The thousands of people who've sent or seen Facebook postings or Twitter tweets about a recent campaign to raise $15,000 for the new polar bear exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo probably didn't realize it, but they were taking part in a groundbreaking corporate-sponsorship pilot project.
In January the Assiniboine Park Conservancy's Facebook friends and Twitter followers were alerted to a website -- www.helppolarbearsnow.org -- where there was an introduction to a campaign sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada.
With every tweet or Facebook post in support of the project, RBC will donate $1.
It's the debut project of a new platform that merges non-profit fundraising and corporate sponsorship using social media and proprietary software that tracks all the participants.
Polly Craik, CEO of FineLine Solutions, the Winnipeg company that has developed the platform -- called the Social Ambassador -- believes it will be a game-changer.
In addition to helping FineLine's clients access hard-to-find funds in an increasingly competitive marketplace, Craik hopes to eventually see the word she's coined -- philanthroship -- included in the Webster dictionary.
FineLine, with about 120 Winnipeg employees, has become an expert in developing marketing programs for large non-profits with 80 per cent of its business in the U.S., where there are more than 1.5 million non-profit organizations.
"There was a real need with everyone scrambling in the direct-marketing industry to move from direct mail to the online world," she said. "But you can't abandon one channel for another. You have to integrate them."
FineLine partnered with Winnipeg IT firm Norima Consulting, which developed proprietary back-end API -- application programming interface -- software that tracks and measures the relationships.
"The power of the platform is in the data behind the technology," she said.
Norm O'Reilly, chairman of the department of sports administration at Ohio University and an expert in corporate sponsorship, is doing a case study on the RBC/Assiniboine Park Conservancy pilot project.
He said what FineLine has developed will be the wave of the future.
"This kind of stuff is taking off," O'Reilly said. "Online donations are becoming more and more important. But what makes the Social Ambassador unique is that is a service for not-for-profit organizations to link to a corporate sponsor around a donation."
O'Reilly knows better than most about the potential commercial goodwill companies such as RBC can leverage from its association with causes such as saving the polar bears with people who are passionate about those things.
He said it could be argued all bank services are essentially equal and sometimes people choose one bank over another because they supported a cause you care about. And O'Reilly points out that the Social Ambassador is not about soliciting donations,
"It is all about encouraging activity," he said. "You are not required as an individual to give money. You are rewarded by the sponsor for your activity."
Corporations all want to incorporate social responsibilty but Craik said they'd like to do it without tooting their own horn. This way it is not a corporation doing the talking, it is social-media conversations where the sponsor, in this case RBC, gets to look good.
Rob Johnston, RBC's regional president for Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario, said the bank was happy to take part in this pilot project that will help the Assiniboine Park Conservancy -- which it has already been supportive of -- and to test how well the Social Ambassador works.
RBC donates about $2 million per year to community organizations in the region, but this was about something else.
"Yes, we will leverage the information from the stats we get from Polly," Johnston said. "If people think a little more favourably about RBC because we have attached our brand to something that is so important to the community, then that's a very good thing."
FineLine, which is just now rolling out the platform at industry conferences around North America this year, has done all the legwork and made the investment to make it easy for the non-profits to participate.
Laura Cabak, manager of brand and communications for the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, said, "Social-media apps can be confusing to work with. They (FineLine) came to us. They had the platform, told us what they needed. We had some input and they had everything in the back end to make it happen. I think there is great potential there."