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Study: Social media great for awareness, but not so much for donations

Written on Mar 1, 2024

Nonprofits’ use of social media has been widely shown to increase supporter engagement but the degree to which this engagement translates into more dollars is often less clear, in part, due to the limited number of studies on the topic. In the search for answers, a researcher at Pace University in New York City compared the 2020 charitable giving data of top revenue-generating nonprofits to their social media tractions as measured by their numbers of likes and followers on three platforms.  

While the overall findings showed a positive relationship between social media use and charitable giving, this wasn’t necessarily true across the board for all organizations on all platforms. Details of the study were published last month in a 19-page article, The Impact of Social Media on Charitable Giving for Nonprofit Organizations, written for the Journal of International Technology and Information Management.  

The findings by author Nanchul Shin, Ph.D., a professor at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, showed the level of engagement on Twitter (now X) to be more predictive of the dollar amount of donations than was true of Facebook or Instagram. The different demographics for the various platforms were theorized to be one possible explanation given what at the time was Twitter’s popularity across a wider span of age groups than was true of Facebook or Instagram. Additionally, Twitter had also become a popular place for nonprofits to run hashtag campaigns. 

Facebook, by contrast, had been seeing its popularity level off in recent years though it continued to be widely used especially among adults aged 25 to 35. Instagram was and still is the most heavily skewed to young people. 

While the variance in age groups could partially explain the disparity in giving across different platforms, the broader takeaway from the study was that liking and following an organization’s social media pages doesn’t necessarily translate into a commitment to supporting its mission by making donations. “The online or social media practice of supporting a social cause can be simply done for self-gratification” and “might be just self-serving slacktivism,” Shin wrote. 

The results suggest that “nonprofit organizations do not need to be on every single social media platform. They can choose a few platforms that best suit their content and target a specific audience,” he wrote. 

Shin acknowledged that the research is “not free from limitations,” not least because of the time that has elapsed since the data was collected as well as the subsequent changes undergone by Twitter since its acquisition by Elon Musk and rebranding as X. The culling of data from a single year presents another limitation. While the impact of the pandemic on online giving during 2020 can’t be discounted, Shin noted that online giving had been on upward trajectory for several years even before then. 

The lag time in compiling these results was due partly to the fact that 2020 revenue figures weren’t available until late 2021, Shin said. Correlating this data with the social media data continued into the following year and became the subject of a presentation he gave at an October 2022 conference. The presentation culminated in what he said was his March 2023 submission of a research paper based on his presentation, which underwent a lengthy review before finally being published last month. 

The study presents an area ripe for further research, specifically how different nonprofits can best use different types of social media and why certain platforms are more beneficial than others. Expanding the research to include additional platforms could yield further insights as well. “It would be interesting to study whether there is a differential impact of the age gaps in social media use on donations by including more social media platforms, such as YouTube and Snapchat,” Shin wrote. 

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