Research proposal: Online funding as relationship-building and the consequential essentiality of social media

When I discovered Facebook Causes a few years ago, I started doing something I previously believed to be one of the most inappropriate and uncomfortable tasks I could think of: asking my friends and family for money. While I would never call a friend and ask him or her to give $10 to a cause I care about, posting a notice or sending a message through Facebook is somehow, as they say on Facebook, nbd–no big deal. I’ve now raised over $500 there.

This effect, the social psychology that goes into fundraising through social media platforms, is huge. Still, only 10 percent of all fundraising for nonprofits is done online. If there are social norms and constructs that make online fundraising easier than other kinds of fundraising, shouldn’t nonprofits be finding more dramatic success there? What might be interfering with their success?

Studying social psychology, in particular theories about how others influence a person’s likelihood to take certain actions can help answer this question. Social psychology is a well-established area of academia that includes much research that can help provide insight into this. Similarly, there is a plethora of research concerning theoretical frameworks involved in philanthropy. But these topics in relation to people’s actions online have only recently begun appearing in academic studies. Additionally, they are often so new and experimental that only a limited understanding can be achieved.

But successful fundraising is at its root relationship-building. Academia has shown fundraising to be more successful after relationships with donors are established. With social media, nonprofits have the ability to foster relationships with huge amounts of people at one time. As these relationships are built, increasing funds are coming to nonprofits through online sources. Essentially, the world of online fundraising is changing.

So, in applying theories about social norms within online networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google+, the factors that influence people’s behaviors can be determined. By looking at research surrounding philanthropy and motivations for giving, in particular online giving, we can better understand what makes a person donate. Through the integration of the two bodies of research, strategies can be developed that will inform nonprofits, enabling them to make better use of social media to acquire donations.

This information is increasingly valuable to nonprofit organizations. A study by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research revealed that by 2009, 97 percent of all nonprofits were using social media. Allison Fine, co-author of “The Networked Nonprofit” wrote in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article, “It’s official: We’re all social now.
…Every functional area of [an] organization—communications, development, programs, even administration and finance—has use for the power of conversation that comes from social media.”

By acquiring a better understanding of the social psychology involved in online platforms in relation to the decisions people make about giving online, nonprofits can target those most interested in giving and make more effective use of limited time and resources.

What research can fill in the facts on this topic? An increasing amount of schools in recent years have added departments for philanthropic and nonprofit-related studies. They have extensive research and collections of knowledge that can be examined in relation to this topic. Additionally, research from well-known journals like “ Nonprofit Management and Leadership,” “Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly,” and “the Chronicle of Philanthropy,” can add clarity. Books and case studies will supplement an understanding of social psychology. If it seems pertinent and feasible, interviews will be conducted with staff members of nonprofits and the Facebook Causes application.

Through the compression of research, I expect to find that because of social norms, people are more likely to give online if someone within their “circle of trust” has given (which is rhetoric that has been in the nonprofit world recently). But additionally, I expect to find situations in which certain groups of people are less likely to donate as a result of the public nature of social media. I also expect that this research will suggest asking for money online, like I experienced on Facebook Causes, is easier than asking someone irl–in real life.

Social media and its usefulness to nonprofit organizations large and small is such a new phenomena that it has yet to be understood. But the two things on their own–social media and nonprofits–have been around long enough to acquire enough research so that a more in-depth examination of the two will almost certainly prove useful to nonprofits who rely on fundraising to survive.

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