This summer, the social media platform Instagram joined Facebook in offering users the chance to make charitable donations without ever leaving the app. It’s a clever tactic: as returns from traditional mass marketing and direct debits fall, social media followers represent a holy grail for fundraisers.
So as apps and platforms make it ever easier for their users to go from follower to supporter to donor, can charities turn clicks into cash?
Wendy Ahl, the UK operations director of Safe Haven For Donkeys, a sanctuary for working donkeys in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, believes so. Since Facebook added its donate function in 2017, her charity has raised about £3,000 a month using the tool, and she credits the network with generating a monthly total of near £6,800 from the charity’s 35,000 followers.
The platform is particularly useful for emergency fundraisers, she says, such as surgery for a rescued donkey or repairs after a storm damaged the roof of the charity’s clinic. The key thing, Ahl adds, is to engage actively with followers as much as possible.
Treat people like people, not ATMs
"It’s about responding to any questions people have and treating them like people, not just cash machines," she says. "At its heart, it’s the same as with any type of fundraising: you develop relationships with them, they get to know you and they’re inclined to give."
The charity has a full-time social media manager because, ultimately, the income stream "does require an investment of time and resources to make sure it’s managed effectively" Ahl says.
Social media demands both time and energy to perform well, says Kathryn Toner, head of individual giving at Cancer Research UK, which has 1.5 million Facebook followers, 333,000 followers on Twitter and 141,000 on Instagram, so charities that want to up their social media game should start small.
"Don’t spread yourself out too thin initially," Toner says. "Start with one platform, build up your confidence and develop from there. Work out where the bulk of the people that have an interest in your cause are, what communities they’re in, what they talk about and what they share, then adapt your content so you can be part of their conversations."
Different platforms offer different audiences and prompt different responses, she says. For example, CRUK finds that news, campaigns and scientific content are more likely to stimulate engagement on Twitter, whereas Facebook users respond to more emotional stories about how cancer affects people’s lives. After choosing a platform, it’s important that you spend time working out what content your audience wants to see. This will vary depending on the charity, Toner says, but an advantage of social media is that it is cheap and easy to correct quickly.
"See how people react, listen and respond to them so you can interact with them in an original way," she says. "Social media is something you can improve almost on a live basis: you can optimise and make it more effective as you go."
And don’t post at random, Toner adds. Establish a clear objective for what you want different posts to do, whether that’s engagement, knowledge-sharing or asking for an action. Then make it as easy as possible for the supporter to respond. When it comes to donations, consider whether that means allowing them to make donations in the app or moving them on to your own website.
Make it relevant
Joe Doyle, director of direct marketing at Unicef, says the charity had some success in communicating with its 7.8 million Facebook followers by posting at different times of the day: for example, showing children in school at about 4pm, when supporters’ own children are likely to be getting home.
"You can make it relevant to the context in which people are seeing things, but also relevant to the particular supporter, working out what it might be about people’s lives and routines that we can use to reference other people’s lives," he says.
And remember that making donations isn’t the only action you can ask of your supporters, Doyle adds. Social media can be an invaluable channel for raising awareness and campaigning. You might ask people to share some information, sign a petition or become an ambassador for the charity, for example.
"Part of our approach is to engage audiences on their terms, in the way that they want to support children," he says. "Donations aren’t for everyone for whatever reason, but they might still have a huge desire to support and help children, so it’s important that we’re allowing them to do that.
"And it helps to create an environment in which our campaign work can be successful."
Fundraising consultant Nikki Bell agrees that Twitter in particular can be a handy tool for tracking down people who might want to volunteer with the charity or fundraise for it, even if they don’t want to donate. "Social media can help you to develop longer-term partnerships with people," she says. "It might be that they turn into volunteers or introduce us to corporate prospects."
The advanced search tool on Twitter allows you to search for tweets sent on a particular theme, during a particular time period and mentioning certain words, which Bell says can be handy for helping charities find runners to fill marathon spaces, connect with people who have experience with the charity’s cause area or identify people who are already fundraising for the charity.
Comment and share
You can then interact: congratulate or thank them, comment on their posts or share things they might be interested in and eventually set up face-to-face meetings, she says. These interactions are generally more effective coming from individual fundraisers rather than the main charity account. This, she says, means charities need to trust their fundraisers to deviate from the corporate line.
"The more we can humanise contact through social media, the more people see the realness and authenticity, and the more likely they are to stick around and listen to you," she says.
Bell does add a note of caution: there is some speculation that Facebook might begin charging for posts that direct users away from the platform and on to the charity’s own website, so she says she wouldn’t rely on such posts as a sole source of funding and would encourage supporters to sign up to campaign mailing lists.
Ahl acknowledges that there are drawbacks to soliciting donations through Facebook’s in-app donations button: in particular, unless a user specifically agrees to pass their details on to the charity, the data remains with the social media platform.
Ultimately, she says, the pros outweigh the cons and she’d encourage other charities to give it a try.
"Don’t think about it: sign up and do it," she says. "It’s a great source of income. Yes, you do have to put some time and resources into it, but if I can do it, anyone can."