, Nicole B. Ellison, Cliff Lampe. Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology 29 (2008) 434–445

To Nonprofits Seeking Cash, Facebook App Isn’t So Green: Though Popular, ‘Causes’ Ineffective for Fundraising by Kim Hart and Megan Greenwell (Wash Post, 4/22/09)

The on-line threat of Meetup to voluntary associations? used to be the only Internet-driven game in town where Americans could find others who shared their interests and meet regularly with them face-to-face (F2F) locally. [BTW:’s home page has an interesting feature for anyone wanting to watch social capital growing — it shows real time as people across the world sign up for a group or RSVP to attend one, or a new group is formed. Mesmerizing.. Well, actually less mesmerizing than Jonathan Harris‘ “We Feel Fine” project which scans the blogosphere for how blogophiles are feeling and portrays it with beautiful visuals, but the Meetup data is capturing real civic engagement instead of raw emotions.

Meeup also has a neat video on their home page that shows how Meetup helps individuals find others to meet with.] Meetup has also expanded in new directions, providing resources for Meetup organizers to help them to recruit others, run good meetings, etc.

In addition, Meetup is trying to mimic some of the resources of pre-Meetup groups, to federate with each other, form alliances, etc. Say that the chihuahua group in Denver and the poodle group in Denver (and other Denver dog Meetups) want to collaborate to fight a new proposed leash law in Denver, Meetup Alliance helps them do this. MeetupAlliance, in any interesting approach, actually lets groups ally with each other, not limited to Meetup groups: one can include Google groups or Yahoo groups, Facebook Causes, or MySpace groups. One can see a dynamic list of the largest alliances to-date (at this point Ron Paul, and an alliance of women-helping-women groups).

In the same way as Craigslist has caused newspapers to hemorrage cash (as they used to get a lot of money from want ads that are now often listed instead wtih Craigslist at free or reduced rates), one wonders whether Meetup might be the nail in the coffin of bricks-and-mortar chapter organizations.

Voluntary associations used to do several things:

1) provide options for individuals to meet regularly about their shared interest

2) have political clout through numbers

3) select officers/leaders through their members

4) meet annually or quarterly at conferences to learn about what was happening in a field, form social capital, etc.

5) provide educational activities: books, pamphlets, courses, etc. that are offered to members to further their knowledge about the topic of the voluntary association (be it nursing, or home-schooling, or …).

Meetup used to just do #1 (arranging meetings). Now they do #2 (enable political clout through affiliation). #3 seems somewhat of a no-brainer (it would be easy to have electronic votes of members and position statements). #4 might be a challenge, although presumably there may be good event-planners and coordinators that would collaborate with Meetup to offer #4. I’m less clear about whether #5 is easy to contract out, but with a more transparent platform that shows how many members there are in each alliance or group, it may be easier for freelance writers to market their books or materials to Meetup groups that share an interest in what they are writing about.

Meetup writes in their FAQs for MeetupAlliance: “Can existing Chapter-based organizations use MAP [Meetup Alliance Platform]? Absolutely! MAP removes many of the headaches of running an organization with chapters. To learn more e-mail us.”

But the key question will be what the value proposition: how much bang do members get for the buck? Members of Meetup chapter organizations presumably will pay a lot less in dues than the old bricks-and-mortar chapter organizations?.The real question is the quality of the meetings, the social entrepreneurship and political clout that these groups can have, the quality of their social capital and what they continue to learn through educational activities.”

Of course, there are always countless claims of how technology is going to do away with the old. Remember the “paperless office” we were going to work in? So I certainly wouldn’t count chapter-based organizations out — there are probably more people meeting in Texas in a given month through bricks-and-mortar voluntary organizations than worldwide with Meetup in a month. But if Meetup is really smart about figuring out how to teach others to run efficient meetings, how to aggregate political clout on-line, how to run organizations well, how to outsource efficient annual meetings, there could be something transformative going on here. I know Scott Heiferman ( founder aspires to this. What’s important about Scott is that he is wise enough to realize that there are lots of things that people cannot do on-line that require face-to-face contact which is why Meetup was all built around regular F2F meetings (Meetups).

One final note: while Meetup seems way ahead of the curve in thinking about how on-line groups might start to replace bricks-and-mortar voluntary associations or chapter groups, the “finding your tribe” space has become more crowded recently along with sites that enable one-time get-togethers. Facebook‘s causes enables people to form looser tribes and use this to spur philanthropy; and Facebook has launched its own events services to enable simple confabs (and has the advantage that users already have some of their friends listed on the site). MyPunchBowl (like evite) enables people to plan simple events and invite others on-line but seems less focused around regular meetings. Yelp (primarily focused on user ratings of restaurants, services, things to see in a city, etc.) now also features a service “Invite Friends” that enables users to plan events. Meetup obviously has a huge head start on these other groups but it will be interesting to see whether they are as smart about trying to offer a deep civic alternative (as the bricks-and-mortar chapter-based voluntary associations do).