If you're one of the billions of people who use Facebook and Google on a daily basis, you may have noticed some new messaging coming from the websites themselves. Both companies have launched Ebola relief fundraising campaigns in the past week, calling on their massive user logs (translation for nonsocial-media experts: all the people who waste time on these websites every day) to donate money to the cause.
As of Nov. 6, if you log onto Facebook, you'll see a rectangular box that says: "Eleanor, We Can Help Stop Ebola." (At least that's what my box says. Yours will probably have your name on it.) The message continues: "Let's support organizations working in West Africa so they can stop the disease and save lives."
On Facebook, users can choose to donate to the International Medical Corps, Save the Children and/or the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
And the founder of Facebook is setting a high bar. Before the Facebook button debuted, Mark Zuckerberg donated $25 million of his own money to the relief effort. In a video on his Facebook page, he said: "I'm optimistic that together, the Facebook community can help stop Ebola."
Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles shares his optimism. Her organization has built Ebola treatment units in Liberia and Sierra Leone and is now setting up systems to support children orphaned by the disease. When Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, reached out to Save the Children about a possible collaboration, Miles jumped at the chance.
"The tremendous reach that Facebook has, and the voice that they have, gives us a chance to reach a much bigger audience," says Miles. "A lot of countries, like the U.S., are just focused on what's happening here about Ebola. Facebook wants to help us direct the focus back to West Africa."
Facebook created a similar donation structure after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year, though the company declined to share the results of that fundraising campaign and refused to comment on the record for this article.
On Monday, Google followed suit with a similar effort. The company's official blog now features a plea for donations to its campaign — and Google will match every dollar donated with $2. Google searches sporadically contain a gray bar at the top of the screen, asking you to donate. But there's a cap: The doubling stops when $2.5 million has been donated and Google has chipped in an additional $5 million.
Google CEO Larry Page also donated $15 million of his own money, through his family foundation.
But some say Ebola is not a problem that can be solved only with money. More than donations, volunteers are needed to travel to West Africa and work in Ebola treatment units.
"We absolutely need more manpower," says Rebecca Milner of the International Medical Corps, one of the organizations receiving donations from Facebook. "With a weak health system and low levels of resources, we need more people. But this campaign will raise awareness along with money."
Miles, of Save the Children, agrees. "We need to make people feel more comfortable in volunteering to go to West Africa, and this can help. They'll know money is being raised to help. Facebook is helping to keep the right focus on stopping the virus where it started."
The donation pleas concern some people, who worry about giving their credit card information to Facebook or Google. For now, Facebook users can opt to remove their credit card numbers after a donation has gone through, but the company is working on a way to automatically delete the information right away. Google users can pay with Google Wallet, a secure payment app, or with a credit card.
The International Medical Corps, Save the Children and the Red Cross have yet to see any funds from the four-day-old Facebook campaign and aren't quite sure how much to expect. But it's definitely drawing attention to the issue.
"Traffic on our website has increased, at least 10 to 12 times what we get in a normal day," says Milner, from the International Medical Corps. "And that's the kind of attention we want to be drawing to this issue."