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See that person walking down the street while sending a text message from his phone? Not only does he look a little silly, but he’s probably also stressed out and lonely, according to Washington and Lee sociologist Karla Murdoch. Her newly published study of college students reports that those who send more text messages had more friendship-related stress: all those extra electronic touches ended up making friendships feel less secure.

Indeed, although we have more ways of being readily in touch with one another, we are more and more living as islands unto ourselves, as Emily Esfahani Smith of The New Criterion describes:

At a time when we are more connected digitally than ever before, at a time when we live closer together than ever before, rates of social isolation are rising at alarming rates. In 1985, when the General Social Survey asked Americans about the number of confidants they have in their lives, the most common response was three. The survey was given again in 2004 and the most common response was zero.

Zero! How lonely—and yet, apparently, how common—to have no one you really trust to have a hear-to-heart conversation. Of course, it’s not exactly news that, even though we’re all “friends” on Facebook, digital communications can undermine connections.

But philanthropists and nonprofits—which should focus on fostering a true connection between donors and beneficiaries—are putting more and more of a premium on social media, online fundraising, and electronic communications. Time and energy that could be put into making site visits, visiting donors and community members, and working on programmatic initiatives is devoted to cultivating an “online presence.”

Online presence has real value in terms of disseminating information easily to donors and clients. But the opportunity cost may also be very high in terms of fostering the nonprofit leadership’s connection with those the nonprofit serves and those who support it. Consider findings about how poorly social media serves to expand a base of supporters:

[O]nly 9 percent of Americans first get involved by joining a cause group on an online social networking site like Facebook; other social media actions, like posting a cause’s logo on a social profile (6 percent of respondents), and blogging about a cause (4 percent) ranked even lower.

Conservative philanthropists might be especially wary of over-investing in social media, since conservatives—at least those of a Burkean stripe—are naturally at home with communitarian values and modes of practice. Again, Esfahani Smith:

[W]e live in a culture where communitarian ideals, like duty and tradition, are withering away. Even conservatives, who should be the natural allies of these virtues, have in large part become the champions of an individualism that seems to value freedom, the market, and material prosperity above all else, leaving little room for more traditional virtues.

Certainly many philanthropists and nonprofits need a website and perhaps other online presence, just like almost all of us now rely on cell phones, text messages, and email. But, as Professor Murdoch’s study shows, too much electronic communications can undermine our personal relationships—and the same is true for relationships between philanthropists and nonprofits and their beneficiaries. Are conservative philanthropists striking the right balance between in-person and electronic modes of communicating with their constituencies?

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