Social Networks Not Effective in Channelling Donations to Charitable Causes

By December 03, 2013

Social network activity vis-à-vis charitable organisations and NGOs does not bring much in the way of donations and may even lead to token displays of support being substituted for more meaningful contributions.

You cannot turn a ‘like’ into hard cash. That seems to be the problem facing the charitable bodies and non-profit organisations that have a Facebook page. The leading social network might be a communication channel that is both free-of-charge and unrivalled in terms of reach, but it appears not to be working well as a donations platform. On the contrary, a recent report entitled The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action, published by the Sauder Business School at the University of British Columbia in Canada, shows that displays of support for a social issue or cause by people on a social network often correlate with a reduction in actual donations or volunteering to assist the organisation in question. By enabling people to show ‘empty’, token support on a social platform, the ‘like’ button may be undermining the entire tradition of charitable giving.


Recently Facebook has provided a good many charity organisations with the opportunity to raise their profile and shake off a rather dusty, old-fashioned image, using photos, videos and moving testimonies to show what they are really doing. Consequently, they have been able to demonstrate the recognition they are getting from the online public by counting the number of ‘likes’ they receive on Facebook, or followers on Tweeter. Still, this apparently widespread engagement by the public remains entirely virtual and does not produce any real resources that the NGO can use. The researchers who authored the report have come up with a word for this lazy, virtual political or social activism lacking any substance in terms of action or donations: ‘slacktivism’. While the number of ‘likes’ has skyrocketed, the volume of donations or offers to help these organisations has certainly not been following suit, raising the suspicion that a public display of commitment is having the effect of salving people’s consciences and allowing them to feel that they have done their duty. “Charities incorrectly assume that connecting with people through social media always leads to more meaningful support. Our research shows that if people are able to declare support for a charity publicly in social media it can actually make them less likely to donate to the cause later on,” reveals Kirk Kristofferson, one of the three authors. 

Rethinking communication strategy

With the now fast-approaching winter festive season being the biggest fundraising period of the year, the researchers suggest that charities ought to take another look at the strategies they have been following so far. The research seems to suggest that the act of giving tends to be a private rather than public thing and that the pleasure of looking good in front of the group, which the ‘like’ button fosters, may be replacing the personal feelings one gets from making a donation. This substitution of token support for more concrete help does not necessarily imply hypocrisy. There is evidence that people often feel that this sort of public declaration will encourage others to give. However, if charity organisations want to counter the ‘slacktivism’ phenomenon, they may well need to change their approach. Perhaps simplifying the process for donating online or finding a way to use the ‘like’ button or the system for becoming a fan could help to increase the number and amount of gifts they receive.

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