Bet that caught your attention.

Unfortunately, a short article is never going to turn you into a social media fundraising superstar. But it can steer you in the right direction. On a fairly regular basis, I hear from charities who lament their aging donor base. They worry about the future of their organization, and feel that the answer is to bring younger people on as donors. And we all know that younger people can be found on Facebook and Twitter, so why not go out and raise a bunch of money using social media? Makes sense, right?

The first thing I always tell them is that social media is not a fundraising tool (not directly, anyway); it’s a communications and stewardship tool. The fact of the matter is that very, very few charities are raising much money using social media platforms. In fact, according to the recently released Nonprofit Social Benchmark Report (produced by NTEN, Common Knowledge and Blackbaud), only 3% of charities raised more than $10,000 on Facebook last year, and less than 1% raised more than $100,000. As for Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and FourSquare … well, the fundraising revenue was negligible.

Those charities that were successful in raising six figures, who the Report calls “Master Fundraisers,” had a few common characteristics: at least two full time staff managing their social media, and a Facebook following of around 100,000 (more than 15 times the general average). Do you share those characteristics? I didn’t think so. So should we just give up on social media? No, of course not. It’s here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, and it’s an important part of our fundraising toolbox –a toolbox that also contains direct mail, telephone, email, face-to-face, and any number of other marketing tools (none of which work all that well in isolation).

The true power of social media to non-profits is in its ability, when done right, to build community, to engage an audience, and to create fan base that will then advocate for and promote your cause. And who do you think will be out ahead when those younger people are ready to choose causes to donate to? It will be those charities who, over the years, have made them feel part of a community; who have engaged them in conversation; and who have made them feel special in some way. But it’s not a simple as just having a social media presence. You need an effective social media presence, and that includes a sound strategy, good listening skills, and the ability to react quickly – especially to a crisis.

Look at the recent controversy around Komen for the Cure’s decision to discontinue funding Planned Parenthood. Just Google “Komen and Planned Parenthood” to read all about it. As soon as the story broke, Facebook and Twitter erupted in opinion and criticism. Planned Parenthood was there from the get go, engaging their social media community, giving them the tools they need to advocate on behalf of the cause, and rallying further support. They even sent an e-appeal out within hours. Komen? Well, they were completely silent for the first 24 hours. And since one social media hour is equivalent to about a month “in real life,” that silence had all sorts of negative repercussions.

Kivi Leroux Miller, on her blog calculated that the ratio of anti-Komen’s decision to pro-Komen’s decision was about 80 to 1 on Twitter alone. So, a sound social media strategy needs to include a bit of disaster planning, but it also needs to focus on engagement. Too many charities use Facebook and Twitter as substitute fax machine, broadcasting press releases to as many people as possible. It’s all push and no pull.

Don’t believe me? Just pull up a few random social media accounts. You’ll see what I mean. Successful charities engage with their audience. Yes, they share information, but they also ask questions, share stories, get into conversations, and give their community the tools they need to help spread the word. Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit. How many likes and shares do you get when you post a photo? Ask a question? Share a press release? What works for your charity (it might not be what works for every charity)? Work hard to get your social media community to sign up for your email list; drive them to your website. That’s where the real online fundraising is going to happen.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue trying to convince charities that social media is not the answer to all their fundraising problems. At the end of the day, mail is still king of the castle from a charity direct marketing point of view.

This post was written by Leah Eustace, ACFRE, former Principal and Chief Idea Goddess at Good Works. It originally appeared in the May 2012 edition of Direct Marketing Magazine.