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Facebook Users Say Platform's Birthday Fundraisers Might Be Too Much Of A Good Thing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On Facebook, the season of giving goes all year long. Fundraisers posted by people on their birthdays have exploded in the past year, bringing in a billion dollars for charities. It's good news for those nonprofits, but as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, some Facebook users think it's getting to be too much of a good thing.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: When she first heard about a charity raising money for school supplies for children in India, Vinita Kochhar (ph) felt she had to help.

VINITA KOCHHAR: It hit me in the heart 'cause what we take for granted every single day - I realized very quickly that there are kids that just don't have that at all. A pencil, to them, is a big deal.

SMITH: Kochhar also realized how easily she could help. With just a few clicks on Facebook, she posted a fundraiser on her birthday, right when all her friends and family would be reaching out anyway.

KOCHHAR: I would get gift cards or clothes or whatnot, so here was my opportunity to say, in lieu of gifts, I'm asking for everyone to contribute to the cause that I believe in.

SMITH: Before she knew it, her post raised $11,000, prompting a personal thank-you from the kids in India.

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UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Happy birthday.

KOCHHAR: And honestly, I probably felt more fulfilled than I did when we had a huge party. And it's not always just about celebration. It's about having purpose.

SMITH: Donors are apparently feeling it, too.

EDWARD GRANT: I guess I like the feeling that I'm putting my money where my mouth is.

SMITH: Edward Grant (ph) says he kind of can't resist when all those fundraisers pop up.

GRANT: There's a man in Columbia who has an education group for kids that live in the garbage dumps. And then there was a dancer who has cancer.

SMITH: Grant has clicked that donate button scores of times.

GRANT: Oh, my goodness. I guess there are more than I realized.

SMITH: But some Facebook users are less amused.

CAROLYN TOLL OPENHEIM: It's like an avalanche. The whole thing starts to feel overwhelming.

SMITH: Carolyn Toll Openheim (ph) finds the birthday fundraisers presumptuous.

OPENHEIM: Don't hit me up with, in lieu of presents. Who buys all their Facebook friends a birthday present? I don't like it. There's a guilt trip to it.

SMITH: Especially, she says, since people can see who's donated.

OPENHEIM: That makes me cringe a little. Are they checking, you know, who gave and who didn't? I don't like Facebook making me feel lousy.

DAVID MURPHY: Yeah. Sure, I feel a little Ebenezer Scrooge in saying so, but it's my news feed, my content.

SMITH: Writer David Murphy posted instructions online to mute fundraiser notifications. He says there's something especially off-putting about such conspicuous giving.

MURPHY: It's a bit of a humble brag. You know, like, feels a little insincere.

JEREMY LITTAU: The tendency might be to say that this is what some people call slacktivism - that you're really just pushing this to grow your own brand online to make people think you care. But in a lot of ways, this is like a new evolution of something that has long existed.

SMITH: Jeremy Littau teaches about social media and social action at Lehigh University. He says the philanthropic flex on Facebook is as inevitable as fundraiser fatigue.

LITTAU: Facebook cannot just infinitely grow the number of fundraisers without some sort of blowback, either in terms of users protesting or people just getting kind of turned off to the idea altogether.

SMITH: Facebook's Emily Dalton Smith says the company's constantly updating fundraiser policies, as it did two years ago when it eliminated processing fees so that 100% of birthday donations now go to the charities.

EMILY DALTON SMITH: We know that no product's ever perfect, and we're always looking for feedback to understand what could be better. And I expect that the products will continue to change over time.

SMITH: But ultimately, Facebook users like Vinita Kochhar say better to be bombarded by birthday fundraisers than by more birthday selfies.

KOCHHAR: I mean, honestly, at the end of the day, if the folks that are in need are getting the money, that's all that matters.

SMITH: And they are.

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SMITH: The Humane Society in Wooster, Ohio, got thousands from birthday and one wedding fundraiser this year. Director Carrie Andrew says as important as the money are the new faces making fresh appeals instead of just the nonprofits making their usual appeal to their usual supporters yet again.

CARRIE ANDREW: We do feel like it gets old and stale and people will begin to not want to support us because we're constantly asking. And so when people take it upon themselves to do their own fundraiser, it is a tremendous help for us.

SMITH: Seeing those Facebook birthday fundraisers, she says, can't be as annoying as getting those dinnertime fundraiser phone calls or knocks at the door.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.