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Is Facebook Your Frenemy?

This blog is part one of a hard look at nonprofits and social media. Part two will look at what nonprofits can do to improve their social media on a limited budget.

When I talk to nonprofit executives about their communications needs, the #1 thing they want to improve is their social media presence. Frequently, they feel pressure from board members to up their Instagram game or raise more money through Facebook. Then there is the dreaded, "My granddaughter says everyone is on this TikTok thing."


To be clear, nonprofits need to be active on social media. Your page can be a powerful communications tools, that potential donors routinely look for when they are researching you. But as a nonprofit leader, you need to know who you want to reach and why if you hope to be effective.

Facebook has been in the spotlight lately after parent Meta saw its stock fall 26% in a day over concerns that it is losing users and changes in iPhone software makes it harder to target ads to Apple users. A lot has already been written about the dark side of social media and its manipulation of its audiences. This post looks specifically at the relationship between social media, especially Facebook and nonprofits:


Are they your donors or Facebook's? - Far and away, this is what nonprofits should think about before they focus too heavily on trying to raise money through Facebook.

  1. For starters, social media platforms "train" users to react on a quick, superficial level. We click "like" and move on to the next post. That's a pretty low level of commitment to build a donor relationship on, wouldn't you say?

  2. When you fundraise on Facebook, donors give to Facebook, not directly to your organization. You will eventually get limited information about those donors, too little and too late to build on their spontaneous interest in contributing to your cause.

  3. If you buy an ad or boost a post, you can target your audience based on Facebook's user targeting profiles. Its important to think about how Facebook got that data.

  4. When you run a fundraising post, the results will give Facebook new data on your donors, identifying them as people who care about a specific cause enough to pay money, making that information pretty valuable.

  5. Facebook is then able to...Drumroll please....monetize that information by selling ads to other nonprofits using your donors.

  6. Adding insult to injury, Facebook only pays the donations to a charity if the fundraising post earns more than $100. You may not have known that. I didn't until I was researching this blog. How much money that never gets to nonprofit causes. Facebook isn't saying.

So let's put that into perspective. What would happen if you allowed a company to access your donor data and sold it to another nonprofit without ever notifying your donors? What if you allowed that company to keep a percentage of the donated funds below a certain threshold without making that clear to the donors?


Facebook is not there to help you save the world - Facebook is a for profit company that exists to sell ads and data. Nonprofits are one of the groups it profits from. No matter how hard you work to build up your network, the average organic Facebook post only reaches 4% of your followers. That is determined by the algorithms that Facebook changes constantly throughout the day. It is a mistake to think that any of those calculations are aimed at making your cause a success.


Overall engagement is down - Nonprofit engagement (the combination of likes, clicks and shares divided by the total number of page fans ) was .32% last year, meaning that for every 1000 followers, your posts are only reach about 32 of them. That dropped by 21% from the year before. So for all your efforts, there is evidence that the entire platform is losing ground.


But you can always buy an ad! - Facebook doesn't report how much revenue it receives from nonprofit ads, but in 202 it booked nearly $115 in total ad revenue from all sources, an increase of 37% over 2020. The company doesn't offer free ads or discounts to nonprofits, and it is not gernous about its own donations. Despite its much promoted matching funds for donations during Giving Tuesday, those matches are pretty low and allocated within a few minutes. According to Forbes, Facebooks $8 million in Giving Tuesday matching grant amounts to just 0.025% of its 4th quarter revenue.


You gotta spend money to make money! It is very hard to determine how much of a commitment a nonprofit needs to make to get an acceptable return on investment. Meta (Facebook) has released some information on the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders. The organization According to Meta, Doctors Without Borders spent $26,000 on Giving Tuesday campaigns and received $72,000 in donations, a return on investment of just 64 cents on the dollar. In fairness, a different approach, boosting their fundraising page with a much smaller ad spend raised another $40,000. Because of its scale as a $558 million organization, Doctors Without Borders is able to spend less than 15% of its money on fundraising. Its spending on Facebook has allowed it to rank as the top Facebook page followed by donors in the Charity Navigator database. The point of all this is that you win at social media by recognizing that it is a paid media outlet and you weigh very carefully how much you are willing to spend and why.


Social media can take over your communications strategy - Strategy is about long-term plans that advance your brand. Social media is about instant gratification. It can be hard to reconcile the two. One huge example comes to mind. Email campaigns are still one of the best ways to reach donors. A Blackbaud study of peer-to-peer fundraising last year shows that Facebook is increasing its share of fundraising appeals, but email solicitations raised 43% more in contributions than Facebook requests. Yet nonprofits do not tend to put nearly as much effort into building their email lists, crafting the right content and designing emails as they put into trying to crack the social media code.

Social media and the Gambler's Fallacy - Gambler's fallacy bias happens when someone wrongly thinks that random events can be used to predict a future event, as in, "Let me take one more spin of the roulette wheel. I'm due for a win." In the social media world, algorithms are determining on a moment-by-moment basis who sees your posts and where they are in someone's feed. Could it be that a social media platform that was built on manipulating human behavior is using those skills on your nonprofit, subliminally encouraging you to post more, post certain kinds of content, or buy just one more add to lift your engagement numbers?


This has all been a very gloom-and-doom walk through the landmine of social media and nonprofits. However, the reality is that you need to be on social media, if for no other reason than your donors expect it. In part two of this blog series, I'll look at how you can actually accomplish that at an acceptable cost.




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