March 31, 2011— -- It has been a tough few years for charities. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the 50 top philanthropists gave $3.3 billion to charity in 2010, the lowest amount recorded since the Chronicle began tracking donors in 2000.
But that doesn't mean the organizations aren't always looking for new ways to approach donors .
Enter 'Twestival' -- a fundraising event on Twitter that has become the biggest global grassroots charity event organized through social media.
More than 150 cities across the world participated this year. Each city selected one local charity, and then received a Web page from FirstGiving, an online peer-to-peer fundraising tool.
'Twestival' brings the buzzing Twittersphere offline and onto a physical location -- a fairground, skating rink, park -- for a single day to highlight a community cause. This year, it was March 24, with donations accepted through March 31 on the website. As of today, they had raised more than $550K for more than 150 local nonprofit causes.
Twestival originally started off as a single event in London in 2008, under the direction of founder Amanda Rose (also known as @amanda).
In 2009, it expanded to events in 133 cities in support of 135 local charities. Last year, it quickly transformed into a global movement with events in over 175 cities while also raising over $400K for the international humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide.
Alexander Priest, a college senior at American University (better known as @alexpriest), volunteered at Twestival in Washington, D.C. this year.
"Relative to other charity events, Twestival is really a different beast altogether," said Priest. "With its roots in the digital world, it really forces all of us on the team to push our network and our creativity to the test as we reach out to the community."
In the months leading up to the March 24 event thousands of Twitter users spread the word. A 24-hour Twestival livestream supported organizing teams around the world, setting a world record for the most charities supported by a live Internet broadcast. At the stroke of midnight on Thursday March 24, an influx of tweets with the hashtag #twestival flooded the Twitter stream.
Twestival founder Amanda Rose tweeted at 2:30 a.m., "Two and a half hours into @Twestival and our global fundraising total is already $215,840.13!!!"
The event is staffed by volunteers, the majority of whom are active tweeters between the ages of 24 and 35. But Twestival attendees do not have to be active in social media.
Charities Find Value In Social Media
Joan Gerrity, who attended Twestival in Rochester, N.Y., is not on Twitter and admits to being unfamiliar with the social media scene. She serves as the development director of the YWCA of Rochester and Monroe County, which was chosen as the designated local charity for Rochester's Twestival.
"YWCA has been in existence for 127 years so we have a long history in the community," said Gerrity. "But if you don't have any newness these days, it is difficult to maintain that legacy.
"It is a joy that people who know how to handle modern tools are willing to help," added Gerrity. "We're in a whole new age and the influence reached through this medium will take our organization through many more years to come."
Still, the majority of attendees were young professionals in their mid-20s. Matthew Ray, the organizer of Rochester Twestival, fit that description. He thinks the event has the potential to attract an older demographic in the future. "You don't necessarily have to be on Twitter to enjoy Twestival," said Ray. "It is just a different angle to bring to the event."
Jenna Kempie, a 25-year old marketing analyst based in Rochester, said, "The biggest misconception that people who aren't involved with social media have about Twestival is that it's exclusive to people who embrace social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook."
Kempie is one of 16 volunteers with the Rochester Twestival. She first learned about it through -- what else -- Twitter, and quickly got involved by designing flyers.
"I am most excited to see the impact of Twitter beyond 140 characters to help local nonprofit organizations," said Kempie.
This year, Twestival also leveraged its global influence to support the Save the Children's Japan Emergency Fund, raising more than $3,500. The goal is $5,000 and the website will continue to take donations.
Despite the overall success of Twestival, the amount of money raised for individual charities varies significantly from city to city. Rochester raised close to $4,000 for the YWCA.
The Challenge of Raising Money
But smaller cities participating in Twestival for the first time still face several challenges in getting a large event off the ground.
Liz Chodosh and Calvin Tam decided at the last minute to organize a Twestival in Gainesville, Fla. They had 20 days to plan their event and choose a charity.
"We had to move fast," said Chodosh. "I wasn't concerned about the dollar amount. I just wanted to lay the foundation so Twestival could happen again in Gainesville." Their chosen charity, the Sebastian Ferrero Foundation, which is raising money to create a state-of-the-art children's hospital in Gainesville, received just over $200 in donations.
The challenge of raising money is not unique to Gainesville's Twestival. The 2011 Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report (NSBR) reported that 92 percent of nonprofits, regardless of organization size, used at least one commercial social network --Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn -- at the start of 2011.
"Social media lends itself to the pure idea of joining a cause and learning more about an issue," said Dan Michel, digital marketing manager for the domestic hunger-relief charity Feeding America. "Social media can deepen levels of engagement with potential donors. However, it is still not the best fundraiser."
According to the NSBR, 58 percent of nonprofits measured greater awareness and education of causes on social media outlets. However, just 9 percent reported actual money received from donors, sponsors, and advertisers through social media.
Nevertheless, says Chodosh, "I am just really happy that we did it, got it out there, and made it accessible to people in Gainesville."
Twestival volunteers around the world, no matter the magnitude of their event, found reason to celebrate.
"I get the opportunity to put my talents to good use, meet new tweeps along the way, and help make a difference by planning and participating in an event to benefit a chosen nonprofit organization -- it doesn't get any better than that!" said Kempie, from Rochester Twestival.
ABCNews.com contributor Lynne Guey is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Gainesville, Fla.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Americans gave $3.3 billion to charity in 2010. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy the top 50 philanthropists gave $3.3 billion to charity during 2010. Americans gave $304 billion in 2009, the most recent year this data is available.