Civic Engagement 2.0: Advocacy, Philanthropy, Volunteerism and the effect of Social Media

I am re-posting this from another blog of mine to see if it gets any interest. A much shorter version is being published hopefully in December.

The following is a book review essay I wrote for my doctoral seminar.  Let me know what you think. The book is

My review starts here:

Civic Engagement has been tremendously impacted over the past several decades due to rapidly changing technologies. This digital evolution is becoming more apparent as many organizations are using information technologies to assist with advocacy, philanthropy, volunteering, and organizationally based activities. Web 2.0 technology or social media represents the next phase of this evolution as many organizations are utilizing social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in exciting and innovative ways. Avenues once thought to be primarily about entertainment or self-fulfillment are now mechanisms for creating movements, encouraging action, and promoting positive social change. CauseWired by Tom Watson represents a treatise on how social media is impacting civic engagement today.

Advocacy, philanthropy, and volunteerism are three general areas of civic engagement that provide the framework for the following discussion to better understand how social media, and web 2.0 principles, are diversifying civic engagement. Web 2.0 principles consist of the concept that individuals connect and network through social media platforms in which they become content creators rather than merely content consumers (Hopkins, 2008). Social media platforms generally promote two-way and/or multiple interactions through rich text, images, audio, and videos. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of social media platforms with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube being some of the most popular. Many of these social media platforms have been instrumental in various social movements around the world to empower disadvantaged people and communities.

The adoption of technology enables organizations to utilize resources for increased effectiveness in collaboration, accountability, and advocacy (De Vita & Fleming, 2001; Finn, Maher, & Forster, 2006). Although advocacy is common within social work, electronic advocacy is still emerging as a significant practice technique (Dunlop & Fawcett, 2008). Electronic advocacy incorporates the use of technology with traditional advocacy methods to influence stakeholders and change policy (McNutt & Boland, 1999). Electronic advocacy is not only relegated to changing policy, but also to influencing the broader community in a manner that raises awareness and encourages action.

Social media technologies have transformed the role of advocates on the national and international stage through the use of blogs, video, and particularly through social networking websites. Although advocacy has played a vital role among many nonprofit organizations (Jenkins, 1987), individuals are now able to take up the proverbial banner of advocate and raise awareness about issues that are important to them. Publishing blogs, sending out tweets on Twitter, and producing unique and inspiring videos on YouTube are just some of the ways individual advocates are using social media to promote positive change.

Despite the unique opportunity to utilize social media, nonprofit organizations have been slow to capitalize on the potential of using the Internet (Sargeant, West, & Jay, 2007). Reasons include cost of implementation, expertise, skepticism concerning productive gains, conflicting values, and the fact that Internet use can be an isolating activity (Kraut et al., 1998; Kreuger & Stretch, 2000). Studies concerning effective use of technology and the Internet are mixed (Kang & Norton, 2004; Waters, 2007), and empirical evidence concerning social media specifically is only beginning to materialize. Yet, many professional practitioners continue to urge nonprofit organizations to use social media for a multitude of activities.

Watson (2009) highlights two individuals who continue to write about social media use in nonprofit organizations. Beth Kanter ( is a leading expert on social media use in nonprofit organizations and provides unique insight on how organizations can best use social media. Her writings and leadership exemplify how individuals can use something as small as a blog to raise awareness about devastating weather events or encouraging people to donate to specific causes such as Route Out of Poverty for Cambodian Children. Watson (2009) describes her as a prolific writer and passionate leader who knows how to advocate through social media.
Allison Fine ( is another individual who understands the power of social media to raise awareness and encourage positive change. Watson (2009) describes how Allison Fine has authored several publications on the subject of social media and youth participation. At a time when some would argue that civic engagement is declining (Putnam 1995; Kraut et al., 1998), Fine describes the interconnection between technology and the ideals of a so-called disengaged generation. This generation of net natives are growing up with technology, and believe that they can make the world a better place, and are living their lives in a manner that promotes trust, collaboration and connectedness. The power of this connectedness lies in social networking that allows users to instantly email, blog, upload and download information to incessantly Tweet or poke friends on Facebook to educate and raise awareness.

Chapter five of Watson’s book is primarily dedicated to illustrating how individuals use Facebook and other social media platforms to promote positive change. Blending several empirical studies with examples of how social media is impacting real world issues such as poverty and hunger, illuminates just how civic engagement is diversifying through social media. Individuals are using Facebook and social gaming applications to participate in relief efforts that they would never have had a chance to otherwise. This is perhaps more prevalent in the area of philanthropy.

It is interesting to note that towards the end of chapter five, Watson (2009) includes an excerpt from an individual who explains how, in five years, technology will change how nonprofit organizations engage in fundraising, political rallies, or disaster relief efforts by utilizing mobile technology such as the cell phone. It is interesting because it has been less than five years and organizations have already successfully harnessed the power of mobile technology to raise millions of dollars for earthquake relief. This shift in fundraising represents exactly how technologies are rapidly changing the nonprofit sector.

