Social good organizations on Facebook seek improvements in tech and trust

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, at the Facebook Communities Summit. Photo by: Facebook

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Facebook is doing all it can to keep “people who bring the world closer together” on its platform.

“We have a lot to do on a platform this big,” Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of the social media giant, said at the Facebook Communities Summit on Thursday. “It’s going to take us a long time, but we are incredibly dedicated to that, and the reason we are dedicated to that is to preserve what you do every day.”

In April 2018, Facebook announced it would increase data protections for its 2.2 billion users after Cambridge Analytica obtained the personal information of more than 87 million users. At the time, Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said the scandal led the company to rethink every aspect of every relationship it has and take a broader view of its responsibility to protect the privacy of its users.

“In the humanitarian and refugee space, trust is a massively important factor.”

— Atif Javed, co-founder, Tarjimly

But since then, critics say responses by the company have been inadequate, including in Myanmar, where posts on the platform have spread hate across the country. 

As it fixes some of the problems that created a crisis for the company, Facebook is also releasing products to improve the experiences of its users, particularly those who manage communities on the platform.

Last week, it brought hundreds of people to its headquarters in Menlo Park, California, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the platform and launch new features. Among them are new post formatting tools, a mentorship feature on Facebook Groups, and simplified messaging for page administrators.

While nonprofits were pleased with the product updates, some NGO leaders suggested it will take more than technical fixes to keep social good organizations on the platform.

Can new tools fix broken trust?

When Ettore Rossetti first started the Save the Children Facebook account in 2007, he set it up as a person: First name Save, middle name The, last name Children.

“We build new tools based on what our community tells us.”

—  Emily Dalton Smith, director of social good partnerships, Facebook

Facebook said it was against the rules and asked him to switch it to a page. Save the Children’s relationship with the social media platform has come a long way since then. Save became a beta partner for Facebook giving tools, which involves testing new fundraising capabilities and providing feedback.

“Facebook listens,” Rossetti told Devex at the Facebook Communities Summit.

Looking ahead, he is talking with his contacts at the social media giant about what Facebook could do to allow organizations such as Save to fundraise more effectively, including making the donate button more visible.

Feedback like this informed many of the product updates announced last Thursday. New features ranging from charitable giving to blood donations are demand-generated products, Emily Dalton Smith, director of social good partnerships at Facebook, told Devex. She and her team are focused on making these tools as easy to use as possible, offering resources and support, and partnering with nonprofits around the world.

“We build new tools based on what our community tells us,” she said. “Today is a reflection of that.”

The leaders of communities gathered at Facebook last week were invited because they are examples of the kinds of connections Facebook wants to see formed on the platform, and the crowd was thrilled when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance.

“I just wanted to stop by myself and say thank you for everything you are doing,” Zuckerberg said when he walked onstage.

For the first decade, Facebook focused mainly on connecting friends and family, but it reached a turning point where it saw the value of bringing together communities, he said: “That’s not something we can just do by ourselves by building tools,” he said. “That’s really something that you are all doing.”

Still, broken trust in Facebook has led some nonprofits to seek out other options.

On Thursday, Tarjimly co-founders announced they are launching Android and iOS mobile apps to expand to new platforms beyond the Facebook Messenger chatbot. The founders of the nonprofit, which uses Messenger to connect volunteer translators with refugees and immigrants, said the reason was to provide more feature-rich experiences for aid workers, even as Messenger remains critical for many refugees who rely on Tarjimly.

But trust was also part of their consideration, one of the founders told Devex.

“Especially in the humanitarian and refugee space, trust is a massively important factor,” Atif Javed, co-founder of Tarjimly, told Devex following F8, the Facebook Developer Conference in May.

He said Tarjimly was seeing an increase in the number of people they tried to recruit who had deactivated their Facebook accounts. They had to convince people to rejoin Facebook and Messenger, including by asking them to create new blank accounts so they could still use the service.

“We’ve received enough feedback now to warrant building our own mobile app to capture the seemingly large population of users that have given up on Facebook,” he said at the time.

Facebook ‘can lift up people who are doing good’

Other nonprofits, such as World Wildlife Fund, say Facebook provides them with a capability that other platforms cannot come close to matching.

“Facebook is an agnostic platform. It can be used for good or it can be used for bad.”

— Terry Macko, senior vice president for marketing and communications, WWF

Birthday fundraisers on Facebook, for example, have led to a huge boost in donations for the conservation organization. Now, WWF wants to try the feature announced on Thursday that allows for fundraising via Instagram, also owned by Facebook. Before social media, many nonprofit organizations had a hard time measuring the reach and impact of word of mouth, which is essentially what social media is, said Terry Macko, senior vice president for marketing and communications at WWF.

“Facebook is an agnostic platform,” Macko said. “It can be used for good or it can be used for bad.”

He applauds Facebook for introducing as many tools as it can to help organizations do more good for more people: “They can lift up the people who are doing good while at the same time trying to smack down the people who are doing bad,” he said.

How Facebook has tripled its Disaster Maps partnerships

When disaster strikes, these datasets provide critical insights into where help is needed, so a growing number of organizations have joined the initiative despite concerns about partnering with Facebook.

Other nonprofits that seem committed to the platform are the Disaster Maps partners, which have tripled since the program launched. When Community Help first launched, Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis at the medical relief organization Direct Relief, was skeptical.

“It was modeled on an individual-to-individual marketplace,” said Schroeder, an active user in Disaster Maps, often interacting on the Slack channel Facebook has set up for the community. “Disaster response is not an individual-to-individual thing.”

But he provided that feedback, as did others, and that has since changed, since institutions can now post as individuals in Community Help.  

And Thursday, Facebook announced that pages could post in groups as well. Previously, when Direct Relief staff interacted in Facebook groups, they could only post from their personal accounts versus the Direct Relief page, but now they can interact as Direct Relief. And the same goes for staff at health centers, which Direct Relief supports in better leveraging the Facebook platform.

“It’s a hard time in lots of ways in the world,” Sandberg said. “People are increasingly distrustful. People feel increasingly isolated. And what that means is community is more important than ever.” 

She said Facebook is committed to an ongoing dialogue to build the products these organizations need, so they can build community — on and off Facebook.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.