The good news: There's a free Facebook application called Causes that has helped nonprofit organizations, like Students for a Free Tibet and The Nature Conservancy, raise more than $100,000. The tool, which aims to make it easy for nonprofits and individuals to collect donations from a custom page housed on Facebook, sounds like the miracle savior for nonprofits.

The bad news: Of all the charities with "Des Moines" or "Iowa" in their name that use Causes, only one has raised more than $1,000.

And it's not just a Des Moines or Iowa issue. In fact, said Jarad Bernstein, a senior analyst with Catchfire Media LLC, which specializes in social media strategy and consulting, although it sounds impressive that the more than 390,000 groups that use the application have raised $21 million collectively, that averages out to less than $55 per organization.

Quite simply, don't cancel your nonprofit's next black-tie fund-raising affair quite yet. Although social media tools can open up new donor demographics, help new efforts get noticed and strengthen connections, it doesn't mean every local nonprofit will win the lottery with Facebook Causes.

"They see stars in their eyes," Bernstein said of nonprofits. "They say, 'Oh wow, they are using this tool to make that kind of impact. Well why can't I?' They are using Facebook, and saying, 'Well, Facebook is free, and all I have to do is throw up a page and donations are going to come pouring in.' Well, no."

But still, there are organizations out there using social media in ways that will ultimately help raise money, and Kristi Knous, vice president for donor relations and community investment at the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, said that potential is leading to increased demand among nonprofits for training and understanding of the tools.

Bernstein said that for nonprofits, the primary focus when using tools like Twitter and Facebook should be to raise awareness about their cause and build connections with a following. That may not immediately lead to a donation, he said, but it could later.

"You write a blog post about a family that has been impacted by your organization, and is someone going to click on a link and say, 'Oh, I'm going to donate $100 right now'? But that person now knows the story; they are more connected with the organization," Bernstein said. "It all contributes in the end. It should be an important part of their overall communication strategy. But if you are a nonprofit organization, you shouldn't say, 'Aha, social media. We need to use that to raise more money.'"

But social media is helping make it easier for new charities to grab a foothold, and giving them access to the average donor.

The Pet Project Midwest, a Clive-based organization that began operating last August and seeks to fill gaps in services to assist existing animal services agencies, gets most of its donations through individual support. As a new charity without a lot of money, social media has provided a way for the organization to reach a lot of people.

Courtney Tompkins, the organization's marketing, public relations and outreach chair, said that without social media, the people at The Pet Project Midwest couldn't be effectively doing what they do. She said that many of the volunteers and donors find out about the charity through electronic word of mouth. That, she said, leads to donations trickling in here and there on the group's website, which is connected to its social media efforts.

"It's $5 here and $10 here and it adds up," Tompkins said. "The bigger amounts have been in grants or from events where we fund-raise, but the online stuff is just your average Joe pitching in."

And an organization like The Pet Project Midwest needs all the Joes it can get.

Just recently the Give Back Des Moines campaign saw the positive effects on overall donations, thanks to effectively intertwining social media outreach with other efforts. The campaign, which was organized by the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute Class of 2009-10, exceeded its goal of raising $75,000 and collected $90,000 for 40 local charities.

Megan Grandgeorge, the project's marketing co-chair, largely attributed that success to the group's efforts with social media. And understandably so. The campaign got a significant boost in social media intelligence from having Nathan Kring, partner at Catchfire Media, as the other marketing co-chair.

The group used a blog as the main component on its website, and because all of its efforts were connected, the organization was able to use Facebook and Twitter to push messages from the blog out to its followers. The group also sent out a form that members of the group could share via their own social networks. Grandgeorge said that is how her friends in Chicago learned that she was involved and the reason they ended up making donations.

Though a large portion of the overall donations came through corporate gifts, because the initiative started from scratch, social media jump-started the campaign and helped bring in individual donations.

"I think we would have had a lot less awareness, so the individual donations would have been drastically less," Grandgeorge said.

It's that viral nature of social media that nonprofits are trying to tap into, said Bernstein, but ultimately the use of social media won't magically raise money. Think of social media as the gasoline for your efforts. You can't get where you want to go with gasoline alone, because you still need a solid foundation and a good cause that people rally behind - the car - in order to benefit from social media.

Knous said one of the biggest benefits of using social media has been the ability to tap into the younger generation of community leaders and donors.

"They are more interested in many cases in (donating online) than going to a gala or to a black-tie dinner that is traditionally used to cultivate giving," she said.

But Knous, whose organization has been working with social media consultant Lava Row, is still leery of the potential social media could have for limiting the ability to connect personally with donors.

"That is one of the things that I think about," she said. "We care so much about our donors and about establishing that personal relationship with them. So you do question whether or not in that give and take you are losing that personal connection and relationship building, and truly helping them understand the impact that you are having on the cause by telling them the story."

However, Christine Stineman, founder of social media consultant Tribe Effect LLC, said social media tools make it easy to share experiences, which can make it extremely personal.

"There is a myth that social media and technology in general is making things less personal. I think that it is just that; it's an absolute myth," Stineman said. "Think about the iPad and how it is used. How much more personal can you get than touching their face on Facebook, or touching the brand of something on Facebook to like that page? You don't get, in my opinion, any more personal than that."

The Community Foundation has a Facebook Causes page and has received just over $1,000 in donations through the application - a small portion of its total donations. But, although Knous doesn't think it will become the organization's main source of philanthropy, she said it is an option the foundation wants to provide.

"I don't know that those donations are gravy, but I don't know that it is our core form of giving, either, at this point," she said. "I would say it is more about heightening the awareness of our organization and engaging people in conversation about philanthropy that is more exciting than the actual giving at this point."

Knous said she is, however, recommending to other nonprofit organizations that they start a Causes page.

"I remember when 10 or so years ago we were wondering if we really needed a website," Knous said. "And some people, you know, reluctantly dragged their feet to do that kind of thing. But I think 10 years from now we will look back and say, 'Gosh, remember when we wondered if we needed a Facebook Causes page?'"