Barack Obama's presidential campaign was remarkable for its use of social networking sites. His team mobilised thousands of volunteers and raised $500m (£344m) in donations from 6.5 million people, partly by using sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Obama's online success shows the huge potential of social networks. Users of these websites create profiles of themselves that allow them to interact with and stay in touch with other users in various ways, including online messages, live chat, picture sharing and text messages. Profiles are free to set up and easy to create; they offer organisations the chance to reach large numbers of people.
Many charities are already exploiting the potential of social networking. The NSPCC has raised more than £10,000 through Facebook since it set up an application to allow users to make donations in 2007. "It's a brilliant way to attract new supporters and engage with them, rather than them coming to us," says Helen Buxton, digital project manager at the charity. "We've been able to reach a different demographic from our normal donor profile."
The National Union of Students persuaded HSBC to drop high charges on student overdrafts after gathering the support of 5,000 Facebook users, and Amnesty International used various social networks as part of its successful Protect the Human campaign
But for every success there are many failed attempts to harness the power of social networks. The Directory of Social Change's Grants not Contracts group on Facebook, launched in October 2007, has no members and hasn't been updated for more than a year. "It became apparent it wasn't going to meet our needs, so we decided not to put further resources into it," says a spokeswoman for the organisation.
So should charities believe the hype or are they wasting their time and resources on a simple fad?
Dean Russell, head of digital marketing at Precedent Communications, says there is no point creating a social networking profile unless you know what you want to achieve with it. "When they don't fit in with a charity's objectives, they can quite easily wither and die," he says.
An unchecked presence on social networking sites actually has the potential to damage a charity's reputation, he says: "You risk alienating people. It can damage your brand and raise questions about how efficiently donors' money is being spent."
But Beth Kanter, a US-based technology consultant for charities, says they can't afford to ignore social networking. "Social media will become as ubiquitous as the phone, direct mail and email," she says. "We're in the early stages and the transition will take years, but fundraising with social media tools will not just be a niche income source or a novelty."
Kanter says charities that shun social networking will miss out on an opportunity to reach large numbers of younger supporters: "These tools are how young people communicate with one another."
Some people believe social networking will move from the internet to mobile phones; others say the number of sites will fall as users congregate in one or two networks. But given social networking's potential, most vividly demonstrated by Obama's campaign, the signs are that those who ignore it will do so at their peril.
CASE STUDY DOGS TRUST
The charity has a presence on a wide range of social networks, including Bebo, Facebook and MySpace.
In April 2008 it began using Twitter to give advice on adopting and buying dogs, and in November it managed to rehome a dog through the website. The rehoming happened after a supporter who was looking for a dog for her mother responded to a picture posted on Twitter.
Although that dog turned out to be unsuitable, the supporter later left with a different one.
"Social media is growing, and it is complementing direct mail and other strategies as a gradual shift towards a more online world occurs," says Alex Goldstein, web editor at the Dogs Trust.
CASE STUDY NSPCC
The NSPCC has raised more than £10,000 from Facebook users through a range of different initiatives, including a profile page for its Be The Full Stop campaign.
The page asked users to carry out one of 19 'deeds', such as signing a petition, donating, buying a badge or learning how to recognise the signs of abuse. Users could also challenge their friends to do the 'deeds'.
In November 2008 the charity formed a Facebook group in response to the death of Baby P, which has attracted 17,000 members. It is currently working on a strategy to help it use social networks more effectively.