If you’re a regular Facebook user and you keep an eye out for your friends’ birthdays, you’ve probably encountered one of the social media platform’s major recent innovations. Back in 2017, the Menlo Park giant introduced the Facebook fundraiser tool, which enables users to schedule fundraising drives for charities based around their own birthday.

It’s a neat way to focus attention on good causes and to prompt ordinary people to give money. But despite these heart-warming features, its introduction has actually proved controversial.

According to the company, Facebook fundraiser drives raised over $300 million in 2018-19. So what do critics have against the add-on?

As we’ll see in a moment, the system is far from fool-proof when it comes to screening charities, and there are definitely some good reasons to be careful when handing over payment details to Mark Zuckerberg and friends. But should that put you off donating or running fundraisers? Here’s what you need to know.

Is it safe to donate through Facebook?

Let’s start off with some security basics. When you make Facebook donations to charity, you can’t (yet) use cryptocurrency earned by monetizing your social media data. That might materialize in a few years time, but for now, users rely on traditional credit card and debit card details. And this comes with inescapable risks that are easy to lose sight of.

Americans lose vast amounts of money to online criminals every year, and financial data leaks are a primary cause. Annual totals vary, but usually they amount to around $20 billion in losses from online fraud. Much of the time, poor security practices from companies is the culprit, enabling attackers to steal confidential information to use in phishing attacks or outright credit fraud.

However, to its credit, Facebook has addressed these concerns, implementing encrypted payments and shielding financial details as much as possible. As far as we know, the company hasn’t fallen victim to mass financial data leaks, unlike many other online sellers.

So, is donating through Facebook safe from a cyber-security standpoint?

Most likely, yes. And no less so than paying for goods from ecommerce merchants, or using platforms like Just Giving. Even so, it makes sense to minimize the risk involved whenever you hand over payment details.

To do so, try to use safe payment methods wherever possible (such as prepaid cards or PayPal), and avoid using everyday cards.

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Facebook donation encryption

While the first signs are encouraging, simply knowing that Facebook has implemented “encryption” isn’t really enough reassurance. We need to know how strong this encryption is, what it applies to, and how Facebook would respond should attackers seek to breach its systems.

This isn’t the information that Facebook routinely volunteers. For instance, its FAQ on “Fundraising and Donations” doesn’t mention encryption at all. But we know enough to make an informed assessment.

Firstly, Facebook uses dedicated secured servers to store payment information. Payment processes also use end-to-end encryption when handling payment details, crunching user data as soon as it is entered into browsers, and shielding it until it reaches their servers.

When donations are processed, the charities receiving the money don’t have access to any payment details, and no information is shared with third parties about that information. At the same time, an “anti-fraud team” analyzes payment patterns to detect suspicious activity, and the company promises to work with customers to reverse any unwanted payments.

All of that sounds promising, and it suggests that users’ payment information will be fairly secure in the event of a major cyber-attack. But there’s still room for caution. We don’t really know how Facebook would respond if a data breach occurred, and we do know that breaches have happened in the past. For instance, in 2018 over 50 million accounts were hijacked, and a 2019 attack was even larger, exposing “hundreds of millions” of Facebook accounts.

So what is the takeaway for potential donors?

Basically, Facebook talks a good game on payment protection, having experienced difficulties in the past, and users may want to give the company the benefit of the doubt.

However, Facebook isn’t specific about the type of encryption used, and breaches have occurred with alarming regularity. It’s still wise to use safer payment methods and to keep your credit cards in your wallet.

Is Facebook reliably distributing users’ donations to charities?

If you’ve resolved to take the risk and donate, can you be sure that your money will actually reach the charities involved?

This is a sensitive subject because when Facebook Fundraiser was announced, it came with hefty fees for transactions. Initially, 5% of all donations were reserved as a transaction fee, which didn’t seem to fit the spirit of the project. That’s been changed, and charities now receive 100% of all donations, but doubts remain in other areas.

However, there are still cases where the money isn’t distributed.

This can occur when fundraisers fail to meet targets stipulated by Facebook (usually $100). In those cases, the money will remain in fundraiser accounts and may be returned to donors. This means that users can’t be sure that when they donate, the cause will actually benefit. Because many fundraisers appeal to small groups of friends, it’s not uncommon for fundraiser drives to fail.

Facebook fundraiser scams

Then there’s the risk of Facebook fundraiser scams. According to TechCrunch, Facebook has a register of 750,000 non-profits that users can choose from. In such a huge community, quality control inevitably fails from time to time, and frauds have regularly been detected.

How do these scams work, and how can you detect them?

