The Meta Pixel: Is Your Nonprofit’s Data Vulnerable?
The Meta Pixel, previously known as the Facebook Pixel, is an invisible piece of code that tracks people’s behavior on a website and allows you to retarget them on Meta properties, such as Facebook and Instagram. A significant concern is the potential for outside digital firms, contractors or software providers to use Meta Pixels across clients.
You can’t simply assume your agency is keeping your data separate from other nonprofit clients. Your out-of-house entity could place a “master pixel” that it owns instead of or in addition to the nonprofit-owned pixel. That master pixel allows data accumulation for whoever has access to it.
If it is an agency-owned pixel, that agency can do whatever it wants with the pixel. That means an agency could use one nonprofit client’s data (collected potentially without the nonprofit’s permission or knowledge) for the benefit of another. It also means that if a client were to leave the agency, that nonprofit would lose access to its data.
“There is nothing more frustrating than having to help an organization start from scratch because of either ill intent or more commonly poor decision-making on the [part of the] previous agency, consultant or even [an] ex-internal employee who creates the accounts in such a way that the organization doesn't actually own the account or the data,” Erik Rubadeau, CEO of Yeeboo Digital, a digital fundraising agency in Canada, said.
Is It Ethical for Agencies to Share a Meta Pixel Across Multiple Nonprofit Clients?
There are many issues around data privacy. This issue affects nonprofits and their protection of their own data — created by their own activities and for their own use.
Let’s bring it into sharper focus with a made-up social good example: Imagine one agency serves two different nonprofits dedicated to cancer eradication. The potential is for the agency to use the same Meta Pixel for both clients, effectively “list sharing” across clients by using the same Meta Pixel for both clients.
Today, the activity described above is not illegal. But is it ethical?
“There’s a great quote from a mediocre movie: ‘principles only matter if you stick to them when it’s not convenient,’ Amin Tehrani, CEO of Revunami, a New York City-based digital firm, said. “Integrity is hard. There are a lot of opportunities for agencies or platform providers to run master pixels and use it to drive performance across clients. I think it’s important that companies trust their partners not to do this, but also verify and work it into your contracts. I think it’s at the bare minimum unethical, though not illegal.”
To Tehrani’s point, in more sophisticated (presumably larger) nonprofits, protections are installed via a contract between the agency and the organization. Nonprofits, like the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation in New York City, are already staying ahead of potential unethical issues with the pixels.
“The Crohn's & Colitis Foundation has carefully managed our [Meta] Pixels to ensure total ownership with our agency,” John Mize, executive vice president of business development at the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation, said. “Unfortunately, this type of sordid activity is both unethical and has the potential to prey upon unsuspecting well-intentioned nonprofits. At the foundation, we ensure that, in all vendor contracts, any use outside of the foundation is a breach of contract."
What Are the Potential Nonprofit Sector Repercussions?
Natalie Stamer, CEO and founder of Streetlight Digital, a direct response and peer-to-peer marketing agency in Tucson, Arizona, agrees it's unethical to share Meta Pixel data for other client's marketing, but it is happening.
“Unfortunately, as we share Facebook Business Manager platforms with other agencies, we see some employing this practice,” Stamer said. “And, from our view, it's detrimental — not only to the organization from whom the original data came, but to the industry as a whole.
“As we, as agencies or organizations, market every organization to the same active group of people, we are damaging the authentic connection that those individuals had with the organizations they first chose to support,” Stamer continued. “We are flooding them with calls to action from many organizations instead of doubling down on the organization and mission that they truly care about and extending their support there. Eventually, the noise leads to less interaction overall, and, of course, less or no support for the organization for which they originally participated [or] donated.”
What Should Nonprofits Do?
All this is concerning, but does anyone care?
“People don’t understand about data,” Darren Winter, leader of the London-based digital marketing agency Duco Digital, said. “The headlines are everywhere about taking data from people, but there is no real mass fight back from users. This is why we need data laws to protect us, but frustratingly, the public still don’t really understand or aren’t overly interested.”
Despite not being regulated, it really is nothing new to the sector, Tehrani said.
“It amazes me how unaware people are of this, but also even if partners weren’t doing this, it’s what Meta is doing — mining data across all pixels to improve targeting,” he said. “… To me, it’s also something that is visible now in digital but has always been a practice. For example, direct-mail providers selling lists of people who donated to increase their own revenue.”
So, what should you do? Get your digital leadership in this conversation and confirm sole ownership of the data collected via the Meta Pixel.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Related story: Why Nonprofits Are Leaving Facebook
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.