If you live in California, you might find these hanging next to the iTunes gift cards at your local supermarket. Facebook Causes now allows its users to make a donation through the purchase of a gift card, and direct the funds online via the Causes app. The limited California launch means that Causes is testing the water to see how popular these gift cards are.
While I'm excited to see the idea of the charity gift card spreading and charitable gift alternatives becoming more popular, I'm skeptical of the Causes engine. Don't get me wrong--people talking about the causes they're passionate about gets other people thinking, and sometimes even doing, and that's a great thing. But there's been a lot of debate over whether or not Causes is an effective tool.
The most awesome thing about Facebook Causes is that it's a grassroots tool. Everyday people are encouraged to start their own Cause, recruit others to it, circulate petitions, and hook their Cause up with a nonprofit that reflects their goals. Any money raised for the Cause goes to the nonprofit. If Sally thinks dogfighting is horrible and starts a Cause to end it, she'll create her own messaging, recruit her own friends and acquaintances to join, and connect her Cause to the ASPCA, who campaign against dogfighting as well. Any donations made will not go to Sally--who doesn't really have the tools to stop dogfighting--but to the ASPCA. Grassroots growth is the future of nonprofit, and Causes is a great tool for that. So far, so good.
There's one catch: so far, Causes has not been an effective fundraiser. Sally's anti-dogfighting Cause might take off and gain 100, 150 members--maybe even a thousand. But statistically, most of the members will click "join" and promptly move on, wallet firmly shut. It's too easy to be all talk on Facebook. If a Cause is going to raise substantial funds for its nonprofit, it's got to have a well-planned, extensive marketing strategy and a tireless, loud-voiced person behind that. Only a few Causes have managed really successful fundraisers. Some of these successful Causes are built and operated by the nonprofits they fund, which is fine--but hardly the grassroots movement that Causes was meant to embody.
None of this is really that bad. Even if Causes isn't a perfect tool, it's a great idea, it does make people aware of organizations and their needs, and there's no saying what it will evolve into in the future. And a Causes gift card is certainly a smarter purchase than Farmville dollars.