Facebook faces landmark petition over fundraising fees

The Facebook logo is displayed on their website in an illustration photo taken in Bordeaux, France, on Feb 1, 2017.
The Facebook logo is displayed on their website in an illustration photo taken in Bordeaux, France, on Feb 1, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a first for fundraising, Facebook faces a mass petition signed by 42,000 people who want the social media giant to waive the fees it charges a charity for raising US$1.5 million (S$2.1 million) on its website.

The petition calls on Facebook to forego the service fee of some US$85,000 on funds the Syrian American Medical Society (Sams) had fundraised via Facebook, arguing all donations should serve their intended humanitarian purpose.

The Washington D.C.-based charity, which provides medical care in Syria and neighboring countries, said it raised the money using Facebook's online charitable giving tool.

It has yet to collect the funds, which will help residents in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

A Facebook spokesman said it was the first time he had heard of such a petition, which demands that "fees not be charged ... in light of the dire circumstances in war-torn Syria."

"(The funds) would go a long way to address the medical needs of thousands of innocent men, women, and children," it said.

Facebook said the service fees were to cover costs.

"Facebook's goal is to create a platform for good that's sustainable over the long term, and not to make a profit from our charitable giving tools," he said by email.

"We're committed to building products that make it safe and easy for people to contribute to the causes they care about directly on Facebook."

The appeal for funds was launched by Sams' vice-president, Basel Termanini, a doctor living near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who said he could not believe his eyes when the fundraising page he set up on Facebook in December went viral.

In just two days, US$900,000 in donations streamed in as media coverage showed the evacuation of thousands of exhausted residents from Aleppo.

"This was (about being at) the right place at the right moment," said Termanini in a phone interview. "People were upset with all those images and they wanted to help," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One donor, Nasir Khatri, a 25-year-old medical student living in Richmond, Virginia, was troubled after realising a percentage of the money he had donated would go to processing and administrative fees, he said.

Non-profits using Facebook's charitable giving tool, which allows them to raise money directly on the site, are charged 5 to 5.75 per cent, the bulk of which goes to credit card and other payment-related costs, according to the company's website.

"The people who need it most is not necessarily a multi-billion dollar organisation," said Khatri in a telephone interview.

It is common practice for fundraising websites to take a cut of funds raised, said Rick Cohen, a spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based National Council of Nonprofits, a nationwide network. "I have not heard yet of a case of (fees) being waved," he said.

But Termanini said he remained hopeful Facebook would waive the charge when formally presented with the petition, most likely in coming weeks.

"Our cost per patient is US$8, so we're talking about 10,000 people who could be treated," he said. "This is a huge amount for us."

Syria's six-year civil war has mobilised humanitarian groups who have rushed to aid victims of the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and uprooted millions.