Giving a Bit: Charitable fundraising in our digital age


Giving a Bit, finds that donating to charities on social media could be used for discriminatory commercial advertising. Demos found that Facebook’s privacy policy does not separate sensitive data on users’ charitable giving from the data that advertisers have access to through the Facebook Advertising Manager platform. This means information on the charities and causes a Facebook user has donated to, or supported, could be used by advertisers, including insurance companies, to exclude specific audiences from their advertising promotions. 

The report, based on interviews with 10 decision-makers and charity employees responsible for fundraising, found that the act of charitable giving is highly personal and often a reflection of a personal cause or concern. An individual donating to a cancer research charity, for example, may have been personally affected by the disease. While no evidence of wrongdoing has been found, according to Demos it would be technically possible for an insurance company to exclude users from their advertising based on data indicating a hereditary illness. 

Facebook does not permit exclusionary advertising based on stated health conditions. However, Demos found that health characteristics could be inferred from the names of charitable causes, and that these causes can currently be excluded in targeting.

Demos has recommended that Facebook exclude charitable giving data from its advertising system:

“We believe that despite probable good intentions behind major platforms moving into the fundraising space, care should be taken by platforms, government and regulators to ensure those intentions do not lead to unlevel playing fields, dependance or a growing gap between charities and their patrons. The availability and ease of access provided by digital tools is unparalleled, and a major benefit to the third sector, but their impact on charities and their use of fundraising data should not go unscrutinised.”

Andrew Gloag, Research Assistant

Has this happened before?

Facebook has previously been called out for allowing users to perform potentially discriminatory advertising. In 2016, Facebook’s ethinic affinity targeting sparked concerns over racial profiling, according to The Guardian. In 2017, The New York Times and ProPublica revealed how companies were using Facebook to exclude older workers from jobs in ads. In March 2019, American Civil Liberties Union settled a case with Facebook over discriminatory advertising where the company pledged to remove “any detailed targeting options describing or appearing to relate to protected classes” such as sexuality, race, or disability. Later that month,  the US Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Facebook due to alleged discrimination in housing ads.


Read the report here.