Georgetown Study: Social Media-Savvy Donors Engage in Multiple Ways

Social media is changing the rules of the game for charities and other cause-based organizations and programs that rely on the support of activists, volunteers and donors, according to recently published research from Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication.

“Social media creates new motivational triggers that, for savvy organizations and causes, can be viewed as opportunities to develop a wider range of donor engagement activities,” said Julie Dixon, deputy director of Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication.

The Center for Social Impact Communication, housed in the school’s Master of Professional Studies in Public Relations & Corporate Communications program and part of the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies, conducts research and pioneers industry standards for responsible communication practices that benefit society.

Dixon and Denise Keyes, founder of the Center for Social Impact Communication and senior associate dean of Georgetown University’s Division of Professional Communication, co-authored the research article, “The Permanent Disruption of Social Media,” published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

“We are pleased to have our research published in this award-winning magazine for social change leaders in the non-profit, business and government sectors,” Keyes said. "Our research continues to help drive the conversation around responsible communication and its role in deepening the impact that individuals and organizations can have.”

Social Donor Behavior Explored

In 2010, the center partnered with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide to conduct a quantitative study of how Americans interact with and support causes and social issues, including their interactions via social media. The findings suggest that, for social media users, engagement with organizations and causes is more fluid and dynamic than past models of donor behavior suggest.

Older models, for example, view people as steadily climbing a ladder or pyramid as they become more active in their engagement and donations with organizations and causes. However, social media users tend to engage on multiple levels, simultaneously, without significant entry points or endpoints in their engagement behaviors.

“In practice, it turns out, a person’s engagement with an organization is generally more continuous – and messy,” Dixon and Keyes write.

The Need for a More Dynamic Engagement Model

Instead of thinking about donors in a pipeline or climbing a pyramid or ladder, Dixon and Keyes urge organizations to view donor engagement as a “vortex,” a model that recognizes “more than one route to maximizing a person’s support of a cause or issue.” For example, the authors note that, with the evolution of social media channels, organizations may find it advantageous to cultivate “online ambassadors” and other kinds of influencers who may have been ignored by older models of donor engagement.

“The challenge for organizations is finding ways to maximize contributions of different groups of people with unique desires and resources,” the authors conclude. “One thing is for certain. The pathway into the digital future is not going to be linear journey up a ladder or pyramid.”

More Research to Come

The Center for Social Impact Communication continues to expand its research on donor activities within the social media space, Dixon said. “A new set of findings will be released early next year that dives deeper and provides more insight into online behaviors of volunteers, activists and donors.”