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Why the Facebook Ads Grant Petition for Nonprofits Is a Terrible Idea

A person logs into Facebook on their laptop with Facebook showing them a big blue screen with their signature letter F in the middle.
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Following the release of Facebook’s new “donate now” feature for nonprofit brand pages, a few intrepid and well-meaning fundraising and marketing experts rejuvenated an existing petition imploring Facebook to issue grants to nonprofits in order to create ads gratis.

The idea behind this campaign is that, although the “donate now” button is a great addition, its visibility will be greatly reduced due to the fact that Facebook’s algorithm favors users and brands who use its paid products, such as ads and sponsored posts. Nonprofits, in general, lack the ad budget to keep up.

This rallying cry has spawned numerous blog posts, tweets and emails in support of the petition. But is this really in the best interest of nonprofit marketers?

Polishing the Brass on the Titanic

While there is a precedent in the form of Google’s Nonprofit program, which grants up to $10,000 worth of ads per month (which doesn’t go very far, by the way), it is extremely unlikely that Facebook will ever create a similar program.

Facebook’s entire monetization model is based on paid advertising, and every algorithm update over the last few years reinforces that model. Brands who were enjoying a free lunch in the form of interactions and conversions on their Facebook pages during the mid-to-late 2000s have seen organic impressions drop precipitously, forcing them into an ad spend or irrelevance. One study reports that brand pages have suffered a staggering 44% decline in organic reach since December 1, 2013.

An ad grant of this nature would only perpetuate the root cause of why nonprofits are currently seeing diminished engagement on Facebook: more ads, less organic content. Congratulations, petition supporters! You’re working to make Facebook worse. Why stop at nonprofits? How about small businesses? They’re in the exact same boat. How about schools? Hospitals? Churches?

Forrester Research recommends that marketers shouldn’t “dedicate a paid ad budget to Facebook.” Their report found that marketers surveyed rated Facebook as the least effective of 13 marketing channels. Ouch!

Do you like ads in your newsfeed? When was the last time you clicked one?

Furthermore, studies show that usage among teens is slipping, while tweens are skipping the network entirely in favor of Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Pew Research reported last year that 61% of current Facebook users admitted to having voluntarily taken a break from using Facebook for a period of several weeks or more.

Regardless of the long-term viability of the network as a useful method of outreach, a new set of issues would emerge were this ad grant to be gifted.

Planning and Deploying Ad Campaigns Isn’t Easy and Shouldn’t Be Taken Lightly

Have you ever created an ad or sponsored post on Facebook? It’s not easy.

Let’s say you were gifted a grant. Where would you begin? These are just a few examples of what goes into a Facebook ad:

The Social Network
Psst…he doesn’t care about your nonprofit.
  • Ad Type
    • Page Post Engagement
    • Page Likes
    • Clicks to Website
    • Website Conversions
    • App Installs
    • App Engagement
    • Event Responses
    • Offer Claims
  • Campaign Duration
    • Schedule
    • Budget per day
  • Campaign Cost
    • Price bid per impression
    • Price bid per click
  • Demographic (Target Audience)
    • Location
    • Age
    • Gender
    • Language
    • Relationship Status
    • Interests

Easy-peasy, right? You’ll also need to write copy for the ad and source an image.

Don’t forget: you have to create a campaign, landing page or call-to-action to promote – along with goals and objectives – before you can even dig into this.

Mid-market and enterprise for-profit brands have entire teams within their marketing departments solely dedicated to paid search, social media ads and retargeting. It is an exact science with little room for error, but a lot of room for A/B testing and conversion rate optimization. These marketers live and die by single-cent changes (yes, as in pennies) in cost-per-impression and cost-per-click. It often takes numerous campaigns to discover what works and what doesn’t.

Even if a nonprofit staffer at a small or medium-sized organization could find the time and garner the expertise to adequately plan and deploy an ad or sponsored post, it’s likely that that time would be better invested elsewhere. I don’t mean to discourage anyone reading this, but I wouldn’t be terribly excited about being given a brand new BMW with the caveat that I would have to rebuild the engine myself to drive it.

A Culture of Acquisition and the “Free Mindset”

A bad combination.

Not Your ATM

It’s easy to succumb to shiny object syndrome when it comes to new and exciting ways to generate donations, but the dismal data on donor retention begs for a change in mentality. Imagine the results from focusing on the cultivation of existing donor relationships through genuine, personal communications, rather than a digital spray-and-pray to a nameless, faceless group of digital bank accounts. Besides, isn’t Facebook all about engagement and not solicitation?

Very few are up in arms about staggering low donor retention rates, but many are crying fowl over unfulfilled entitlement.

