I have some very charitable friends: just giving their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds a cursory glance, I see they've lent their support to a staggering number and variety of causes. They were happy to change their statuses to the colour of their bras for breast cancer awareness, and their profile pictures into their favourite Disney character for the NSPCC (though it later turned out that the charity wasn't behind the campaign). Every year they throw their weight behind stopping Simon Cowell from getting another Christmas number one.
Running a relatively new charity myself, I have a vested interest in paying attention to these online campaigns. Everyone knows that awareness raising has been revolutionised by social media, allowing us to show our support at the click of a button.
The thing is, there's a growing movement of sceptics and scholars who say this is actually making our charitable work less effective; that far from having a positive impact, it actually makes us less likely to make a difference.
The technical term assigned to this is 'social loafing', which refers to the phenomenon of people making less of an effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work by themselves. Also known as 'slacktivism', in real terms it's the quick 'like' on Facebook that makes us feel we've done our good deed for the day, and might actually stop us from doing something more tangible like donating. If we're honest, we've all be there; who doesn't get a little buzz out of clicking 'like' or 'retweet' on something charitable?
I have to admit, I can see the sceptics' point. We're so overwhelmed with charitable causes that it can be tricky to focus on them. For example, did you know that 22-29 January is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week? It's a big deal for a charity like The Odysseus Foundation, which works to tackle breast and cervical cancer in developing countries, and we'll be using it to draw attention to our work. But for the public, there's a real risk of awareness week fatigue.
It seems that daily and weekly there is something we should be aware of, with more awareness days being designated all the time and a social media campaign for every single one. The month of May seems to be particularly popular, playing host to the awareness day, week and/or month to no less than 36 causes, from the very worthy (mental health, cystic fibrosis, hepatitis, Huntington's Disease, MS, spinal health, road safety) to the more obscure (28 May is multiple births awareness day).
Charities are more accessible than ever, but this means there are more and more causes competing for our valuable time and attention.
So are all the advances of the modern world actually helping charities to make a difference?
In a word: yes.
You only have to look at Breast Cancer Awareness month to see an example of a campaign that does exactly what it says on the tin: Downing Street and other landmarks around the world lit up pink in its honour. And who can miss Movember? Critics might see it as an excuse for wannabe hipsters or fans of the Village People to try out facial hair that hasn't been truly acceptable since the 1970s, but if just one in a thousand of the people who know about the campaign has been reminded to check themselves for testicular cancer, then it was all worthwhile. Both of these are led in large part by social media, and they're growing in impact every year.
We may live in a world of shortened attention spans, but that's pushing us into finding new ways to allow us to give, quickly and easily. Text donation technology has had an incredible impact, and we're also seeing the rise of 'microgiving' websites like ploink! that allow us to make little donations as and when, with the added bonus of some whizzy graphics that let us drop virtual coins in virtual piggy banks. Not to mention JustGiving: a far cry from the days of the dog-eared sponsorship form, and the arduous post-event task of collecting sponsorship money.
And what about the simple 'like'? We have to accept that for the many, that's where the engagement stops. But done properly, that first little hint of interest (the equivalent of a double take at an eye-catching advert in the old, pre-social-media-world) is an opportunity to form a lasting relationship. Charities have a responsibility to be creative, and transform that 'like' into direct action. The world is changing and there are more demands on our attention than ever. Let's make sure we harness the opportunities this provides.
Follow Justen Schafer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SchaferTOF