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Causes abandons 184,674 nonprofit supporters on MySpace

Leaving people behind

This morning, the fundraising application Causes< quietly shut down their presence on MySpace. In their email to administrators of Causes on MySpace, they wrote:

Thank you for the work you’ve done on Causes on MySpace. Due to the lack of activity on MySpace, we’ve decided to focus our efforts on the Causes application on FacebookFacebook is a social network encouraging real identity — each user has a single account under their full, real name. Facebook began among US college students but has quickly expanded to people of all ages around the world.. On Friday at noon EDT, we will be removing all causes from MySpace. In the meantime, you can post a link to a cause on Facebook (or create one at http://apps.facebook.com/causes) asking your members to change over. We appreciate the work you’ve put into your cause community on MySpace and we hope that the broader functionality available on the Causes application on Facebook will offer you even more opportunities to raise awareness, advocate for change and fundraise for your nonprofit. If you have questions, please email support@causes.com.

At that exact moment, Causes on MySpace< had 184,674 current users. That’s 184,674 individual people (minus a few nonprofit staffers) who had taken the time to install an application on MySpace specifically so they could show their support for a nonprofit charity or advocacy group on the social network.

As of today, those nonprofit badges have been removed from each of those 184,674 profiles, with no notice to those supporters as to why their Causes badges have disappeared. (The application’s page on MySpace is still up, with no notification that it’s being shut down; new users who try to add it get a message saying it’s “temporarily unavailable.”)

No notice has been posted to the Causes blog<; Susan Gordon, the Senior Nonprofit Coordinator of Causes, said in an email to me, “We didn’t put the announcement on the blog before because the number of people using the MySpace app is so small.”

Why Causes on MySpace failed: Lack of engagement

It’s not clear from either email when Causes decided to shut down the MySpace side of its operation, or why it chose to do so within just a few days. Causes began on Facebook and has always had more users on there (currently 35.2 million). From Causes’ point of view, MySpace was probably more trouble than it was worth given the percentage of their total users, though I wouldn’t call nearly 200,000 people a “small” number.

Causes on Facebook had, from the beginning, more to offer nonprofits than its MySpace version. Nonprofits could, for instance, send email messages to all their Causes supporters on Facebook — something not possible using Fan Pages or Facebook Groups over 2,000 people. On MySpace, probably due to the limitations of the network itself, there was no such functionality.

In fact, in one of my first write-ups on using social networks for fundraising and advocacy<, I highlighted Causes not as a great way to fundraise but as a great way to engage members. There was less chance for engagement on MySpace; though supporters could still put up a badge demonstrating their support and make donations, in my experience those were actually the least useful parts of Causes.

Again, I suspect this was a limitation imposed by MySpace, so I don’t necessarily fault Causes. The lesson here, though, is that a fundraising widget is not enough of a draw. The chance for engaging supporters — not just in things like one-way email blasts but in things like leaderboards showing the top fundraisers among supporter-created Causes — is, in the end, the “killer” part of this app.

What this means for nonprofits on MySpace

Despite repeated claims that MySpace is “dead,” I continue to think it’s a smart move for many nonprofits to have a presence there.

Sociologist danah boyd has documented the clear socioeconomic< differences< between MySpace and Facebook, and Amy Sample Ward has stressed the need to know your community and where it is<. Facebook, after all, was built by and for middle- and owning-class college-educated folks — exactly those people who fill nonprofit staffs. But if your organization serves a different community<, then simply going where your staff is familiar might not be the best choice.

For those who want to do peer-to-peer fundraising on MySpace, there are still widgets like ChipIn< available for that purpose. They won’t have the “built-in” feel that Causes on MySpace did, but they’re fairly easy to guide people through with a quick training or video.

What this means for nonprofit fundraising on social networks

The bigger lesson here is that you can’t rely on third-party, often for-profit services to support your organization’s interests. To Causes, leaving MySpace to focus on its core community on Facebook made good business sense, but certainly those organizations left in the lurch on MySpace feel otherwise.

I think Rebecca Leaman said it best< — don’t put “all fundraising eggs in one third-party basket!” These services are useful, and can help your organization advance its mission, but it’s not accountable to you — and you need to have other options.

Letting go of your message, holding on to your relationships

I (and many others) have often said that in order to be successful in social media, nonprofits need to be willing to give up some control over their message — to let supporters speak in their own voice. What Causes’ move has exposed, though, is that while it’s important to let go of your message, you still need to have control over your relationships.

Nonprofits don’t own or even control the connections they have with their supporters in these spaces — the comments, messages, badges and memberships of supporters within social networks are all locked within those social networks and are used under contract (terms of service) from the social network.

Systems like Facebook Connect< or OpenSocial< allow those relationships to be exposed elsewhere, but that’s not the same as control. If the social network or service decides the nonprofit has run afoul of the contract, or the company goes bankrupt, cancels services or features, or gets sold to a different company who does — there’s nothing an organization will be able to do.

That’s why it’s important to have multiple channels of communication with supporters and to continually try to move people toward the center< of your organization by deepening involvement, so that if you lose them in one space they don’t simply fade off into the ether.

Open-source, open data, open networks

Amy Sample Ward makes some great points that social change communities may have to take the lead on technology< by pushing for more openness and transparency. I’ve written before, for instance, that community blogs run better on open-source software<, and I think in principle the same is true for social networks.

But nonprofits and social change movements will always have to go where the supporters are — and in many cases that will mean closed, proprietary, walled-garden social networks.

What would it look like if nonprofits and social change movements — which these third party applications often use to market themselves as effective and “good” — started demanding some openness? 

Is it reasonable to assert that organizations and individuals should “own” their relationships, even when within a proprietary network? Can long-term social change happen when connections must be re-built on each new online social network to be developed?

While Causes on MySpace may be no more, I think this event raises some important questions for the relationship between nonprofits, social change, and for-profit software and services. What are your thoughts?

Update: I hadn’t seen Read Write Web’s coverage< of this, but I think it’s worth a read. As I say above, I think Causes’ supposed “failures” to raise tons of money for nonprofits is less of an issue than some might think (for a great perspective on this, see Allison Fine<). But as many of the commenters suggest, the way forward is to explore mechanisms for open-sourcing our relationships from these closed, proprietary systems, be they widgets like Causes or networks like Facebook and MySpace.

Image credit Flickr user cindy47452