Networking has always been an important means of garnering financial support for nonprofit arts organizations.
But against a backdrop of a Wall Street meltdown, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the most expensive presidential campaign in history, reaching out has become much more than a process of tapping tried-and-true donors.
Increasingly, nonprofits like the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Charleston Ballet Theatre, and Spoleto Festival USA are tapping the philanthropic potential of social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.
Long term, Charleston's arts organizations say they hope young professionals will be encouraged to support their programs monetarily after learning more about them on the web.
"The current fund-raising environment, which I liken to the perfect storm, has been a problem for everybody," says Janet Newcomb, executive director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.
"Turning to Facebook is about solidifying our future. It's a way to reach out to people in their 20s and 30s, and entice them to sample our product."
Online social networks used to be simply places where friends and acquaintances gather to talk, the 21st-century equivalent of a telephone chain. Then came the 2004 presidential race and Howard Dean's use of the internet to raise money, organize volunteers, and, until his implosion the night of the Iowa caucuses, move far ahead of his Democratic opponents.
This year's Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, has taken Dean's model to heights never imagined, turning the internet into a fund-raising machine. Dean collected about $50 million from small donors in 2003 and early 2004. Obama, relying on the same networking technology, brought in $150 million in September alone.
Now, Charleston's nonprofits are beginning to dip a toe into the same pool.
Paula Edwards, director of marketing and public relations at Spoleto, says in a very real sense seizing the potential of Facebook and MySpace is a bet on the internet's viral nature to open new doors to marketing.
This past festival was the first time Spoleto used MySpace to promote its events, namely Monkey: Journey to the West, an adaptation of a 400-year-old Chinese literary classic with music by Damon Albarn, former frontman of the British pop band Blur and co-creator of the virtual band Gorillaz.
"In that case, we were trying to go where the young people were, no question, and we've continued to utilize MySpace to promote Scene, our young patrons and young professionals program," Edwards says.
Turning a virtual relationship into economic support, however, is another matter. For now, direct mail, e-mail blasts, and well-heeled friends calling on friends — these are still the most effective fund-raising methods.
"Once we get our feet wet, the social networking sites might be something we try to leverage for fund-raising," Edwards says. "But for now, they remain just a small part of our overall promotional strategy."
The reality is that online fund-raising is just beginning. While its growth in dollars has been significant — rising from $250 million in 2000 to an estimated $6.9 billion in 2006, according to the ePhilanthorpy Foundation — most large charities report that online fund-raising represents less than 1 percent of their total contributions.
Kyle W. Barnette, administrative director of the Charleston Ballet Theatre, which only recently created its own Facebook page, said the first step isn't asking for money but building a recognizable brand.
"Facebook is the new guerilla marketing tool," Barnette says. "As far as I'm concerned, a presence there can only benefit us."
Newcomb, of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, agrees: "We see it as an extension of what we've always done, which is getting people to move from buying a single ticket for a performance to buying tickets for a series, and finally having them move on to becoming patrons," she says.
"If we can't get them to see and understand and appreciate our product, we have little hope of getting them to be real donors."
While nonprofits may be new to social-networking websites, it appears Facebook is already becoming a preferred venue for local arts institutions.
Emily Rybinski, the orchestra's new director of marketing and public relations, described Facebook as the "hip" social networking site.
Barnette went further, explaining that he prefers Facebook over MySpace, because it has a more professional, polished feel.
"It fits better with our image," he says.
Arts organizations should strive to engage in real conversations about their programs in a setting where they "neither control or dominate the dialogue," according to a posting on Kivi's Nonprofit Communications Blog, an offshoot of the NonprofitMarketingGuide.com.
Barnette agrees. He says moderating the conversation, instead of controlling it a la conventional advertising, goes to the heart of Facebook's potential.
"Feedback is the best way to find out what your audience needs," he says. "Only then can you adapt and then let them know you have improved or provided them with what they want out of your organization."
For her part, Rybinski is just starting to think about how to stimulate conversation through the symphony's new Facebook page. The key, she says, is dynamic content.
"You're talking about a medium that people visit again and again and again, and if you're not constantly updating the site, engaging them with something new, then you're going to lose them," she says.
If Charleston's art organizations are venturing into the realm of social networking sites, that doesn't mean they are abandoning traditional websites. All of the organizations continue to maintain their own homepages, and at least one, the Charleston Ballet Theatre, has also forged a partnership with the Upper King Design District, which further extends the CBT's reach.
"It's an effort to reach out to a broader audience," Barnette says. "Their e-mail blasts, in which we are now included, reach not only other businesses but anyone who has subscribed to their contact list."
But will all this effort ultimately pay off?
Newcomb says the jury is out. For now.
"It's hard as a nonprofit to constantly drum up excitement," Newcomb says. "But think of the alternative."