Impact of Social Media on Philanthropy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Social Media
Social/Cultural Issues
Social media has a large and growing impact on philanthropy and action for the common good. Crowdfunding, marketing, advocacy, and promotion of nonprofits are some ways social media can advance the cause of a nonprofit or social action. Because it is free, social media is accessible to people from all backgrounds who want to make a difference toward what they care about.

Written by Nora Dietz-Kilen



As the internet has grown, so has the nonprofit and voluntary sector, and in connection, so have generations of people who have never known a world without social media. With increasingly more people gaining access to the internet and integrating its usage into their daily activity, it was only a matter of time before philanthropy got involved. As social media grows, so does its impact on philanthropy through different routes like crowdfunding and public relations for nonprofit organizations. A relatively new phenomenon, social media is a worthwhile tool to use in the nonprofit setting.

Social media, also known as “social networking sites”, is a group of internet applications, most easily recognized by well-known brands like Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Though they each have their own design, interface and mode of connecting people, the common thread that binds them is that they are online website applications that provide the ability to connect people remotely at a pace faster and on a greater scale than anything else seen in recent years. Users can publish their own unedited posts for a wide audience to see, and also interact with what other people share.

Nonprofit organizations can and do use social media to advertise events, share fundraising links, post statistics to show a donor’s return on investment, and more. Especially in an environment where the number of nonprofits is growing, a distinct image and presence on social media can help a nonprofit to stand out among overlapping audiences. However, many nonprofit organizations lack the time, resources, and training to effectively use social media to their advantage and benefit (Asencio 2013).

To distinguish it from other forms of media, social media differs from television and newspaper in that it allows for two way communication between sender and receiver, and between multiple senders and receivers. Further, social media is typically free and therefore accessible to anyone who has access to the internet, which can span across a wide array of backgrounds.

Historic Roots

Though presently ubiquitous, social media has only been around since the late 1990's. Six Degrees has been coined as the first social network, and therefore its creation in 1997 has been hallmarked as the birth of social media. Six Degrees was based on the concept of “six degrees of separation” and allowed users to create a profile and friend other users.

In 2000, around one hundred million people had access to the internet and began interacting with each other online,  with the use of chat rooms setting the stage for what was to come.

The first real surge of social media came in the form of Myspace in 2003. More familiar to the older half of the millennial generation, Myspace served as the inspiration for sites to come, such as Facebook. It also featured a music publication portion, where amateur artists could be discovered - like the now famous singer Colbie Caillat.

In 2005, two social media titans arrive on the scene - Facebook and Twitter. Though Facebook now holds the title of the #1 most used social network, it didn’t start off that way. It originated as a social network site just between students at Harvard University. Users can create a profile and join a group, and as Facebook has evolved, can now share life updates through statuses, post photos, engage with business pages, and more. This concept grew in popularity and quickly spread across the country to a far wider audience.
Twitter was inspired by the popularity of texting, which at the time, often had a limited amount of characters per message. Transferring this texting fad to the online world, Twitter allows users to type out and share their thoughts with a 140 character limit for tweets. Though not as big as Facebook, Twitter still holds its own at over five hundred million users.

The group of social media applications, or "apps", beginning in 2010 include Snapchat founded in 2011, Instagram in 2010, and LinkedIn in 2002, to name a few. A significant point to note is that around this same time, businesses started joining in the social media networks. Noticing the untapped yet enormous audience potential, businesses started increasing their visibility exponentially by attaching their Twitter and Facebook usernames to websites, drawing people in to recruit volunteers, buyers, stockholders, and more with a promoted Tweet or Facebook post (History 2017).  


As seen in the Historic Roots section, social media is growing in users and apps at an unprecedented rate. Further, because of its unique ability to become woven into the daily life of an impossibly diverse array of people, social media stands to be irreplaceable. Both its size and value speak to the importance of social media. Therefore, people and organizations must keep tempo or even ahead of the fast-paced environment.

For example, nonprofit organizations must shift their tools of measuring communication success so as not to underestimate their communication goals. The transfer of communication from face-to-face to online does not indicate a decrease in communication, but rather an increase in global connectivity (Filieri 2015). Including social media in digital communications is important, but on an ever-changing scale as social media platforms evolve daily.  Staff members must be trained not just to recognize but to use online engagement through social media as a tool for action, not a side effect of it.

However, creating a page is not enough. With such a fast-paced and ever-changing medium, it is important for these social networking sites to be actively used. “Solely having a profile will not in itself increase awareness or trigger an influx of participation. Instead careful planning and research will greatly benefit nonprofits as they attempt to develop social networking relationships with their stakeholders” (Waters 2009).

In this context, it is important to note that by its very nature, social media connects to the humankind included in the word, “Philanthropy”, which means “love of humanity.” More specifically, it means the voluntary dedication of personal wealth and skills to benefit a public cause (Anheier 8). Humanity also puts the “social” in social media, which connects a purpose with the tools to do something.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Social media connects to the nonprofit sector through a multitude of ways, including public relations, accountability, and direct communication.

Public relations is perhaps the easiest and most visible way that social media ties to the nonprofit sector.  Using sites like Facebook and Twitter for public relations is a fast and free way for a nonprofit to spread awareness. For example, individuals in The American Red Cross participated in a study that resulted in demonstrating that public relations is a necessity for nonprofit organizations to stay engaged in the digital age (Moyer 2011).  

One challenge, however, is that the free price of the social media applications does not mean that the organization should not calculate the time spent on learning new applications, regularly updating posts, researching effective strategies to push the posts out to targeted audiences, and the time it takes to do all of this.

