This holiday season, some of Maryland's oldest charities are reaching out to donors and volunteers, not only with the usual "snail-mail" appeals and kettles on the corner, but with tweets on the Internet and clicks of the mouse.
Facebook fans of the Salvation Army can create virtual kettles on their pages and ask their friends to make donations without ever visiting a real storefront kettle. The United Way and Red Cross are tweeting their latest news of families helped and fund drives launched.
No one can yet say whether the new social media are effective ways to raise money, but that's the goal, charities say. "We're hoping to get this new audience, and we hope in the end there is a fundraising component with it," said Amrit Dhillon, communications director for the United Way of Central Maryland.
The new online efforts are especially urgent now as a punishing recession simultaneously increases need and decreases donations.
Dhillon said this season the United Way has been focusing on Twitter to get its message out. A Twitter message is limited to 140 characters including, perhaps, a hyperlink to a United Way Web page. But if just one of the recipients then "re-tweets" an interesting message to their list of, say, 2,000 followers, that amplifies the United Way's voice six-fold at no extra cost.
The American Red Cross of Central Maryland uses its Twitter feed (Twitter.com/RedCrossCntrlMD) frequently to tell its 156 followers that another Red Cross team has assisted yet another family burned out of its home. There have been links to news releases, a request for a photographer, and notes of thanks for large donations.
"I saw that was the way folks were going, in terms of mobile communications," said chapter spokesman Douglas Lent. As newsrooms shrink, it might be faster and cheaper to reach reporters with a 140-character story pitch than with a news release.
It's also easier to go around the old media and reach constituencies and donors directly, Lent said. "Our donor base is starting to get it, and [philanthropic] foundations and so forth are signing up."
The Red Cross also has a Facebook page that has been effective in keeping 400 "friends" and volunteers engaged.
But will the social media increase donations? "That's the $10,000 question," Lent said. "Right now it's all anecdotal ... [but] every day somebody new is following you on Twitter. I have to believe they care; they're interested."
It's the same impulse to jump in and hope for the best that has surged through so many institutions in recent years, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Centers' Internet and American Life Project.
Older hands within the nonprofits "were sort of aghast. The common reputation of Twitter is that it's frivolous, which isn't the case," Rainie said. "If it's set up right, it's a rich environment of lots of learning and sharing of important material. It's not just 'what I had for breakfast.' "
He dates the trend to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and an intensified interest in finding new ways to connect with other people; and to 2004, when the congressional elections and the Indian Ocean tsunami converged with a new surge of online giving. "People's eyes were opened," he said.
The United Way of Central Maryland began using Twitter (/unitedwaycentmd) in March. Its staff has since posted more than 330 tweets and attracted more than 360 followers. Those tweets simultaneously update the chapter's two-year-old Facebook page.
"Hopefully, I'm giving you information you want to know ... in a clever way," said Dhillon. And perhaps that will draw you to the United Way Web site, she said, "capturing your attention so you're learning more about us and what we do and, hopefully, getting you to engage."
And perhaps to donate, although so far, there's little evidence of a boost in donations to the United Way through social media contacts. "It wasn't a golden egg," Dhillon said.
Rainie, at the Pew Centers, says no one knows yet quite how to measure the impact of the social media. "Nobody yet has the full dashboard for how to measure each of these different realms in the right way," he said.
The Salvation Army's "virtual kettle" may soon begin to answer the question.
The Baltimore Area Command hopes to raise $600,000 this season from its 100-plus actual storefront kettles, said the command's director, Maj. Roger Coulson.
The drive also invites credit-card donations through its own Web site, and by telephone (800-725-2769). Some Salvation Army commands are experimenting with accepting credit cards at their kettles, and at unmanned kiosks, though Baltimore is not yet among them.
For now, Coulson hopes the social media will add another avenue for giving.
The virtual kettles are available through the command's Facebook page ( www.facebook.com/SalvationArmyBAC). Facebook users add an "application" - a bit of software and a Salvation Army kettle button - to their own pages. Friends who visit the page can then click on the button and make a donation. The page hosts then receive reports on how much money their buttons have raised.
"Church groups can do it; school classrooms can do it," Coulson said. "Even college students or young professionals, they prefer to do things online and they like these social groups."
Whatever the future holds, the charities are in the game, hoping for the best.
"Little by little, it's going to make a huge difference, we believe," Coulson said.