Is it possible for the company formerly known as Facebook to be a force for good? There are some bright spots.
If you want to hear bad news about Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, you don’t have to look far. And, there’s plenty of bad news to find. If you’re interested in reading more about that, just Google the phrase Facebook Papers.
But, for me, there’s a more interesting question. Can Meta be a force for good? Is it possible?
As you know, here at Social Entrepreneur, our motto is “We tell positive stories from underrepresented voices, focused on solutions.” I admire models such as Solutions Journalism, where journalists ask the question, “Who does it better?” And I love appreciative inquiry, where leaders take a strengths-based approach. I would also recommend Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.
The point of all of these approaches is, look for the bright spots. Look for what is working and spread that around.
If you know my story, you know that I was a corporate executive. I was bothered by big questions that drove me to leave my career and learn about social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs use the power of business to do social good.
I believe, if we are going to save humanity, we cannot depend on government agencies and nonprofits to do the work required. Their work is necessary but insufficient.
Every business must look at its impact, both positive and negative. We must find the positive effects of our companies and amplify that.
Let me be clear. To make the kind of impact needed, companies cannot work around the edges. If ExxonMobil plops a solar panel on top of their headquarters, they cannot declare victory and go home. We have to rethink our business models fundamentally.
And positive change requires third-party verification. That’s why I’m such a fan of certified B Corporations.
In today’s interview, Emily Dalton Smith, Vice President of Product Management at Meta, describes how Meta is creating a positive social impact. She talks about Crisis Response, Charitable Giving, Community Help, Health, Mentorship, COVID-19 Information Center, and the Voting Information Center.
Learn More About Emily Dalton Smith and Social Impact at Meta:
- Crisis Response: https://socialimpact.facebook.com/crisis-response
- Charitable Giving: https://socialimpact.facebook.com/charitable-giving
- Community Help: https://www.facebook.com/community_help
- Health: https://socialimpact.facebook.com/health
- Mentorship: https://socialimpact.facebook.com/mentorship
- COVID-19 Information Center: https://www.facebook.com/coronavirus_info
- Voting Information Center: https://www.facebook.com/votinginformationcenter
Full transcript of the conversation with Emily Dalton Smith, Vice President of Product Management at Meta, formerly Facebook:
Emily Dalton Smith: Hi, I’m Emily Dalton Smith. I’m the Vice President of Product Management and Head of Social Impact at Facebook.
Tony Loyd: Head of Social Impact.
Emily Dalton Smith: We have a product team at Facebook that focuses on social impact. And what we mean by that is, or I should say what our team’s mission is helping people unlock their limitless potential for good. And we do that by building products that helped them do that. So for some people that looks like supporting a cause they care about, whether they’re raising money for a birthday fundraiser or they’re going to volunteer for a cause they care about.
For other people, that looks like getting out to vote in their elections. And so, we have products that help people vote in democratic elections across the globe. And for other people, it means just understanding what’s happening in their community regarding COVID and understanding the impact on them, and their neighbors, and their community’s health.
And being able to make really informed choices about how they’re going to navigate the world today. And so we have products that do all of those things. And my team’s responsibility is to build those products across the family of apps.
Tony Loyd: And when you think about how you – and maybe this isn’t within your purview – but when you think about how we measure our impact, how do you think about that?
Emily Dalton Smith: This is one of my favorite topics. I’m actually a total research geek. I worked in academia before I came to Facebook. And so this is one of the hardest, most interesting problems we work on. It’s actually a much more general social science problem. As I think everybody realizes, measuring impact is super hard.
And then, of course, when you try to measure impact in relatively uncontrolled settings, it’s extremely difficult. And so we spend a lot of time and effort thinking about this, and we actually are really fortunate to have some of the world’s best social scientists who are on our team and partnering with us.
And we are actually doing things like measuring the impact of ads, helping people understand COVID spread, and encouraging people to stay home. So we worked with some external researchers last year to run ads to encourage people to stay home and found that they resulted in a three and a half percent reduction in COVID spread in the communities where people saw this ad. So we’re working on new projects, and then we’re also working on new methods to help understand. So on our giving work, we’re working on measuring the impact of the funds that people receive on communities. So, for example, you may have seen if you’ve used Facebook in the last couple of years, that we run campaigns to help people fundraise and donate when there are natural disasters in their areas. And we actually work then with the partners who receive the funds to understand the impact of that money and what happens as a result of the donations that our community is making.
