“It could be a real benefit, especially now,” says Kristin Dunn, executive director of Camplify, which runs affordable camps for underprivileged youth in North Carolina. The group canceled its annual fall fundraiser, a barbeque with a live auction and square dancing, because of Covid-19.
Dunn first tried to register Camplify with Facebook in 2019, but she was denied because the organization had changed its name. Facebook said it couldn’t verify that Camplify was the nonprofit it claimed to be—even though the change is documented in the group’s annual form 990 filed with the IRS.
In January, Dunn tried again to register on Facebook. She followed up in March, May, and August through Facebook Messenger and got no reply. Finally, in September, Facebook notified Dunn that her application “could not be fully reviewed at this time,” because Camplify hadn’t proved it’s the same organization as the one listed on the IRS forms Dunn submitted. The email also told her Facebook doesn’t consider her organization’s address valid, because it is a post office box. In place of the Donate button, Camplify’s Facebook page now links to its PayPal account. People can donate there, but Dunn worries that the process is too cumbersome, and she wonders if she’s missing out on donations as a result.
To apply for nonprofit status with Facebook, administrators have to show that their organization is a 501(c)(3) registered with the IRS. They also have to supply tax ID and bank account numbers, and addresses for both the organization and the executive director.
But, like Dunn, many organizations say they are turned down for reasons such as operating under a name different from the one they were founded under, even if that change has been registered with the IRS.
Every nonprofit applicant is vetted by a person at Facebook to make sure the organization is legitimate and to prevent people from holding fundraisers for fraudulent or scam campaigns. But nonprofits say the process shouldn’t be this arduous.
The IRS website offers a search tool to look up approved nonprofits, as does the private database GuideStar. Monica Kinsey, a consultant who helps nonprofits fundraise and promote their mission, says Facebook shouldn’t have a hard time verifying that nonprofits are who they say they are. “It shouldn’t be this difficult,” she says.
Kinsey has helped clients register on Facebook in the past, but she ran into problems working with one organization this year. She submitted the application in January. After hearing nothing from Facebook, she asked repeatedly via Facebook Messenger if there was a problem with the application. In August, Facebook told her she needed to reapply because the documents were now more than six months old. “You can’t get a human. It’s just through Messenger,” she says. “As many people as they employ, you just can’t get to a person.”
None of the 11 nonprofits WIRED spoke to had been able to contact a person at Facebook. “They refuse to speak to me on the phone,” says Kundert, of Bluegrass Pride. She tried typing insulting messages into the chat bot in an effort to provoke a response from a human; she failed. She says she’s received numerous form emails signed by “the Facebook Charity Onboarding Team” but never connected with a person who could respond to specific questions.
“By nearly every measure, these tools have been a success,” says a Facebook spokesperson. She says more than 90,000 nonprofits are registered with Facebook and more than a million organizations can fundraise on Facebook through donor-advised funds such as Network for Good. “We’ve enabled 45 million people to raise more than $3 billion globally.”
But many nonprofits say they are confused by the two systems and have a hard time navigating Facebook’s help center.
Even for those organizations that are verified, many nonprofit leaders complain that the platform is opaque. Rick Cohen, chief communications officer at the National Council of Nonprofits, says he hears at least a complaint a week from nonprofits about the platform. Cohen says organizations don’t get alerted when Facebook users set up fundraisers for them. Often, they only find out if they happen to run across the fundraiser on the group’s Facebook timeline.
For those that can’t get verified, there’s also an element of shame.