Thursday, May 21, 2009

Facebook clicks with Lower Hudson Valley nonprofits reported that Facebook isn't just for hooking up with your friends, finding old college roommates and getting updates on your favorite TV show.

Not-for-profit organizations are increasingly making their presence known on the popular online social network.

Several Lower Hudson Valley agencies recently created profile pages to call attention to their programs, raise money from their newfound "friends" and attract a new generation of volunteers.

"Facebook is really the new frontier in terms of communicating with current donors, having the potential to find new donors and really having the chance to stay in touch on a much more instantaneous level," said Rand Otten, a spokeswoman for Putnam ARC, a Brewster-based organization that works with people with developmental disabilities.

Putnam ARC has a multitiered presence on Facebook - a profile page, a user group for Partners with PARC, its charitable arm, as well as a "cause" page for donations.

"In this day and age, you need to be available," said Otten, who also has PARC on the social networks Twitter and LinkedIn.

There are no hard numbers available on how many local nonprofits are using Facebook, but a quick search by county and agency name turned up fewer than 30 agencies.

Officials acknowledge they aren't quite sure how to harness the potential of tapping into Facebook's 200 million active users worldwide. But they did know that Facebook's fastest-growing demographic is people 35 and older, just the kind of people who support causes with time and money.

"I don't think there is a better option than Facebook right now," said Kiera Pollock, director of sexual trauma services for the Rockland Family Shelter, which works with victims of domestic violence.

While national nonprofits such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have developed a strong following on Facebook, Pollock said, the challenge will be for local agencies to get the word out. To that end, Pollock wants to do more than just post event listings and photographs. She plans to create a discussion board where young people can talk about issues.

A recent survey of more than 1,000 nonprofits nationwide found that three had a presence on Facebook, most for less than two years.

Holly Ross, executive director of NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network, one of three groups that conducted the survey, said 40 percent of survey respondents reported raising money on Facebook, but 29 percent raised $500 or less over the past 12 months.

"You don't want to have high expectations at this point because we don't know how to do it the right way yet," said Ross, whose organization is based in Portland, Ore. "At this point, you should be thinking of it as an experiment."

Laura Schwartz, executive director of the White Plains-based Child Abuse Prevention Center of New York, said her reason for joining in March was exposure.

"We're one of the best-kept secrets in Westchester and that's really horrible for a nonprofit," said Schwartz, whose agency employs six people and has 68 volunteers.

Otten, of Putnam ARC, recently hosted a breakfast to introduce social networking for area nonprofits. Of the 25 nonprofits in attendance, fewer than five were on Facebook. Most saw it as a better alternative than quarterly newsletters and e-mail blasts, but they didn't know how to set up a page (it takes about 15 minutes).

Plus, the price was right: free.

Since Meals on Wheels Programs and Services of Rockland joined Facebook's cause section two months ago, 84 people have joined. The Nanuet agency has also raised $210 toward its goal of $1,000 to provide home delivery of meals to four clients in June.

Jim Burton, assistant executive director for operations for Meals on Wheels, said his agency, like many nonprofits, isn't entirely sure of what it hopes to accomplish on Facebook, but he is certain that they need to be there.

"It's crucial because it's a world that revolves around technology," he said. "This is going to be expected by people down the road."

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