In August 2019, Kara Kundert was ready to raise some money for Bluegrass Pride, an organization that promotes bluegrass music among LGBTQ+ musicians, where she is the executive director. The Internal Revenue Service had just certified Bluegrass Pride as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit. Now Kundert faced another important task: getting registered as a nonprofit on Facebook.
“It was just a natural fit for us,” she says. Many nonprofits use Facebook to build community and promote events. Once registered with Facebook as a nonprofit, organizations can run fundraisers on the platform and include a button that lets users donate money. For a small nonprofit like Bluegrass Pride, whose 2019 operating budget was less than $18,000, every dollar counts. “We wanted to take advantage of all the fundraising options that we could,” says Kundert.
Kundert hoped Facebook would approve her application in time for Giving Tuesday, an annual global fundraising day on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Weeks passed. Then months.
She sent a question to customer support via Facebook Messenger. After four months and 20 messages back and forth with Facebook—most of which she says seemed to come from a bot—her application still hadn’t been approved. Next she tried email, exchanging nearly 30 emails with the Facebook Charity Onboarding Team, which said it was “aware of the issue” and was “working on resolving it as soon as possible.”
Then, in March 2020, she was told she had to resubmit the documents because they were more than six months old. She resubmitted, then sent six more messages, but heard nothing back. “For me what’s most frustrating is just being in this completely anonymous, nameless, faceless bureaucracy,” says Kundert. “I’m completely powerless in this system.”
In 2015 the viral “ice bucket challenge,” in which people poured frigid water over themselves to raise money and awareness for ALS research, spurred Facebook to create fundraising tools like the donation button and birthday fundraisers. The company trumpets its accomplishments: In February, it said more than $3 billion has been donated to nonprofits through the platform.
Facebook hasn’t replaced traditional fundraising strategies like in-person events or mail campaigns, but it has become a regular source of money and engagement with supporters. That’s true for viral campaigns like a 2018 fundraiser for the immigration nonprofit Raices, which raised $20 million—three times the organization’s annual budget—in one week. It’s also true for smaller campaigns that raise a few hundred dollars at a time.
“It has really, really been a big benefit for us,” says Gina Brown, program director at Let Us Learn, an Indiana nonprofit that teaches food literacy, cooking, and nutrition to children and families. Brown says this year she’s gotten about $7,000 on Facebook through fundraisers she’s launched or from birthday fundraisers run by members of the community. “These donations really help us do the programming and help us with the overhead, the tools that we need to do our work,” she says.
But many small nonprofits say they’ve struggled to take advantage of those tools or, like Kundert, to simply get approved as a registered nonprofit.
It’s hard to know the extent of the problem, in part because organizations are reluctant to admit that they can’t negotiate what seems like a simple process. Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN, which helps nonprofits with technology, says she’s heard many complaints about Facebook and that NTEN itself had a hard time getting Facebook approval because the organization was founded under a different name. She also was frustrated by changes Facebook made to its algorithm in 2018 that lowered the visibility of nonprofit pages. To reach its community, NTEN would have to pay for ads or to boost posts. In July, NTEN left Facebook. “It wasn’t worth it to us,” says Ward. “It didn’t feel like a place that aligned with our values.”