The word “influencer” first began to register on Google Trends in mid-2015. Today, influencers are everywhere. The State of Influencer Marketing 2023: Benchmark Report from Influencer Marketing Hub predicted the total value of influencer marketing worldwide would hit $21.1 billion in 2023 — up from $1.7 billion in 2016 (Geyser). For younger generations, who either grew up with social media or were very young when these platforms first appeared in the early 2000s, being influenced by social media has become the norm. As Jamie Drummond and Roxane Philson (2015) stated, “Teens recognize YouTube stars more than Oscar winners” (para. 14) — and those parasocial bonds only continue to grow.

Philanthropy is at a critical moment for examining the bonds and traditions that influence (even teach) younger generations to give. According to an analysis of 2022 Giving USA data by Axios, “Americans gave 1.7% of their personal disposable income to charity in 2022, the lowest level they had given since 1995” (Saric, 2023, para. 4). Additionally, 30% of Americans now qualify in the “none” category of religious affiliation — meaning they self-identify as atheist, agnostic, or of no particular religion (Smith, 2023). The prevalence of traditional venues for sharing and modeling philanthropic values is shrinking, leaving us to ask what might take their place — and whether one answer might be social media.

Influencer Philanthropy and“Charity Streams”

Classy’s Why America Gives (2022) report demonstrates that next-gen donors (defined as millennials and Gen Z) are four times as likely as traditional donors (baby boomers and Gen X) to learn about a cause through influencers or celebrities, and that “69% of next-gen donors prefer to hear from organizations on social media, particularly on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram” (p. 20).

The presence, efficacy, and scale of influencer philanthropy have been growing over the past decade or so. Brandon Stanton started Humans of New York on Facebook in 2010. His intimate images and interviews with everyday New Yorkers quickly earned him millions of followers. In 2013, Stanton became one of the earliest internet influencers to leverage social media for philanthropy in a trend-shifting way, raising over $100,000 from his community of followers for the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA (Quinn, 2015). In 2015, his campaign, Let’s Send Kids to Harvard, galvanized more than 50,000 donors from 108 countries, raising nearly $1.4 million and setting a record on IndieGoGo for total contributors (2015).

While influencer philanthropy is, by nature, driven by the appeal of its creator, the platform’s own functionality and popularity matter as well. Facebook’s Birthday Fundraisers raised more than $300 million in the 12 months following their 2017 launch (Banis, 2018). Today, Facebook’s role as a fundraising behemoth appears to be trending downward; M+R reported (2023) that overall revenue from Facebook (via any donation function) declined among survey respondents by 34% from 2021 to 2022. The average fundraising event in this sample garnered just four donations.
While Twitch and TikTok engage millions of users and donors, newer platforms like Mastodon may also benefit in the future by matching open-source structures with Gen Z’s preference for decentralized causes and flatter organizations and movements (Mercado, 2023), though it’s difficult to say precisely how user creativity may leverage this feature for philanthropy.

Read the full article about influencer philanthropy by Emily Brenner and Tory Martin, with research contributions from Karen Hoekstra at Dorothy A. Johnson Center .