Last week, at the Social Innovation Summit in Palo Alto, the combination of hypersuccessful social media companies (Google, Facebook, LinkedIn) and nonprofit luminaries (Room to Read, Donors Choose, charity: water) made one thing clear—to make it big, you need to make it personal.

This concept isn’t a new revelation. Marketing professionals and nonprofit fundraisers have long known that connecting with a person’s individual interests is key to forging a strong and beneficial relationship. The rapid spread of social media has catapulted the possibilities and scale of relationship-building into the stratosphere.

Social Innovation Summit speaker Charles Best of

Charles Best of (left) with Charles Porch of Facebook. (Photo courtesy of the Social Innovation Summit)

Charles Best, founder of, is incredibly warm, genuine, and quick to hug, but he’s also a relationship-building genius. In a fascinating interview with Charles Porch of Facebook, Charles Best detailed how he enabled to provide a record $40 million to fund 300,000 classroom projects in the US.

The concept is deceptively simple, potential donors enter their personal interests and an online database provides them with a list of classroom projects that connect with their interests.  Are you an artist? Consider funding a silkscreen press for an art class. Did your father love to hike? Honor his memory by purchasing trees for a classroom to plant. 

Then, once the project is complete, you receive a note from the teacher with photos. The donor who funded the silkscreen press will receive artwork made by the children with that press. It’s high touch, both online and offline. maximizes the personalization potential of Facebook by asking the donor if they want to post the donation on their Facebook Wall. Friends then read the update and feel compelled to make a donation too. Even more successful are teacher-generated updates.  These two types of status updates on Facebook have raised a combined $1.9 million so far.

Social Innovation Summit speaker Scott Harrison of charity:water

Scott Harrison of charity:water. (Photo Courtesy of the Social Innovation Summit)

Another successful nonprofit, charity: water hit it big with a campaign to ask people to raise money for their birthday using a “donate $X for X number of years” campaign model. Will and Jada Smith raised over $100,000 by asking the public to donate $42 to honor Will’s 42nd birthday. Charity: water makes its media personal too, with an impressively creative ad campaign reminding us what our life in the US would be like without water. Videos featuring Jennifer Connelly and impactful baby bottles ads bring the message home.

Charity: water is also beta-testing a my charity: water site that allows individual fundraisers to make a customized fundraising page. It then lists the top achievers on the homepage. It also provides graphics for multiple social media uses, including backgrounds for Twitter pages and banners for Facebook pages.

Facebook is adding new customization features constantly, and nonprofits would be wise to pay attention. One recent app called Timeline offers users the ability to post an outline of their entire life. Another app called Causes allows a user to keep a fundraising post at the top of their Facebook page for the duration of the campaign. I have no doubt that both and charity: water will find a way to leverage both of these new tools to reach donors in a personal way and generate windfalls of funds for their very honorable causes.