Before the swift and mobile response of individuals to donate funds towards disaster relief via text message, organizations used the Internet to engage in e-relationship marketing, although not very effectively (Sargeant, West, Jay, 2007; Waters, 2007). This type of marketing requires organizations to view donors as partners in the process of mission achievement, and thus organizations should design websites with a focus of engagement rather than a static webpage with a simple donate here button (Sargeant, West, & Jay, 2007). Effective nonprofit fundraising websites focus on making the process of giving simple, such as providing a donation link on each of their webpage’s, and ensuring that navigating the site is relatively easy. Providing a clear explanation of how the donation will be used enhances the relational components of the website and may cultivate a relationship with that individual (Sargeant, West, & Jay, 2007). This promotes transparency and accountability in a way that encourages individuals to donate more often.

Despite the charge for increased interaction between individuals and nonprofit organizations, studies have shown that many organizations fail to produce a quality relationship (Kang & Norton, 2004; Waters, 2007). In addition to creating a user friendly website, organizations may also want to incorporate more interactive functions such as discussion forums, live chat, or online surveys (Waters, 2007). Social media characterizes how nonprofit organizations can utilize the Internet to engage their donors through e-relationship marketing as outlined previously.

Watson’s (2009) chapter entitled Friending for Good: The Facebook Philanthropists, articulates what e-relationship marketing looks like through the use of social media. Profiling the use of the application Causes on Facebook, Watson demonstrates how a Harvard Medical student attracted more than a million members in three months. Eric Ding created The Campaign for Cancer Research cause on Facebook, one of the very first causes, and with a few friends and the use of social networks the cause amassed 3.1 million members after the first year. Although the platform has not been a significant revenue-generating source, it has created massive amounts of attention for cancer research and a database of potential donors, advocates, or supporters. The Causes application on Facebook is just one way social media is illuminating important and worthwhile projects, organizations, and social movements.

The newest way that social media is transforming philanthropy is through peer-to-peer philanthropy. This concept consists of the ability of individuals to donate a small amount of money into a funding pool that is spent on projects that they choose. Chapter four consists of several examples of peer-to-peer philanthropy such as Kiva and DonorsChoose. Kiva is an organization that provides micro-loans to individuals in disadvantaged communities. Individuals can go to their website to see applications from entrepreneurs who are seeking small to large sized loans to finance their own businesses. In this way, individuals can participate in large-scale philanthropic efforts that may have been left to more conventional foundations or organizations.

DonorsChoose is an organization that funds public school projects. Individuals can log onto their website to search for projects that might have a certain meaning to them. Watson (2009) describes donating a small amount of money towards a classroom that was purchasing books by Mark Twain. Once projects have hit their target goal, the organization uses social media to provide an update and tell the story of how the money has been used. Blogging about funded projects, posting videos, pictures, and sending out notifications allow these organizations to raise funds, cultivate donor relationships, and democratize philanthropy. Demonstrating how the funds are used also represents a transparent process that promotes accountability within organizations. This is particularly important if the organization hopes to see future engagement from various stakeholders and earn the trust of all their supporters (Ingram, 2009).

Volunteers in nonprofit organizations provide time, money, specialized expertise, leadership, and represent a workforce that expands the overall capacity of an organization to address key issues (Korngold, Voudouris, & Griffiths, 2006). Effectively using volunteers’ means investing in the time they commit to by providing them with certain skills and direction through volunteer training. This compels many organizations to identify the capacity in human resources, technology, marketing and recruitment, and administration necessary to utilize volunteers (Brudney, 1998). However, Korngold et al. (2006) argue that each dollar invested in volunteerism yields multiple dollars of volunteer time and value.

Utilizing social media is one way nonprofit organizations have begun to increase their volunteer base and address some of the issue identified above. The unique ability of social media means that volunteers do not necessarily have to be on site at the organization in order to volunteer. In stead, they can volunteer their time by writing an article, or snapping pictures for the organizations blog, or creating a video for YouTube. Twitter and Facebook are also employed to harness social networks and encourage friends and family to volunteer in a variety of ways. Nonprofit organizations can use social media to provide virtual training to volunteers and answer questions that individuals have before they donate their time, money, or skills to the organization. Utilizing social media can encourage social interaction, which has been shown to increase volunteering (Wilson & Musick, 1998). Advertising volunteer time, promoting special volunteer events, or encouraging individuals through these platforms simplifies the process of utilizing volunteers in diverse ways.

One of the unique ways social media can mobilize volunteers is through flash mobs. Flash mobs, smart mobs, or flash causes are all similar concepts with the idea being that individuals or organizations use technology, such as text messaging or even Twitter, to organize groups that meet at a specified location for a specific purpose. Dunlop and Fawcett (2008) articulate smart mobs in the same way, but add that these groups are socially motivated to respond to local conditions in an organized manner where they advocate for a certain cause. Chapter seven is all about the rise of these groups and their use of social media. Watson (2009) highlights two clear examples of how individuals organized via social networks, volunteered their time, and advocated for change.