Further, social media provides visibility and transparency, and therefore accountability for all people involved in or tied to the non profit organization - volunteers, constituents, competitors, and all stakeholders. Web-based accountability becomes more important for nonprofit organizations to use in communicating with their stakeholders. This is an impactful way to disclose financial and performance information to those who are interested in seeing a return on investment, or simply put, that their funds are being used well (Saxton 2011).

However, though quenching a stakeholders’ thirst for results, social media is too often being used as a one-way communication route by organizations. The benefit of social media comes in the “social” part, in the active engagement with users across their targeted, or even untargeted audiences. A recent study on nonprofit organizations’ use of Twitter showed that some of the largest organizations are using less than 20% of their Tweets to actually respond and converse with users. Ideally, this implies that instead of responses, constituents are hearing a message and creating subsequent action not noted in a tweet. But while the issue of a mass audience is in knowing who to answer and finding the time to do so, a nonprofit organizations’ survival in a world multiplying in nonprofits is contingent on staying relevant and in the public eye. To do so, the two-way communication is critical for organizations to know how to improve and for their constituents to at least feel that they are heard (Lovejoy 2012).

Key Related Ideas

  • Crowdfunding is fundraising through small amounts from many people. One popular method of crowdfunding is using social media in philanthropy. Known through viral projects like the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge,” crowdfunding in philanthropy is typically online based, as opposed to person to person, traditional fundraising (ALS 2017). Crowdfunding is rather new and still growing, but already comes with its own issues to consider. For example, while most charitable solicitation laws regulate fundraising, none of them specifically address solicitations through the internet, mobile technology, or crowdfunding - yet (Correspondent 2015).
  • The problem of the megaphone” refers to social media giving everyone a soapbox to stand on and share their raw, unedited, sometimes uninformed opinions. In connection with nonprofit organizations, this could mean that fifty different organizations preach the same mission and plea for fundraising, while only one of them is qualified to handle the funds properly and appropriately (Hammock 2017).
  • Slacktivism is a term used to define when social media is used as a crutch rather than a tool to feign activism. This is when people or an organization posts something like “Thoughts & Prayers” on social media after a tragic event, but offer no true follow-through or usable support. It is low-cost, low-risk “activism”, often through quick posts on social media, which is a potentially significant downfall of social media’s impact on philanthropy if it continues to replace actual activism (Lee 2013).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The C’Mon Team! is a nonprofit organization comprised of creatives in media who volunteer their time and talents to spread the word of nonprofits and the stories they hold, all in the spirit of community (
  • GoFundMe is just one example of a platform for crowdfunding. Other examples include Kickstarter, IndieGogo and more. These platforms allow people to raise money for personally thrown events ranging anywhere from graduations to illnesses (
  • Social Media 4 Nonprofits covers exactly what it sounds like. This organization provides social media training through conferences and resources to “help nonprofits leverage social media for cause awareness, engagement with stakeholders, fundraising and advocacy”. Some of their topics include increasing event engagement, the worth of a facebook fan to a non profit, and more (

While there are many organizations dedicated solely to social media for nonprofits, some individual nonprofit organizations also have positions solely dedicated to social media, looking for people with experience in social media management. This means making a brand that is consistent and recognizable, that aligns with the organization’s mission, and that addresses their targeted audience of donors, beneficiaries, volunteers, and board members.


Important People

Some of the most prominent figures in social media are those who first created it, almost like the "founding fathers" of Social Media. Fun fact: All of the founders listed below were under the age of 30, most of them college students, when they founded what are now multi-million dollar social media sites. 

  • Tom Anderson, founder of Myspace (born in 1970)
  • Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams, founders of Twitter (born in 1976, 1974 & 1972)
  • Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, founders of Snapchat (born in 1990 & 1988)
  • Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, founders of Instagram (born in 1983 & 1986)
  • Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook (born 1984)

Reflection Question - To address the challenge of maintaining two-way communication in nonprofit organizations, select a nonprofit organization, and point out ways and methods in which its social media does or does not display effective two-way social communication.



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  • Correspondent, Rick Cohen National. "Throwing Cold Water on Ice Bucket Philanthropy." Non Profit News | Nonprofit Quarterly. April 16, 2015.
  • Filieri, Raffaele. “ What makes online reviews helpful? A diagnosticity-adoption framework to explain informational and normative influences in e-WOM.” 2015. Journal of Business Research, 68(6), 1261-1270. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2014.11.006.
  • Haberman, Clyde. "Philanthropy That Comes From a Click." The New York Times. November 13, 2016.
  • Hammock, Dan, Louis Krauss, Hasani Grayson, and Todd Bennington. "Digital age has given everyone a megaphone." The Daily World. February 11, 2017.
  • King, Philip. "Crowdfunding Versus Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." NonProfit PRO. March 31, 2017.
  • Lee, Yu-Hao, and Gary Hsieh.  “Does Slacktivism Hurt Activism?” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI '13. 2013. doi:10.1145/2470654.2470770.
  • Lovejoy, Kristen, Richard Waters, and Gregory Saxton. "Engaging stakeholders through Twitter: How nonprofit organizations are getting more out of 140 characters or less." Public Relations Review. February 09, 2012.
  • Moyer, Jennifer. "Keeping up with the digital age: How the American Red Cross uses social media to build relationships." Institute for Public Relations. June 18, 2014. Accessed December 9, 2017.
  • Saxton, Gregory D., and Chao Guo. "Accountability Online: Understanding the Web-Based Accountability Practices of Nonprofit Organizations." Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 40, no. 2 (2009): 270-95. doi:10.1177/0899764009341086.
  • "The History of Social Media: Social Networking Evolution!" History Cooperative. February 26, 2017.
  • Waters, Richard, Emily Burnett, Anna Lamm, and Jessica Lucas. "The History of Social Media: Social Networking Evolution!" History Cooperative. February 26, 2017.


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.