It’s not always easy to tell whether a charity is legitimate from its Facebook listing. Scammers are masters at creating persuasive pages that imitate real charities, and even savvy users struggle to tell fake from real.

1. Facebook profiles resembling existing charities

These imitation fundraisers are the most common scams on Facebook’s donation platform. Despite reasonably solid screening processes, criminals can create Facebook profiles that resemble existing charities and slip through the social network’s filters.

When they are set up as registered charities on Facebook’s systems, there’s little to stop users from choosing them inadvertently.

2. Scammers know how to target vulnerable users

They are happy to create fake shelters for sick animals, or medical research funds for childhood diseases. And Facebook provides plenty of tools to target potential fundraisers who may be sympathetic.

3. Times of the year when fundraising spikes

It’s not just about birthdays. Ramadan and Pesach are times of giving for Muslims and Jews, Christmas scams are depressingly common, and natural disasters offer even more disturbing opportunities for criminals to capitalize.

Recognizing scams isn’t easy, and users need to be very careful when selecting charities:

  1. Contact charities to double check if they know their main area of focus
  2. Check for any spelling errors or factual mistakes on their pages
  3. Consult resources like Guidestar as well, which provides a handy listing of legitimate non-profits.

Finally, if you are reasonably certain that a fundraiser is not what they claim to be, make sure you report them to Facebook. Facebook won’t start investigating fundraisers until users report them, so it’s important to use the “Report Fundraiser” option if you have any doubts.

Facebook fundraiser FAQ

How does Facebook birthday fundraiser work?

Facebook Birthday Fundraisers allow users with Facebook accounts to select a charity for a donations drive. The Fundraiser option can be found to the left of a user’s News Feed, and setting up a drive is easy.

When users do so, a message will be sent to their Facebook contacts about the fundraiser, and why they should donate. Users can then choose the amount of their donation and pay via credit card or PayPal.

Donation drives are time-limited, and they must hit certain financial targets before the money is distributed to the charity. Facebook won’t charge any fees for donations made by your contacts, and charities now receive 100% of what your contacts give.

The choice of potential charities is massive, with over 750,000 non-profit organizations listed on the Facebook platform. In theory, each one has been verified by Facebook, but there may still be fraudulent charities, so it pays to be cautious when choosing partners for birthday donations.

To find out more, head to the main Facebook support page on charity fundraisers.

How can I start a fundraiser on Facebook?

Creating a Birthday Fundraiser is quick and simple. For starters, research the options and find a charity you’re passionate about and which offers legitimate services in its specialist field.

  1. Head to your News Feed. On the left-hand side, there should be a button marked “Fundraisers” (it’s a gold disc with a little red heart in the middle).
  2. Choose the “Raise Money” option, followed by either the “Nonprofit” or “Charity” option. You’ll now have the chance to choose the charity of your choice.
  3. When you’ve chosen the right recipient, just press “Create,” and the fundraiser will be added to your feed. You can choose to send invitations to everyone on your contacts list, or keep things more private.
  4. To invite select groups of contacts, go to the Fundraiser page and choose “Invite.” You can then pick people to participate in specific fundraisers.

How do I delete a fundraiser on Facebook?

If you discover that a charity isn’t legitimate, or you just have second thoughts about scheduling a fundraiser, cancellation is always a possibility.

Head to this page, and follow the link to a cancellation form. When you fill in the fields, Facebook will either clear any donations and return the money to donors, or transfer the money to the charity if targets have been met.

However, cancellations take 48 hours to process, so don’t expect instant results.

How do I withdraw my money from the Facebook fundraiser?

Users can’t “dip into” Facebook fundraiser funds like PayPal accounts. Instead, payments will be made on varying schedules, a set time after donations are received.

Generally, payments are processed on a pre-set schedule, which depends on the payment method chosen by charities. So, for example, Facebook Payments are paid out every 2 weeks, while those processed via the PayPal Giving Fund will be distributed within 15-90 days of the donation. Some delays are inevitable, given the way payments are processed.

If users set up personal fundraisers, the system is different. In that case, donations will be paid out 8 days after they are received, so the process is slightly faster. Personal fundraisers can only be paid into authorized bank accounts.

Facebook Fundraiser facts & stats

  • Over $1 billion has been donated since 2017
  • $300 million was raised via Birthday Fundraisers in its first year of operation
  • 19 countries now participate, with over 1 million registered charities
  • RAICES, a charity supporting separated migrant families, created the largest ever crowdfunded charity campaign via Facebook, raising well over $20 million
  • Other long-term drives have been even larger. For example, health charity St. Jude has raised in excess of $30 million via Facebook
  • Around 20 million people have donated to a Facebook Fundraiser