STUDY: A Million Facebook Friends Won’t Guarantee Fundraising Success

One of the best things about peer-to-peer fundraising is that it allows you to reach past your usual audience and connect with other potential supporters in their networks. One donor could become a fundraiser that recruits ten new supporters.

It might seem then, that people with the biggest social networks would make the best fundraisers. After all, they have a bigger pool of people to ask for help. But research into the fundraising success of people with different numbers of Facebook friends tells us this is not the case.

In November, the International Economic Review published a study by Professor Kimberley Scharf that shows a negative correlation between a fundraiser’s number of Facebook friends and their fundraising results. Scharf, who works with the Center for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at Warwick University, used data from to explore why your most popular Facebook users aren’t necessarily your ideal fundraisers.

What, Me Donate?

The research, which was first presented at the 2012 International Institute of Public Finance Congress, showed that as the size of a social network increased the average donation size decreased. Scharf points to the concept of “free-riding” to explain why more Facebook friends wouldn’t necessarily increase fundraising gifts.

Professor Scharf explains in a press release

Information transmission about giving opportunities is undermined by ‘free riding’ incentives – I count on other neighbours to convey information and so save on the effort of doing it myself. If there is less information flowing about who are the more effective charities, then not all donations will be going to the best performing charity and there will be a reduction in the charitable good or service. As well as relying on others to pass on information, it may also be true that people are even relying on others to donate.

Simply put, when people are part of a large social network, they feel they can rely on everyone else to share information about the charity or make donations. This recalls the well-known psychological concept, The Bystander Effect. It states that people feel less responsible to take action in an emergency if there are others around.

To explain how this affects a peer-to-peer fundraiser, let’s look at an example.

Let’s say Sam and Dana, both friends of yours, are each fundraising for a cause. You know Dana is very active on Facebook, with over 1,000 friends, but Sam keeps his network to under 100. If both people posted on the platform asking their friends to donate, you might look at the size of Dana’s network and think, “Tons of people are probably giving to his campaign page.”

With fewer people getting Sam’s appeal, fewer people being asked, you might feel that Sam’s campaign needs your support more than Dana’s. The problem for Dana is that many of his Facebook friends will probably be thinking the same thing you did, “He has so many friends, I bet lots of them donated.” But if everyone thinks other people are taking action, then many people won’t bother to help at all.

While there are lots of other factors in a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign, this simplified example shows how having a large number of Facebook friends could work against a fundraiser.

Keep Fundraising Personal

Research such as this underscores the importance of specific, personal asks, even in a peer-to-peer campaign. The findings don’t mean, however, that a popular Facebook user can’t be an effective fundraiser. The key may be to explain to fundraisers that simply updating their Facebook status is not enough. While this is certainly a good way to raise awareness of a personal campaign, explain fundraisers may be more successful if they break up their overall group of friends and contacts into smaller groups.

Advise them to create a separate email asking family and close friends to donate. They can then send another message appealing to their work colleagues and one for their Tuesday night softball league. The point is to create smaller, more intimate networks and make the asks seem specific to those individuals.

And while your fundraising software can make sure donors get an automatic thank you from the organization, tell your fundraisers how important a personal “thank you” can be. Even a comment on the fundraising page or a text message, shows the donor that their action was appreciated, not just by the nonprofit, but by their friend.


A big social network does not guarantee a successful fundraiser, but however big or small the social circle, persistence and a personal touch goes a long way.

This is good news because your supporters with smaller networks might be more successful than you thought, and with some guidance, your most popular fundraisers can make the most of their networks. Fundraising both relies on and builds community, so reach out to your supporters and explain how they can leverage their friends and family to help your cause.

We want to know, who are your best fundraisers are and how do you support them?

Let us know in the comments!

WOW Donors, Improve Retention


Image Source: National Library NZ

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