11/25/2011 03:50 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2012

Post-holiday Persuasion to Get Us Giving

The 'giving' part of Thanksgiving is, inevitably, what the charity industry's media experts focus on every November. Outsiders are sometimes astonished to learn that it's some 40% of all charitable giving that happens at the end of the year.

But this time many of our non-profits, especially those operating in the field of social deprivation, have been badly rattled by the sex-abuse scandal surrounding Penn State ex-Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky -- and an anxious Chronicle of Philanthropy is carrying articles like Lessons for Nonprofits From 'Second Mile' (Sandusky's own "charity") and Penn State Grapples With Angry Donors, which repeat a worrying theme that the Sandusky case "points to common problems at nonprofit groups," especially problems of governance and accountability.

Their worry is all about the money, of course. And even more than reputation-damaging sex abuse, non-profits face the broader and deeper slump in business confidence that's been battered down further by this week's Congressional failure (entirely predictably) to agree on deficit reduction measures, and by Europe's sovereign debt crisis threatening to engulf everyone. In such a climate, it's feared, non-profits' already shrinking income from charitable donors will get smaller and smaller.

Unless their media mavens can do better, that is.

So conferences, seminars and planning retreats have been held right across the whole non-profit sector over the past few months to formulate fresh action. Be prepared, if you've not already noticed its beginnings, for a full-fledged onslaught of image-enhancing and fund-raising advertisements across all traditional platforms -- plus an upsurge of banner ads, web videos and a multiplicity of 'social media' messaging in the digital space.

This year many charities will be redoubling their social media efforts, especially on Facebook, having found that they can acquire fans (or "Likes," if we have to use Mark Zuckerberg's more recently prescribed term-of-art) at the relatively low marketing cost of $0.18 to $0.80 per fan. This compares with what the non-profit world sees now as an onerous cost -- more than $2.00 per newly-acquired supporter -- whenever the old-fangled medium of email is used.

The consensus plan for Facebook-based promotion is, after recruitment, to then spend a careful 30- to 60-day period of 'stewarding' these new fans -- to switch to the trade's own rather unctuous jargon -- into their first actual cash gift.

Zuckerberg's networking machine is felt to be an especially useful avenue for this approach. A canny use of timing is urged by one of the field's sages, Jeff Patrick of Common Knowledge, a San Francisco online fund-raising consultancy that has guided the Sierra Club and the Arthritis Foundation. "Eventually," he advises any Facebook-using charity, though wisely refraining from dictating exactly how long a period should elapse, "move to inserting an 'ask' into your micro-message stream."

The venue obviously favors any non-profit that is multimedia-savvy, and which works in social fields characterized by projects with a real physical presence -- one that can be captured visually. Photos and video, after all, are the most viewed and most shared resources on Facebook. No wonder charity war-room strategists like the omni-present Nancy Schwartz, who's advised the Ford Foundation and the National Urban League, have been saying in those seminars and planning sessions: "Use pictures liberally, especially moving pictures, and of course that applies not just to Facebook but to virtually all communications outlets, new and old.

I'VE JUST BEEN ALERTED to one way -- though perhaps too specific for general application -- of turning lemons into lemonade. It's simultaneously discomforting but also encouraging to learn that Penn State alumni have rapidly employed social media to raise $360,000 out of an initial target of over half-a-million dollars, in support of -- how appropriately -- a major non-profit devoted to combating sexual abuse and supporting victims, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN).

Branding themselves with a website and the Twitter hashtag #ProudPSUforRAINN, the alumni's immediate aim is to garner one dollar for each of the university's 557,000 graduates. And in this instance, it is about more than the money.

Supporters who sign up will also be pointed to RAINN's own website, and encouraged to become volunteers, buy a T-shirt to further advertise the cause, and learn more about child sexual abuse.

It's good to give thanks, especially during what could be a dispiriting Thanksgiving, for this one instance of inspired (and entrepreneurial) communications work.