For some reason, the winter issue of Fast Company landed on my doorstep last week, with a cover story about Ashton Kutcher's social media venture, Katalyst. While I neither own nor work for a fast company of any kind, the allure of celebrity and Kutcher's face (see left) was too much to resist. I devoured the article.
From what I understand (again, no fast-company experience), Katalyst tries to advertise and brand products through social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. As the ultimate information-sharing method, social media has been heralded as a way to spread the good word of charities and leverage lots and lots of individual donations.
Kutcher did just that with Malaria No More, raising money through a Twitter campaign with a simple message: "Every 30 seconds, a kid dies of malaria. Nets save lives." A $10 donation to Malaria No More can buy a net and the Katalyst campaign was able to raise enough for 90,000 nets, or $900,000.
However, Malaria No More does a lot more than buy nets. Their website says that "your donation supports our entire effort to protect every family at risk," not just by buying nets, but also advocacy work. Using donations seemingly given for a specific item for other means isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Kataylst's partnership with Malaria No More makes me wonder if social media can encourage social investments, or the inherent superficial nature of it (Twitter posts can only be 140 characters long) will create deceptions and illusions about what donors are actually contributing to.Without engaging people beyond a few clicks, social media will just allow people to think that they are supporting "good work" and not encourage them to look for effectiveness.
Not much information of substance about a charity can be gleaned from a tweet or a Facebook wall. Disseminating charitable information through personal connections makes people focus on the positive and not ask critical questions. Both GuideStar and GreatNonProfits allow people to review charities they have worked with and almost all profiled have near-perfect reviews.
Social investments will not be effective without transparency and accountability and social media does not have the capacity to support the discussions needed for those requirements. The only way I could see a social medium helping is if it points to more in-depth information about an organization, like Kiva has done (although that tweet greatly oversimplifies the issues.)
The benefits from social media for non-profits are mediocre at best and its effects on donors could actually be detrimental. As we can see from Kutcher's involvement with Malaria No More, I think social media will ultimately be used to mobilize feel-good donations and not the critically-thought-out social investments needed.