One of the most successful examples of the use of social media includes the 2008 Presidential campaign of Barrack Obama, where his political team utilized social networks to mobilize millions of volunteers and raise over three quarters of a billion dollars (Scearce, Kasper, & Grant, 2009). Watson (2009) draws on this example as well as several other examples of social media that have transformed politics. Much of this chapter illustrates how important YouTube can be for volunteers working on political campaigns. The most prominent example is that of S.R. Sidarth, who recorded Republican candidate George Allen calling him “Macaca.” Sidarth uploaded this video to YouTube and it went viral from there. The “macaca moment” changed the political landscape and the use of social media has since flourished in politics as evidenced by the 2008 Presidential campaign.

Some have argued that volunteering would change because of modernization (Hustinx & Lammertyn, 2003). Nonprofit organizations are using social media platforms such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to organize and recruit volunteers, and to call attention to important issues (Waters, Burnett, Lamm, & Lucas, 2009). These organizations exemplify how volunteerism is diversifying and are emerging as leaders in the civic engagement 2.0 movement.

The core of social media is about using networks to make connections and expand upon the knowledge and actions of social groups. This idea is better understood through Network theory and the use of strong and weak tie strategies (Granovetter, 1973). In the strong tie strategy, leaders create close, trusting relationships with a small number of highly central and influential others (Granovetter, 1973). Because of this smaller, intimate circle, information is often deemed more credible, though strong ties do not often stimulate innovation. The weak tie strategy, with a broader range of contacts, provides a greater source of new ideas, information and resources for leaders and proves more effective in rapidly changing environments (Granovetter, 1973).

Social media is full of both weak and strong ties. Leaders who understand the value in weak ties know how to transform them into strong ties and social media makes this process relatively easy. Watson (2009) provides insight into how leaders undertake this transformation by articulating several points. The most important being, an organization that is leading the charge must know how to balance control. Change cannot be forced and sometimes control needs to be given back to the community. After all, online organizing needs to be complimented with offline action, someone needs to take the lead and others will naturally follow.

Conclusion: Civic Engagement 2.0
Nonprofit organizations utilizing social media need to be cognizant that these tools are not merely for communication or fund raising. Social media use becomes the mechanism for nonprofits to enhance participation in democracy or community through networks. The network approach provides the conceptualization for how organizations exchange economic, social and intellectual goods (Paarlberg & Varda, 2009). It becomes a new way for the voluntary sector to create social capital and build on features that enable participants to act together more effectively and pursue shared objectives (Putnam, 1995). Perhaps this innovative and seemingly inexpensive way to create social capital is why many in the nonprofit sector have embraced social media.

Tom Watson has demonstrated how, just as the Internet became Web 2.0 through the use of social media, the production of social capital is diversifying through civic engagement 2.0. The second version, or civic engagement 2.0, is not meant to replace the conventional view of civic engagement. Civic engagement 2.0 is meant to include connections and actions that bind individuals to their communities and the political system, just as civic engagement does (Paxton, 2002; Putnam, 1995). The main difference between the two is that through social media and other technologies, civic engagement 2.0 allows nonprofit organizations and individuals to tap into the power of networks to raise awareness and advocate for certain issues.
Civic engagement 2.0 allows organizations to diversify and democratize philanthropy so anyone can identify and choose a project that is significant to them. Civic engagement 2.0 increases organizational capacity to recruit and organize volunteers. Most importantly, civic engagement 2.0 permeates the fabric of disengagement by establishing personal connections with many and cultivating new relationships with individuals in a neighborhood, community, nation, or abroad. In short, civic engagement 2.0 builds what on Alexis de Tocqueville claimed is the saving grace of this country, its healthy associational life (1969).

CauseWired is an engaging and illustrative work on the use of social media today. The poignant examples, historical synopsis, and personal commentary make this book a worthwhile read for anyone interested in how social media is diversifying civic engagement. Looking forward to the future and how technology is rapidly changing as well as altering the voluntary sector, additional research and conceptual insight will be needed to better evaluate what tools and methods offer the most benefit and practicality for the sector.

Technology and social media will continue to evolve and have effects upon all aspects of civic engagement. Several years from now may produce civic engagement 3.0 with radically different perceptions of how to engage individuals. No matter what happens in the future, nonprofit organizations posses the immense opportunity to increase social capital and promote civic engagement (Passey & Lyons, 2006). Utilizing social media offers unique possibilities to increase all areas of civic engagement. However, social media merely represents the tools that enable individuals to promote change. In the end real change does not result from technology, but from individuals who care enough to take a chance (Watson, 2009).

I retain all rights and permissions for this work. But feel free to make some comments.


About jimmysw
Associate Professor of Social Work with a focus on the Future of Social Media, Social Work Education and all things technology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: