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For #Syria and Beyond, Charities Pin Hopes on Hashtags

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The civil war in Syria is not new. Unlike an earthquake or hurricane, people are not being flooded with around-the-clock images of rescue workers climbing through newly created rubble.

So how does a charity drum up interest in a complicated, ongoing conflict? UNICEF is hoping that social media can be the key. The organization is using the hashtags #ChildrenofSyria and #NoLostGeneration to keep attention on the plight of about 5.5 million children affected since the violence in Syria started three years ago.

“It’s a very useful tool to synthesize a broad and complex issue into something that can be understood and shared,” Sarah Crowe, chief of crisis communications for UNICEF, said about using hashtags on social media to drive aid.

(NBC News is spreading the word about its own 48-hour live documentary on Syrian children, which began on Tuesday, with the hashtag #SyriasChildren.)

What UNICEF tweets matters because it has the largest Twitter following (2.57 million) of any international aid organization, she said, including the United Nations (2.4 million) and the American Red Cross (1.22 million). Hashtags, Crowe said, also help coordinate relief efforts across UNICEF's own offices –- located in more than 190 countries, with a total worldwide Twitter reach of nearly 4 million –- and with other organizations.

Of course, a celebrity tweet never hurts either.

Creating enough buzz can eventually cause major news organizations to pay attention to a crisis, she said.

“It’s a great way to say to the CNN and others to say, ‘Come on, this is an interesting story, because it’s getting play on social media,'" Crowe said.

When it comes to actually raising money, however, most charities still rely on more traditional ways of soliciting donations, usually by mail, email, over the phone or through face-to-face campaigns.

“Unless it’s for an already visible relief effort, like after a natural disaster, little money can be linked to the actual hashtag or social media presence,” Thomas Gensemer, chief strategy officer for global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, told NBC News. “They are so much more valuable for visibility than they are for actual fundraising transactions.”

That doesn’t mean social media campaigns have not played an important role in crisis fundraising. Gensemer, who has previously run campaigns for the United Way, The Nature Conservancy and other groups, said that when disasters strike, a way to reach out quickly to potential donors is extremely important.

“You can’t say ‘Give me $100 now,’ then go dark, and ask people for money again in six months,” he said.

That is why organizations use hashtags on social media like Vine and Instagram, as well as Facebook and Twitter, to keep a cause in the public consciousness, even if they don’t expect people to hit the “Donate” button right away.

The Red Cross does not “typically use hashtags to drive fundraising,” a spokesperson wrote to NBC News in an email. But it does raise money via text.

That combination of technologies was massively successful after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, when a text fundraising campaign ended up raising $21 million in the first week after the disaster. It’s hard to tell how much of that giving was spurred by the hashtag #Haiti, but the online push likely did not hurt.

The overwhelming volume of text message donations received after the tragedy in Haiti “moved the needle when it came to SMS donations,” Alisa Aydin, the vice president of marketing for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, told NBC News.

Later, she said, #ArabSpring and #Kony2012 demonstrated the critical role hashtags could play in spreading social causes online.

Hashtags will likely remain most important for building strong donor networks, as opposed to perpetual fundraising tools. But that could shift with new products like Chirpify, which lets people donate using hashtags, and the relatively new “Donate” button for charities on Facebook. Eventually, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook could become much more important for raising funds on a day-to-day basis, Gensemer said.

As for Syria, the #ChildrenofSyria hashtag has gained steam since April with more than 260,000 mentions so far. Even converting a fraction of those to actual donations could make a big difference.

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