TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. — Meredith Bowen was getting tired of requests from Facebook friends to exchange make-believe pansies, daffodils and tiny cartoon characters for her "(Lil) Green Patch," a virtual garden that sprouted on her social-networking page about a year ago.
She was ready to delete it, until she learned that the Nature Conservancy was getting a portion of the ad revenue generated by the game.
"I've saved like 133 square feet of rain forest," the 31-year-old Holt resident said.
Bowen illustrates both the potential upside and downside for charitable causes hoping to cash in on the popularity of social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
With millions of users worldwide, the sites would seem fertile ground for fundraising experiments -- especially ones where users aren't asked to make direct contributions.
But it's far from certain that social networking will prove as effective as more traditional fundraising methods such as direct mail, telephone solicitation and even e-mails to past donors.
One hurdle to overcome is the sheer deluge of information online.
As Facebook users are bombarded with invitations to send and receive virtual beers, throw snowballs, sign petitions and take quizzes, applications benefiting charities can seem like just another silly game.
"I get so many of those requests," said Nicole Marble, 23, who works at Michigan State University. "Sometimes I pay attention to them, but with a lot of them I'm just clicking 'Ignore, Ignore, Ignore.' "
She took only minor interest in (Lil) Green Patch until learning recently from a reporter that the game's promise to help save rain forests and fight global warming was genuine.
"I'll probably look into it a little more now," Marble said. "I just finished tending my garden, whatever that really means."
Many appeals on social networks have drawn lots of attention but few dollars.
"You often see where 20,000 people have joined a cause and it's raised $200," said Jim Tobin, president of Ignite Social Media, a promotional company in Cary, N.C.
The (Lil) Green Patch game has done better than most, generating $162,150 in little more than a year, said Sue Citro, digital membership director for the Nature Conservancy. It is among the most popular applications that Facebook users can add to their profiles, with nearly 6 million active users monthly, according to Facebook.
Players plant virtual gardens with flowers and fruits sent by friends, and send plants to them in return.
Ads are shown alongside the game. Green Patch Inc., the Mountain View, Calif., developer of the game, donates a portion of ad revenue to the Nature Conservancy's rain forest preservation campaign.
Despite being among the more lucrative Facebook applications, (Lil) Green Patch accounts for less than 3% of the Nature Conservancy's online fundraising -- which itself generates just 10% of all individual donations to the group, Citro said.
Yet the conservancy is less concerned with raising big bucks than with planting seeds for future support from the younger generation active on social networks.
Even if social-networking sites draw relatively little money now, it's imperative for nonprofits to explore them, said Melissa Brown, associate director of research for the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Surveys by the center show that direct mail and phone solicitation have become less successful in recent years, while Internet fundraising has risen steadily.
"This is a time for experimenting with the social networking, figuring out how it can work for your organization," Brown said.
The Humane Society of the United States used a Facebook application to promote this year's Spay Day drive in support of spaying and neutering of animals.
The campaign invited people to upload photos of their pets to a Humane Society website and solicit contributions from family, friends and others. A Facebook application -- and other interactive "widgets," or small programs for blogs and MySpace pages -- helped participants reach more potential donors.
The Spay Day drive raised $600,000 from about 40,000 participants, said Carie Lewis, the Humane Society's Internet marketing manager.
It's unclear how much was generated through Facebook. But this year's campaign, the first to use the application and other widgets, was more successful than previous ones. In 2008, the 31,000 participants raised $72,000.