While writing this, I was asked for money by Stephen Fry. Not for himself but for one of his pet charities. I get that a lot from Stephen, or should I say "@stephenfry", the Twitter feed of one of world's most prolific users of social media. No sooner had he written 140 characters than his nearly 3.5million "followers" received the charity's web address and priceless celebrity endorsement. Not-for-profits cannot buy that level of exposure. Thanks to the likes of Twitter and Facebook, they don't need to.
A recent survey commissioned by social media agency Umpf showed that three-quarters of Britain's adults have an active Facebook profile. More than half of over-65s use Facebook regularly. A third of us are active on Twitter. A society that is maligned for being "selfish" is, in some respects, sharing more than ever. Often this is in the form of pictures of our children in the snow (riveting) or that OJ Simpson and Amanda Knox share birthdays and acquittal dates (Or so Twitter tells me). But, in between the trivialities and amateur photography, is the ability to do good.
When a mother-of-three from Edgware died from a sudden brain haemorrhage last November, aged 27, the community wanted to do something. Friends set up a Facebook group with a link to the JustGiving page for the charity, GIFT. Within a week, hundreds of people had donated close to £50,000. In context, GIFT's total income in 2009 was less than £80,000. Social networks make a difference. For charities, this creates as many challenges as it does opportunities.
The likes of UJIA, Jewish Care and Norwood have long been considered the major players in the Jewish charity sector. They have the largest budgets and the biggest databases. Once upon a time they had the ability to reach further than most. Not any more. Facebook and Twitter have opened the field. Now donors have unparalleled choice and, more significantly, unparalleled access to choice.
The competition this creates for charities is huge. Big databases and advertising budgets are diluted by the internet's power. To paraphrase Katya Andresen, of philanthropy group, Network for Good, the message is no longer about the charity, it's about why the messenger cares. It's no longer about Jewish Care, it's about why my Facebook "friend" is passionate about raising money for the Jewish Care home where her grandmother lives.
Social media allows individuals to spread the message behind the charity as opposed to the charity itself. As a result, Jewish charities are competing with non-Jewish causes like never before. While social media open doors to new audiences for our charities, the same doors are available to the likes of Cancer Research and Save the Children, bringing them potential donors they would once have been unable to reach.
It remains the case that the vast majority of fundraising occurs in the real world, with only an estimated five per cent donated online. Yet this is growing 30 per cent year-on-year and, as the average age of Facebook users continues to increase, so too will this figure. Similarly it must be recognised that it is not all about money. Social media enables charities to engage with supporters in an unprecedented way. Last Sunday, the community was abuzz with Mitzvah Day activity. Online was no different. More than 75,000 people saw tweets about Mitzvah Day and Facebook groups were set up to co-ordinate food collections and knit-a-thons. None of this was activated by the organisation itself, but instead by its army of supporters.
Steve Bridger, the former charities development manager at JustGiving, puts it as follows: "Real engagement is when people do things for a cause without being asked." Ours is a community that likes to give and likes to talk. Twitter and Facebook are the perfect tools to bring the two together.