Internet, We Need to Talk About Inappropriate Uses of Social Media for Charity

‘For every RT, we’ll donate $10 to [cause]!’ ‘Like us on Facebook and we’ll donate to [cause]!’ ‘Help us reach 5,000 followers on [Pinterest/Facebook/Instagram/Tumblr] and we’ll donate to a user-selected charity!’

I’m seeing these statements popping up more and more these days, and they are giving me a case of the chills followed by irritation bordering on anger. There’s so much wrong with this picture that I don’t even know where to begin, and I’m deeply troubled that this tactic is being advanced as a social media strategy by industry experts advising companies on how to increase their social media saturation and exposure. Followers at any cost, you know, because followers are gold; advertisers want to see high follower numbers, more followers means more pageviews on your website, more followers means more sales of your products.

Here’s one of the reasons it bugs me: Where is the accountability here? What assurance do we have that companies claiming to donate for every follower they receive are actually doing so? Are users reading the fine print and taking note of specific clauses? For example, you may sign up for a newsletter under the impression that it leads to a donation, and then unsubscribe a week later when it gets annoying. You may have just negated your donation, because the company might only donate for people who remain subscribed three months or longer.

This is a world where many people do not critically evaluate claims about charities. It’s important to find out not only where the money is actually going, and if the touted charity is one you want to be supporting, but also if the money is actually going there at all. What proof are companies offering to assure followers that the claims of donations for followers are in fact going through? And what kinds of relationships do companies have with the charities they’re supporting?

With a matching donation, it’s easier: You send proof of your donation, you get proof back that the partner organisation has matched yours. There’s a clear paper trail that allows you to see and be assured that it held up its end of the deal, and that money got somewhere it needed to go. But how many people who follow, click like, or engage in other requested actions follow up to see what happened and make sure their activities were recorded and honoured with a donation? Keep in mind, too, that such donations are of course tax-deductible, so the company is effectively buying followers and getting a tax break at the same time, which is a win-win, especially when you add in the public relations factor of being known as a company that supports charitable causes and promotes social welfare.

There’s also the important question of why, if a company believes a cause is worth supporting, isn’t it just donating? Companies around the world give billions of dollars a year to a variety of charitable causes, for a mix of reasons. Part of it is obviously the desire to appear socially responsible and committed to a better society, part of it is for public relations and tax benefits, and part of it may well be a genuine desire to address specific social issues and make the world a better place. Supporting a cause like early childhood education results in a better world, and if you want to be cynical about it, more potential customers for your company in the long term as those children grow up and have a better chance at life.

Obviously companies are going to engage in performative giving because such contributions form part of their PR strategy. Whatever your feelings on performative giving, whether it’s private individuals or public companies, it’s inescapable that companies are going to publicise what they are doing. The question here is why companies don’t just give to a charity they like, instead of putting pressure on the public to follow them on social media in exchange for donating; by not following, you’re depriving a charity of support, and by not encouraging your friends to do the same, you’re compounding the problem. You the consumer are responsible for making sure that charity gets money.

In a culture where the charity-based model is returning, this is very troubling, because it puts the responsibility of caring for society on the general public as though individual actions can possibly address structural inequalities. As charities shoulder more of the burden when it comes to supporting marginalised populations, here are companies telling people (some of whom may actually belong to those populations) that if they care about society, they’ll complete a social media action. Share with your friends. Like. Follow. It’s a sinister corporatisation of charity and social support with troubling implications for the future.

Social media has immense potential, and there are a lot of great ways to use it, especially when it comes to raising awareness for a cause and soliciting direct assistance. But I find this use repugnant, and I notice that other consumers are starting to be unsettled by it as well, commenting that it’s repulsive to be ordered to follow a company’s social media accounts to get that company to donate to charity. Aren’t companies already being rewarded enough for charitable endeavors? Don’t they have enough incentives to distribute funds to causes they want to support? Do we really want to live in a world where charitable giving is predicated by number of social media followers, or how many likes something gets, or how many times a Tweet is circulated or favourited?