Facebook Connections / Michael Coghlan

February 26, 2016; Charity Digital News

Last week, Facebook launched Canvas, a free ad design tool available to its advertisers—largely businesses and nonprofits—that is designed to enhance the consumer’s experience with ads seen in their Facebook feed. Nonprofit Quarterly has reported on an underwhelming series of new products that Facebook has launched either specifically designed for or simply available to the company’s nonprofit users, including the donate button, fundraiser pages, and a Facebook for nonprofits how-to site. Canvas is the latest in that string of products that, while available to nonprofits, continue the trend of making it harder for nonprofits to gain awareness on the platform.

Canvas allows its users to create dynamic advertisements through a series of full-screen images, videos, and interactive elements. Those mini-websites designed to “bring content to life” are hosted on Facebook itself. The result? Significantly reduced load times compared to high-bandwidth advertisements that live on third-party sites, and a purported increase in engagement with those ads. Early tests indicate that 53 percent of users open Canvas ads and view them for 31 seconds—both strong metrics in an industry that’s tackling increasingly reduced attention span from mobile users.

The service itself is both free and built into the existing ad packages Facebook currently offers. Canvas was designed for the non-technical user, with no coding required to create ads on the platform. Facebook Chief Creative Officer Mark D’Arcy commented on the product’s ease of use, saying jokingly, “The only thing they can’t make, really, is excuses.”

While the ease of use does help level the playing field for a spectrum of Facebook ad users—technical and nontechnical, large businesses and small nonprofits—the fact that it’s built into its current ad package does not. As NPQ reported last year, Facebook has continued to evolve its platform and newsfeed in a way that makes it harder to gain visibility without paying for it. The launch of Canvas feeds into this challenge, making advertising more sophisticated for those who can pay to have those ads seen on the platform.

Facebook largely treats business and nonprofits equally with the launch of its new products, which—for a variety of reasons—inherently places nonprofits at a disadvantage. While the tech giant does provide tools specifically tailored to the nonprofit community, they haven’t done enough to help increase the visibility of nonprofits on the platform. Nonprofits don’t have advertising budgets that can come close to competing with businesses in getting their ads, no matter how dynamic, in front of Facebook users. Tools, buttons, pages, and guides are only as effective as the reach of the advertisements and messages they create.

Facebook’s peers in the tech world have been more creative and actually invested in making tools available and leveling the playing field for the sector. Google, for instance, not only provides a suite of tools but also ad grants to nonprofits—averaging $10,000 in in-kind advertising dollars—to lift charitable programs into the same spotlight that large paying advertisers can independently purchase.

As Facebook moves towards more sophisticated commercialization of its platform with Canvas, it calls into question whether the platform is a wise investment of time and dollars for nonprofits, and highlights a dimension where Facebook’s commitment to the sector continues to fall short.—Danielle Holly