Facebook, Google bring the Ebola fight closer to home

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is a faraway problem for most Americans, making it a tricky target for private fundraising efforts. Google and Facebook are hoping to change that. 

An example of a message and donation button Facebook has designed to make it easier for its users to donate to charities battling Ebola.

Until recently, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa was a faraway problem for most Americans. The handful of cases in the United States brought it a little closer to home, but Facebook is putting the outbreak front-and-center for its users. Literally.  

Earlier this month, the social media giant introduced a button at the top of its news feed that allows users to donate to Ebola relief efforts in the worst-hit regions. Facebook members can connect to three charities fighting the outbreak on the ground: the International Medical Corps, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Save the Children. On Nov. 10, Google launched a $7.5 million matching campaign to fight the virus, offering to give $2 for every $1 donated.

These are the latest efforts to ramp up giving for and awareness of the Ebola outbreak. Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $25 million toward the cause; in addition to partnering with UNICEF to help spread information about the virus, Facebook is donating satellite terminals to help with Internet connectivity in affected regions.

“We need to get Ebola under control in the near term so that it doesn’t spread further and become a long term global health crisis that we end up fighting for decades at large scale, like HIV or polio,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in an October blog post. 

Such leadership is sorely needed. The World Health Organization has linked this Ebola outbreak to an estimated 5,000 fatalities, but the gradual nature of the crisis (in comparison to a natural disaster such as an earthquake) and distance from much of the developed world has made it a tricky target for private fundraising. To date, the American Red Cross says it has raised $3.7 million to fight Ebola; it received $85 million when typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines a year ago.

Infectious diseases are “not in the lexicon of most donors,” says Eileen Heisman, president and CEO of National Philanthropic Trust, a public charity and philanthropic resource center based in Jenkintown, Pa. “It’s not Haiti, it’s not a tsunami, it’s not Katrina. It’s a very different kind of crisis.”

Still, large-scale donors have stepped in. In addition to Zuckerberg, Bill and Melinda Gates have donated $50 million through the Gates Foundation, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen has pledged $100 million. “The response from some of these ultra-high-net-worth individuals sends a powerful message,” Ms. Heisman says. “I think it will inspire other gifts.” 

Facebook, too, may be in a prime position to inspire giving among its 1.3 billion global users. Thirty percent of US adults get their news on Facebook, according to Pew, so positioning Ebola relief as a priority could have a tremendous effect.  

And there’s some evidence that giving for these relief efforts is gradually gaining traction. Fidelity Charitable, which helps givers allocate donations, says it recommended 650 grants totaling $4.1 million specifically for Ebola relief through Nov. 4 of this year.

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