Our friend Pamela Grow writes that nonprofits need to lose the free mindset. Web hosting, donor management software, graphic design, Facebook ads and video production should always be free for nonprofits, right? Watch out: you might get what you pay for.

This Is What Nonprofits Need More Than a Facebook Ads Grant

Given that Facebook as a channel has become far too costly for small-to-medium sized nonprofits to see a return on investment from, I have a few suggestions on where they might better spend their time.

Harness Human Users on Facebook

There is power in numbers. If your brand page is the only profile on Facebook sharing information about your nonprofit, consider leveraging the personal accounts of your staff, donors, board members and volunteers. Each of them represents a potential audience, multiplying the visibility of your content. Have them share information about your organization. They’ll likely see higher engagement than from your brand page alone.

Other Social Networks

If you haven’t dipped your toes into the waters of Google+ and Twitter, it’s time to. Twitter has vast potential in brand management, social listening and referral traffic generation – without an algorithmic newsfeed. Who you follow is who you see.

Several reports on search engine ranking factors put Google+ near or at the top of the list as the most significant factor. One study shows that +1s (Google+’s version of a Facebook Like) most closely correlate to high search engine rankings.

Owned Content

Investing in content on your own website, such as a blog, is much less precarious than leveraging so much on platforms you don’t own. The more you can do to drive traffic to your own website, add email subscribers and grow your overall community, the better. It’s true that many nonprofits have spent a lot of time and energy building their Facebook community only for it to diminish due to their evolving business model, but what better argument is there in favor of building a community around your own owned platforms? You don’t need a grant from anyone to publish a blog post.

Current Donors

Here’s a fun experiment: the next time you open up Facebook to post a status update from your nonprofit’s page, close your laptop and instead write a handwritten note to five donors letting them know how much their support means to the organization, apropos of nothing. Compare the results against your last Facebook post.

What do you think about the idea of an ads grant for nonprofits? Let me know in the comments below.

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  • charlie sandner

    In Google Ad Grants, we have $10,000 per month. I try to keep the pages/Ads relevant, The Quality Score high, and the CTR about 6%. Given that, it's a B to spend $10,000 per month. I totally agree.
  • Steven Shattuck

    I don't doubt you've been successful. You appear to be a seasoned marketer. I don't see Invisible Children, whose annual revenue last year was upwards of $6M, needing any grants to do paid search. The point I was trying to make is that the kind of organization who would need need a grant (i.e. small shop) likely wouldn't have in-house expertise like yours.
  • Noelle

    If you can see the grant spend as an acquisition tool for finding new supporters by targeting people that may be more likely to take interest in your organizations work, then It can be really powerful. I've used low budget ad campaigns to boost my orgs work frequently and it works well. I think writing it off is really misleading. I'd welcome the money to be put in the sector. The key advise I'd give is to not think about the investment as producing an Ad campaigns, where you are promoting a superficial banner or commercial. Think about it as paying to serve your best content to a new audience using detailed targeting so you can 1) find new people who are interested in your cause 2) learn what types of people are interested in your cause 3) add a touchpoint to your existing communication strategy. There are so many great things to learn about your messaging by testing content on FB.
  • Steven Shattuck

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mark! Funny how the only opposition I encounter on this topic seems to come from those in the paid search industry. :)
    I'm not sure what the significance is of your first, second and fourth points, since my article was about Facebook and not Google or Bing. To my knowledge, Facebook does not currently have an ad grants program for nonprofits - this article is an argument against a hypothetical. Google has many other revenue streams besides paid search, including Google Apps, Google Wallet and Android. I doubt Google, Bing or Facebook relies too much on tax write-offs, but I'm glad you're looking out for multi-billion dollar tech firms such as them.
    To your third point, I suppose it's purely a matter of opinion. If memory serves me right, ads were introduced in late 2007, over three years after Facebook's founding (that's about 27% of their existence without ads), with newsfeed ads following in 2011. And I didn't mean to suggest that Facebook itself would consider extending the (hypothetical) program, only that supporters (which always seem to be paid search professionals, strange!) might begin politicking to get grants for small businesses, churches, etc.
    To your fifth point, I don't believe I've ever heard or read someone refer to any Forrester data as "misleading" - Facebook was unequivocally the lowest-ranked marketing channel in their survey, regardless of the gap between the highest and lowest. Forrester's VP and Principal Analyst himself recommended that marketers change course, which is underscored by Social Media Examiner's annual Social Media Marketing Industry Report which has consistently shown that marketers are unsure whether their Facebook efforts are effective. But, to your point, 395 survey respondents is admittedly a small sample size.
    I hope you'll trust my recommendation that the primary concern of a fundraiser should be to make sure their current donors feel appreciated (a strategy that could absolutely include Facebook!), rather than optimizing an ad campaign.
    I'm sure any number of professionals will tell you that aspects of their trades are not "tremendously difficult" - there's probably nothing inherently difficult about plumbing or accounting, but I'd rather stick to what I know during my day-to-day activities, and I think fundraisers should do the same.
    Unless, of course, you support grants like these so that the recipients will feel compelled to utilize your services in order to properly implement them. :)
    I'd love see some case studies from your nonprofit clients who had success running a Facebook ad campaign, in the form of increased revenue and donor loyalty - would be happy publish the data on this blog!
  • Mark Fiore

