Immediately after Joyce Wang posted her birthday fundraiser to Facebook in November 2017, she tried to take it down. Wang didn't realize that all Facebook fundraisers are public — there is no option to limit visibility to friends only — and she's not in the habit of sharing personal stories, like the one in her birthday fundraiser, so publicly.
But one thing stopped her: Less than a minute after the fundraiser went live, a friend donated $1,000. Wang's fundraising goal was a modest $300, or 45 cents from each of her Facebook friends. Within a matter of days she raised $3,680 — more than 10 times that number.
"The part that surprised me the most was I got donations and comments and shares from people I haven’t seen or talked to in over 10 years," Wang told Refinery29. Her campaign received donations from complete strangers, as well as distant connections.
Birthday fundraisers, which let you raise money for one of the 750,000-plus non-profits with Facebook pages, are a relatively new offering. Facebook launched the tool in August 2017, five months after introducing personal fundraisers. Prior to this, users could put a "Donate" button on their own posts, or click the "Donate" button on a non-profit's Facebook page, but there was no dedicated space for launching a campaign. Facebook has not shared how much money birthday fundraisers have raised but says they are gaining momentum.
Creating one is ridiculously easy: Pick the non-profit, set a fundraising goal, choose an end date, write a story about why you're raising money, and give your fundraiser a title. Click "create" and your friends will see the fundraiser in their News Feeds and get a notification letting them know you're raising for a cause.
The ease of use — and the personal validation that can come from doing good — means it's likely your News Feed is flooded with a host of birthday fundraisers happening at any one time. The result can be overwhelming. If everyone's raising money, how do you decide which cause is worthy of your money?
Wang, who works in the non-profit space, says she is "constantly inundated with requests for funds" on her personal Facebook account. She had never given to any of the birthday fundraisers on her News Feed, because she already gets so many requests for money on a daily basis. She only decided to launch one because she was celebrating a milestone birthday, 35, and was passionate about AnnieCannons, the non-profit she was supporting with her fundraiser. The group helps human trafficking survivors learn technical skills, an issue close to Wang's heart. Before working for a conservation non-profit, Wang worked as a lawyer, representing victims of domestic violence. As she explained in her fundraiser story, "Many of the same women subjected to human trafficking and sex work are also subjected to domestic abuse and other violence."
Wang attributes the success of her fundraiser to a couple of factors: The compelling, vulnerable story she shared along with the fundraiser, and the fact that the non-profit she chose has nothing to do with her current day job in conservation. "A fundraiser for animals or wildlife would have been completely expected from me," she said. "This came out of left field."
While the Facebook of the past was a place where birthdays meant well wishes from 200-plus of your closest friends, the Facebook of 2018 is a place to use your day to celebrate a cause. Fundraisers are perfectly positioned to address this shift in use. Raising money for a non-profit gives friends a peek into what you care about — or, at least, what you want to appear to care about.
Before Wang's fundraiser, Jessica Hubley, one of the co-founders of AnnieCannons, didn't view Facebook as a good place for raising money. In the past, Facebook charged non-profits a 5% fee, covering non-profit vetting, fraud protection, and payment processing, along with operational costs and payment support. That fee was more than the amount charged by either PayPal or Stripe.
"We were disincentivized from actually encouraging anyone to create a fundraiser on Facebook, because we had to give up more of the donations to processing fees," Hubley said. "We pay attention to any fees, because those dollar amounts translate to something very tangible that we could do for someone."
Facebook eliminated these fees in late 2017, and Hubley says Facebook has "gone to great pains to emphasize they no longer charge them." Non-profits set up on Facebook can get the money through direct deposit; those that are not set up will get a check for the full amount in the mail.
While Hubley says Wang's $3,680 donation doesn't compare to the $50,000 to $100,000 grants the non-profit usually spends its time seeking, it's comparable to crowdfunding campaigns AnnieCannons has done on other platforms. And far less effort: "On those [campaigns], we spent substantial amounts of time first trying to get our friends and family to seed the campaign and then promote it. [Birthday fundraisers are] a more efficient way to raise money at the crowdfunding level."
Still, raising money on a social platform can, for some people, turn into a bizarre kind of popularity contest. While almost all of the feedback Wang received was positive, when she told one friend about the success of her campaign, she was surprised to hear him respond, "Yeah, I saw that and I was just like, If I tried to do that, I would have only raised $200, and my friends would have said I owed them money."
"He was totally joking, but it was so interesting to me that his first reaction was a comparison to how much he could have raised if he had done a fundraiser," she added.
Of course, competition or not, the ultimate reward goes to the non-profit — and that's a good thing.
"If 100 people start trying to prove that they have more friends that will donate to AnnieCannons and their intrinsic motivation is about competing with someone else, the benefit of what they do still comes to AnnieCannons," Hubley says. "We would still be able to do our work better because those 100 people are competing, even if from a higher level social perspective that wasn’t a great dynamic."
As is often the case when giving to charity, people who feel happy about giving once are more likely to give again in the future. Since her fundraiser, Wang has given to others, and so did Trudy Chan, a sales manager at New York's Lincoln Center. Chan, who raised $801 — far more than her original $180 goal — for the National Dance Institute, said her surprise about the positive result of her fundraiser made her want to return the favor for others.
As Facebook deals with the continuing fallout of fake news, Russian trolls, and now, the massive data breach, birthday fundraisers seem like a lone bright spot. They serve as a reminder of the way social media can be used for good — even if there is some personal incentive included with the confetti and balloons.