How one Facebook Group uses the controversial “Add Members” function as a major charitable fundraising technique

I got unexpectedly added to a Facebook Group the other week and boy did it get my social media etiquette hackles raised.

I coach a lot of people on how to setup and run Facebook Groups and one of my most basic rules is not to add people to the Group without permission. None of us likes finding ourselves on a mailing list we didn’t sign up for and it’s the same with Facebook – we want to control our own likes thank you. And of course legal frameworks such as CAN-SPAM and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (soon to be GDPR) exist in an attempt to protect you from unsolicited contact.

Add Member function in a Facebook Group

I’m therefore frankly surprised that Facebook still makes it so easy to add people to a Group. All you need is their email address or to be an existing FB Friend and with a couple of clicks they are members. You’d think that Facebook would at least put some warnings in place “Are you sure this person wants to join this Group?” or a suggestion: “Why not message the person instead and invite them?”

But hey, there’s a lot about Facebook that I’d change if I was in charge but I’m not so I have to suck it up or leave.

But back to the Group I was added to (without my permission). Once I’d calmed down and talked to the friend who had invited me I realised she had actually given it a lot of thought. And it was, after all, a Group focused on a topic I am passionate about already. I began to reel my neck in a little.

So I let my membership stay and awaited to see what emerged on my timeline over the coming days.

How Phone Credit For Refugees raised half a million pounds through a Facebook Group

The Group is called Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced People and describes itself as a humanitarian response organisation that is volunteer led and run (website here). It exists to provide mobile phone top ups for asylum seekers and refugees separated from their families by war and conflict. The phone top-ups enable them to get in touch with their families, communicate with support agencies and stay safe.

The Facebook Group was begun by one man, James Pearce who had volunteered at the refugee camp in Calais known as The Jungle. He simply created a Group and added all his friends and some of the refugees he had bet while volunteering. The goal was to encourage his friends to provide phone credit to the refugees he had got to know. As time passed, news spread throughout The Jungle and more and more donors joined as they became conscripted into the Group.

Nearly two years later the Group has 65,000 members and has completed over 30,000 top-ups to a value of over half a million pounds.

Phone credit for refugees

As I dug around on the website and Facebook Group I became more and more impressed with the infrastructure, the admin processes and the various rules and safeguards in place.

But I was still conflicted about the donor recruitment strategy.

So I posted a question in the Group and asked them about it.

It’s clear from the responses I received that many of the Group members feel that the need justifies the method:

  • “I think generally speaking – adding friends to a group wouldn’t be acceptable to me in all cases – but in this case it is for an excellent cause.”
  • “If unexpectedly throwing a custard pie in your next door neighbor’s face first thing in the morning raised £5000 for cancer research, would that make it acceptable?”
  • “I am not going to apologise for this as we all live by our phones…but for some it is the only life line and keeps them (especially minors) safe. Obviously you are free to unfollow the group and tell me I am a nutter.”
  • “I have handpicked those I think might help”
  • “Every now and then I see someone I added interacting in here and it makes my day!”

Group Admin Jape JP (he’s part of a much wider volunteer team) said “I try to make a bit of a joke out of the add friends thing. I always talk about throwing Facebook etiquette to the wind for the sake of the greater good. But that’s not really a joke, that’s exactly what’s happening here. We’ll exploit every loophole the universe affords us to get credit onto these people’s phones – and this one works.”

I asked Jape for some further insight on how the Add Friends strategy had worked. He said: “Now and then you will get a grumpy comment from somebody who has been added who didn’t like it. That’s happened only a handful of times ever, we’ll say about 1 out of every 8,000 people who get added will make a complaint. That will either take the form of a comment or a post telling us they didn’t appreciate being added without being asked. We apologise for the inconvenience and explain that it’s an important mission and that’s why we are employing such tactics, they can remove themselves from the group or we’ll remove them if they ask – one or two have at this moment become donors, others have left. Of course we don’t know how many of those who get added grumble in private to the friend who added them. Either way it doesn’t massively ruin anybody’s day in the same way that for example not being able to hear the voice of a loved one in Damascus might ruin a person’s day.”

The Group reckon that over 90% of those added choose to remain in the Group and leaving is not difficult. Many times they experience a very positive response thanking them for the add and expressing delight in having stumbled over such a great Group.

And as a fundraising strategy, Jape is unapologetic:

“Group membership has a direct relationship with total donations raised. In fact at any given moment the total number of top ups provided by the group is almost exactly 48% of our total group membership. That is to say at 65,000 members we have provided 31,200 top ups, at 30,000 members we had provided 14,400 top ups, at 5,000 members we had provided 2400 top ups etc. Many new members join and immediately donate, we often get comments from new members saying that a friend just added them and they have just donated.”

What about Facebook Jail?

One of my concerns about the Add Friends strategy was the looming prospect of Facebook Jail either for the referring member or the Group itself. Jape says he has been sent to Facebook Jail many times for sending too many PMs to strangers while taking applications from refugees (an essential part of the vetting process). He’s generally locked out of Messenger for 48 hours.

Once the Group was removed and after a lot of messages and calls to Facebook was reinstated after a couple of days. They feel now that with the size of membership (65K and growing), the Group is simply too large and respected to be vulnerable.

The Admins view the prospect of Facebook Jail as just one of the downsides of the job:

“A lot of our applications represent real safeguarding emergencies, if we stopped then real people would be exposed to a significantly increased risk of harm.”

A model for other charities?

Jape tells me that they have been approached by a couple of other organisations thinking of setting up a similar donor-to-recipient platform. In devising a simple, practical solution to a problem Phone Credit For Refugees have pioneered a new model for charity fundraising.

So, do I recommend using the Add Member function?

Having researched the practice (and the huge effectiveness for this highly commendable Group) I’d say yes. But only in such circumstances as Phone Credit for Refugees presents. This has been a zero budget strategy. No expensive Facebook ads, no chugging on street corners, no rattling of tins outside Tesco, no bake sales. Although you can of course do all those to raise money if you want.

Frankly, a genius approach and I wish them all the very best.

I will also (of course) be making a decent donation and helping spread the word in my own way.

Marie Page

About Marie Page

Marie Page is one of the UK’s leading Facebook marketing experts. She is a founding partner of digital marketing consultancy The Digiterati and the Digiterati Academy e-learning portal for marketers and entrepreneurs. Her award-winning Master's Dissertation was the culmination of three years' academic research into Facebook that resulted in a book (and companion online course) 'Winning at Facebook Marketing with Zero Budget' that became an Amazon bestseller. Marie's work on the Facebook News Feed algorithm was featured in The Huffington Post. A recognised thought leader on social media, Marie is often approached by journalists for comment in articles such as this Telegraph article. She was also interviewed for ITV's Tonight show on Facebook privacy issues in relation to advertising. Marie is a regular guest on digital marketing blogs and podcasts including Social Media Examiner and Smart Insights. In 2018 she is speaking at Brighton SEO, Europe's biggest search and marketing conference. Marie is also author of two Smart Insights books: 'Smarter Guide to Facebook Marketing', now in its fourth edition, and 'Facebook Ads Guide', both edited by Dr Dave Chaffey. Marie is also a part time yoga teacher.