Innovation & Design

On the Internet, Charity Begins With Animal Causes


On the Internet, Charity Begins With Animal Causes

Photograph by Vasiliki Varvaki/Getty Images

(Corrects spelling of study cosponsor)

Individual Americans are a philanthropic force, contributing $217 billion to a variety of causes in 2011, or nearly three out of every four charitable dollars donated. The generosity and volunteerism is even more mainstream in this era of Facebook (FB) fundraising drives, Kickstarter campaigns, and hashtagged do-gooder charity events.

But for charities, fundraisers, and rights campaigners, the rise of promoting social good through social media has led to unexpected challenges. For starters, campaigners rallying the public to support, say, press freedoms in totalitarian regimes must compete online for support with funding drives and e-petitions for the local animal shelter. It’s a mismatch—cuddly kittens win that contest every time.

This was noticeable on Kickstarter this week as pleas to fund blankets for stray cats, student robot enthusiasts, and, for patrons of the arts, a zombie movie zipped up the charts. There’s abundant choice for givers, and it’s disrupting the wider world of charitable giving.

“It’s true that, on the Internet, people gravitate toward the lighthearted—robots and cats and memes, that kind of thing,” says Julie Dixon, deputy director of Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication, which co-authored along with Waggener Edstrom Worldwide a new study on the state of social philanthropy and causes. “Causes and issues that tap more into the lighthearted do generate more attention.”

One finding of the study underscored this new dynamic: You are twice as likely to see a message from one of your social network contacts promoting an animal charity as you are a human rights campaign. And causes dedicated to the disabled or homeless are even less popular, the study found.

“We are in a new era,” says Aaron Sherinian, a spokesman for the United Nations Foundation, a charity founded by Ted Turner in 1998 that works with the UN on climate, health, and women’s rights issues. “Anyone who tells you differently doesn’t have their eyes open, nor their laptop open. Social media have given us the democratization of philanthropy.”

Donors can now shop around for causes, and they choose the ones with the best narrative and track record for delivering on their promises.

The biggest disruption for charitable giving, which topped $298 billion in the U.S. in 2011, is that fundraisers are increasingly turning to crowdfunding as the philanthropic wings of cash-strapped corporations and grant-giving bodies have less to contribute. Individual donors are not only expected to pick up the slack financially—there are no reliable statistics for money raised through crowdfunding, however—but, through the reach of social media, they will be increasingly counted on to mobilize their networks to act. “Social media give individuals influence, and that has an accelerator effect,” says Dixon. “When it comes to causes, people trust individuals more than they trust institutions.”

And, if our Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds are any indication, trusted friends and contacts are telling us to stop everything and consider the cause of saving the animals first and foremost.

Warner writes about innovation for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @bernhardwarner.

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