How Social Currency Is Changing Philanthropy [PSFK SEATTLE]

Julie Dixon explores how our networks are impacting the way people engage with important causes.

Building up to our PSFK SEATTLE event on May 10th, we’re interviewing the creators and thought leaders who will be sharing their latest ideas with us. Julie Dixon investigates the changing ways we interact with and support the significant social issues facing the world today. As a researcher, adjunct professor and director of Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication, she works with hundreds of organizations annually, equipping them to more effectively engage people in their work and to share the compelling stories of their impact.

How is social media impacting traditional philanthropy?

Social media has opened up an entire universe of ways to meaningfully contribute to the causes and issues you care about. It has changed not only the way people find out about important causes and campaigns, but also the way they make decisions to ultimately support those causes. And because of all of this, it has changed the way organizations need to think about engaging supporters and donors–specifically, that they should perhaps value intangible things like influence in addition to simply looking at a supporter’s ability to give financially or of his/her time.

What sparked your interest in social media’s effect on cause engagement?

The nonprofit/cause space has been early adopters of the newer social platforms for quite a while, and it’s been fascinating at the same time to see the evolution in how individuals take it upon themselves to create wildly successful campaigns for the causes they care about without the resources of an established organization. And yet, there’s still a huge debate in the more traditional philanthropy community about whether social media is a good thing or a bad thing! On the one hand, you have these really inspiring people-driven crowdfunding campaigns like the recent ones that benefitted the Boston Marathon victims, and on the other, you have organizations like UNICEF Sweden telling their supporters that their “Likes” don’t mean anything.

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Do you think that social media compromises meaningful storytelling for brevity?

Not at all. We’ve seen organizations–from big consumer brands to small nonprofits–tell a really compelling story across their social channels in a variety of ways. Some can do it with a single image, some with an infographic, or a short video. The beauty is that it can really democratize the storytelling process. People can share their own stories, which are often more compelling, more authentic, and can accomplish more in a short Tweet or status update than an organization can with their carefully crafted messaging. In our research with Waggener Edstrom Worldwide last summer, we saw that the top things that motivated people to move from supporting a cause online to supporting it offline were stories, photos/videos, and seeing others taking action–all things that may be a brief blip on a newsfeed, but can really add up.

What is your advice to organizations or individuals who are trying to are trying to rise above the din and engage audiences around their causes?

I think it comes down to a few things. One, you need to have a plan for who you’re trying to reach and what success is going to look like. What do you want people to do? Two, you need to think about what kinds of content will compel the desired action(s)–and how you’re going to be able to generate a steady stream of that content over time. And three, think about empowering other people to share and create content on your behalf. How can other people contribute to and amplify the stories you’re trying to tell?

Are traditional donor engagement channels on their way out?

I’d say most definitely not. We’ve seen time and time again in our research that people aren’t replacing the more traditional channels with digital ones–they’re supplementing them. And for organizations and causes, this is the best-case scenario; you’ve got people who are really committed to your cause, who are volunteering and donating–and who want to use social media to influence their networks to join them. It’s a huge opportunity for organizations to think about how they can enhance those charitable experiences by layering digital engagement on top of them–kind of like the way the entertainment industry is really embracing and innovating around “second screen” engagement.

Thanks Julie! Meet her May 10th at PSFK SEATTLE.

Illustration by Andrew Bannecker

Visit PSFK SEATTLE to see who else is speaking and click below to buy tickets.

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