Over the course of her academic career at Fordham, recent graduate of 2018 Lily Patterson worked several internships at two different nonprofit companies. During her time as an intern, she observed a key difference between the two companies concerning their use of social media. According to Patterson, the larger and more established nonprofit was “present online and really good at interacting with (its) supporters,” whereas the smaller nonprofit with only seven full-time employees simply did not utilize social media. She was very surprised at this difference between the two companies because she knew from her time as an intern that social media is a major marketing tool for attracting donations.
Thus, when it came time for Patterson to do her senior thesis, she had the perfect research situation to explore. She decided to study the ways in which people interact with nonprofit companies on social media. Due to the scope of survey that this broad a question would necessitate however, Patterson narrowed it down to simply: “How do Fordham University students interact with NGOs on various social media platforms?” An NGO, according to Patterson’s definition in her study, is “any non-profit, voluntary citizens’ group which is organized on a local, national or international level.”
Patterson gathered her own data for research by distributing a survey to Fordham students. Questions asked in the survey pertained toward students’ usage of specific social media platforms individually. This specificity, she thought, would allow her to pinpoint “which social media platform is the most conducive to obtaining donations.” She was pleased with the enthusiastic response the survey received at over 100 responses. In addition, the survey yielded some unexpected results. Some of the questions were structured in a yes-or-no format that simply asked students such questions as what social media platforms they use and if they have ever donated on a social media platform. Patterson feels that the open-ended questions in the survey proved to be the most revealing about students’ social media usage in relation to NGOs. While a majority of those surveyed responded that they did not donate to NGOs at all (which Patterson says makes sense given that her sample group is composed entirely of college students), some those who donated said they prefer to donate only on the NGOs’ official websites. Furthermore, Patterson found from this survey that often “even if students don’t donate, they do follow NGOs on a lot of those platforms.” However, the biggest piece of information Patterson gleaned from this data is that despite the fact students follow NGOs more often on Twitter than Facebook, they donate more on Facebook.
While much academic research has been conducted on social media use, little has been conducted based on specific platforms and their relation to NGOs. Because of this, Patterson decided to use the theories of several major election data researchers in order to formulate a conclusion about her data. Using Manuel Castles’ “Network Making Power” theory, she was able to deduce that Facebook was getting more donations because “in the way (she’s) applying (this theory), Facebook would be a network and the NGO would be a network. Facebook has realized that NGOs are a group of people on this site that we can adapt to it. There’s a whole set of tools and a whole page devoted to NGOs. This is where you apply to do this, and you get your donate button and all other different things at Instagram and Twitter don’t have.” In other words, Facebook simply has a better interface for setting up web pages where people can easily make donations. Therefore, donations are not only easy for Facebook users to make to NGOs but are also easy for NGOs to set up. According to Patterson, Facebook has also realized its own “network making power” in its relationship with NGOs and has worked with many companies and organizations into making Facebook the perfect platform for them to use.
The other theory Patterson applied to her research is the theory of “connective action” by W. Lance Bennet and Alexandra Segerberg. “Connective action” occurs when groups of people seek out places to donate on their own initiative. Once again, Patterson finds that Facebook is the platform where this most often occurs on social media. She theorizes this is because Facebook’s interface layout makes it very easy for people to take advantage of its “network making power” and set up pages where people can donate to. Platforms like Twitter simply don’t have this accessibility.
Patterson’s conclusion wrapping up is that her research is “something really important for NGOs to know,” because not a lot of “NGOs… are putting effort into social media and it really can draw people in – especially the younger generation. Given this research, NGOs should primarily focus on Facebook right now, that being said… Twitter and Instagram should use their network making power to expand the ways that NGOs can interact with users on their platforms.”
Currently, Patterson is taking a more hands-on approach to charity by volunteering in the Peace Corps in Lesotho, Africa. While she does not see this time of data analysis playing a major role in her future, she definitely enjoyed conducting a research project with a focus on charity. She hopes to continue her involvement in non-profit work into her career.