    As an online marketer with experience working on campaigns with Adwords, Bing, Facebook, Twitter, Linked for for-profit and non-profits I have to say I disagree with almost you’re entire article. 1.You said Facebook’s entire monetization platform is based on paid search. While you are correct you left out that so is Googles’. So is Bings’. So is pretty much everyone’s network today. Facebook’s network, like Googles, is relatively fixed to keep running. By that I mean it costs nearly the same amount to show an ad that generates $2 a click as it does to show an ad that generates $20 a click. The only reason the cost per click changes is because industries are bidding on them and are willing to pay a certain amount to get those clicks. 2.Google’s Grants are not money that google gives away, but rather money that Google doesn’t charge for in the form of clicks. But they still get more of a benefit from it in the form of tax write-offs. In fact their Grant program will no longer accept new applicants when their write-offs are maxed. Facebook would gain the same tax benefit for the same ‘cost’. Also, Google Grant’s cap your max cost-per-click at $2. Now they do take quality score into account, a metric to give more priority at lower costs to keywords that Google deems more relevant, which sort of forces you to not-spam. You could, but you would get little from doing it because other companies bidding on those words would have much higher priority than you. Your ads might not even make first page if they are just spam. 3.They are not making Facebook worse as ads have been a part of their model since shortly after their inception. I’m not saying ads are enjoyable but it does keep Facebook free for the user. Like Google, the Facebook grant would have no reason to extend beyond non-profits. Facebook’s model is not hurting small business or hospitals. Their platform allows you to target only your target market and if you don’t do a good job of that it is your fault, not Facebook’s. Also, churches in the United States are tax-exempt and schools are funded through Uncle Sam, so not the same as non-profits. 4.Ads in your newsfeed does not have anything to do with non-profits. Those ads would exist whether Facebook gave grants out or not. Yes Facebook’s network has a tremendously lower click-through-rate than Adwords Search but that case is the same no matter where the money is coming from. Since you only pay per click it doesn’t matter. 5.Your Forester Research link is misleading. The top surveyed channel was only a 3.84 compared to Facebook’s 3.54. Since the study is out of 5 and their difference is only .3 that difference is incredibly minor. Since all were so closely grouped together the survey was probably riddled with outliers on either end of the spectrum for each marketing channel. 6.Creating good Ad campaigns is actually not tremendously difficult. However, companies like mine exist because people like you think it is or would rather spend the time to manage it on managing their own company. Again, this is the same on all networks. 7.I’m not going to pretend that we don’t live in a very ‘Give that to me’ society but generally speaking, non-profits are in it to make a difference, not pad their own pockets like most companies. There are exceptions of course but generally speaking non-profits are not selling a product or service for a profit, they get money by raising it with benefits, grants, fundraisers. So the ‘shinny object’ argument does apply to society but not this situation. Also, as I said in point #1, this helps Facebook as well in the form of a tax write-off and it is not a giveaway in the same way as me giving you $100. From my experience there are plenty of non-profits, some I manage currently, that would benefit from Facebook Grants. It would not only benefit them, it would benefit who ever they are helping in their organization and it would even help Facebook.
  • Javier

    Good article! We are currently using the google ads grant for our military initiative - G.I. Money. It's definitely not easy to manage, but it has been beneficial. It'd be interesting to see if FB creates a similar offering, but in all honesty, FB could disappear tomorrow and we wouldn't miss it. FB has not done anything to help us reach supporters. Also, great point about websites. I hate to see small businesses put "all their eggs" into a platform they don't own. Thanks!
  • Wendell Gustafson

    Interesting article, some good points and always good advice to be careful about what one's wishes might bring. No doubt the Google AdWords grant program does drive this mindset towards FB. Your comment, though, about $10,000 not going far with AdWords hasn't been my experience, given the $2 cost-per-click limit, and I doubt I'm alone. That's Google's way of protecting their revenue stream, I believe, and it has made it hard to spend much on, and get much visibility from, the most desirable keywords in my search world.
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