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Illustration by Emma Kay Tocci

Birthday Fundraisers: Enabling Altruism or Approval?

Is Facebook’s birthday fundraiser a genuine action for society, or a mere outlet for displaying popularity?

On Aug. 16 2017, Facebook expanded the fundraising tool it first introduced in 2015 to encompass birthday celebrations. With over 45 million people sending out birthday wishes every day on the social media platform, it seemed convenient to make these posts serve as much more than just birthday notes.
The process is simple. Two weeks before someone’s birthday, Facebook will notify them of the opportunity to create a fundraiser. They would then be able to choose a nonprofit organization, set a target amount of money and an end date to collect the donations. They would also be able to write a story or a couple of words explaining why they chose their specific cause, creating a more personalized attachment to the nonprofit they selected. Their friends would be notified about this chance to donate to the nonprofit they selected, and of course, wish them a happy birthday. Facebook will also chip in five U.S. dollars to every U.S. user’s fundraiser.
Although the idea seems positive at first glance, some critics argue that Facebook’s birthday fundraisers are just another way to manipulate people into sharing personal data and conform to the status quo.
After a significant security breach on Sept. 25, Facebook has been eager to sustain its users and prevent another scandal. An estimated 90 million people may have been impacted by the breach; consequently, the entire platform has been scrutinized. Critics argue that Facebook has been promoting this tool more than ever to win back people’s trust for some needed positive public relations. If perceived as a platform that serves the greater good and facilitates charity, Facebook might be able to compensate for its lost shares over the breach scandal.
On the tool’s one-year anniversary in 2018, Facebook revealed that it has raised more than $300 million in donations. While it is incredible that so much money can be allocated toward a newly introduced tool, the same critics have argued that much of the money raised is not coming out of good intentions.
In June, Silicon Valley couple Charlotte and Dave Willner started a personal fundraiser that went viral shorty after it was released. Their fundraiser to reunite an immigrant parent with their child for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Services started out with a target of 1,500 USD, but reached a groundbreaking figure of 20 million USD in a week. The cause raised money at a rate of 4,000 USD per minute.
The problem with such crowdfunding tools is that they may often be based in popularity contests, similar to posts on social media in general. Critics have claimed that people may compete to show their friends how nice and generous they are, and on birthdays, take fundraisers as a chance to demonstrate how loved they are. The more donations they get on the cause they shared, the cooler they could seem in front of their friends on the social media platform.
Reducing the genuine and selfless act of donation to a popularity contest is not only unfortunate, but also gruesome to those who actually need donations. Another harmful result of the online fundraising is that it reduces the point of contact between people and charity organizations. It is now much easier to click some buttons and give some money to a nonprofit, but the fulfilling feeling of interacting with someone from the organization or even helping out first hand is now disappearing.
Besides the fact that the fundraisers are often poorly handled, they are also limited in their variety of options. While being able to choose from over 750,000 nonprofit organizations in no way seems limited, the fundraiser could be construed as Western-centric since charities must be U.S.-based 501(c)(3) organizations to receive donations. There are only 38 countries where users can make donations on Facebook, and 17 where you can create fundraisers for charities.
Online platforms, however, undoubtedly do produce positive outcomes sometimes. Tiffany Jackson, a mother who used social media to raise money for her child’s tuition fees, said that these types of crowdfunding platforms “removed the embarrassment of asking people for money.” The shame that is sometimes associated with gathering donations is eliminated when there is story shared and hundreds supporting the cause. Facebook also eliminated platform fees for similar personal fundraisers in April, after eliminating these fees for accredited charities in November 2017.
In addition, fundraisers can make people aware of causes and organizations they would not otherwise encounter in their daily lives. People are able to easily find organizations that advocate for things they are passionate about and want to donate to. Without the facilitation of Facebook’s fundraising tool, it could be difficult to get to know about organizations in different countries.
In today’s world, there is a constant battle between social implications on social media platforms and real world practicalities. A simple donation button may raise many questions in regards to donor privacy, social pressures and the validity of organizations involved. There is no doubt, however, that genuine donations toward beneficial causes in any society are a step toward a fairer, more inclusive world.
Malak Yasser is a staff writer. Email her at
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