And so it’s really hard. We’ve been working and doing that through studying individual products or projects and actions. And then our hope and our expectation is that over time we will actually be able to generalize those, not just the findings, but generalize the methodologies and make the methodologies available to the world at large, the other people can use them and learn from the work that we’re doing.
So we do a lot of work with researchers internally and externally, publishing our findings and thinking about new ways we can measure impact. How do we use that to direct their efforts going forward? Because the thing cool thing about where I work is that we’re always trying to get better, and we’re constantly iterating and innovating on what we’re doing.
And so, a lot of the findings actually just help us improve the products we’re building or help us identify new causes that our community cares about. And we hope that other people will use the findings to do the same.
Tony Loyd: Yeah. So first of all, let me just say, it’s quite a relief that Facebook with all the resources you have available and social scientists and all this that you find it difficult to do because it lets me off the hook a little bit when I’m sitting here going, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to measure this.
I’m going to ask you something, and it’s a little bit of a hard question, but impact can be positive and can be negative. It obviously takes a lot of energy to run Facebook. So that has to be something that crosses your mind every now and again, “we have a large carbon footprint as an organization, and all the people using this are creating carbon footprint,” blah, blah, blah.
But there are other things too, right? Social impacts – the promise of the world wide web – [laughs] worldwide web, here I am I’m dating myself – the promise of the “information superhighway.” Back in the nineties that we didn’t have a word for the internet. So, at the beginning, we were saying it’s an information superhighway, but it also can be a disinformation superhighway.
And we’re talking, not just Facebook. We’re talking about the internet in general, the way that people use it. People can connect with their faith communities. They can also connect with some hate communities. Like there are all these either direct attributes of things that happen at Facebook, like carbon footprint, and there are sometimes unintended consequences, the way that people use the tool, et cetera. So how do you, as thinking about social impact, how do you think about those hard questions?
Emily Dalton Smith: So, this is actually one of the questions we think about most right up there, along with measurement, but I think about the long arc of history. And prior to coming to Facebook, one of the things I did is study science and technology and have a master’s degree in that. And a lot of what I learned there was change is hard, and innovation goes in spurts, and then it quiets down, but it also isn’t something that everyone thinks is good all the time. And there are lots of mistakes along the way. And we try to keep that context in mind. But when I think about prior innovations, like the printing press, or if you think about something more recent, which is like the invention of household appliances, there were a lot of things that went wrong in those inventions.
And actually there were, there was a lot of experimentation and change, but there are also a lot of people who didn’t like them and who thought that they were going to be terrible for society. If everyone could read and had access to the world’s knowledge, that would dramatically shift the power dynamics in society.
If women didn’t have to spend all of their time cleaning their clothes and cleaning the home, what would happen, they would be free and loose, and society might implode. And it certainly doesn’t let us off the hook for our mistakes. But, I do try to keep that in mind and encourage our teams to keep that in mind.
That we’re going to have to think about what is the difference we’re trying to make over the long term. And that not everybody will be happy with it, but we should really stay anchored on everything we can do to improve people’s lives. And that’s going to be our north star and will guide us.
Tony Loyd: Let’s just say carbon footprint, for example. If you’re in charge of impact, is that part of your purview, or is it more like the impact to help people to donate, volunteer, vote, give back, et cetera. So what’s within your purview?
Emily Dalton Smith: So it is the products we build that actually empower our community to make an impact. So our carbon footprint, as a company, for example, lives elsewhere in the company, there are people who work on our data centers and all of our water usage and facilities, that’s outside of my scope. And then what my scope and the thing that I work on is how do we actually give people the tools through our products to make an impact on the world.
And if you like pick up your phone and you see a friend who has a birthday fundraiser, or you go to Instagram, and you get a reminder to vote that sits in our team.
Tony Loyd: When you wrote to me ahead of time, you said something along the lines of, we believe in the potential of people to create impact when they come together to harness their collective power and voice. That’s such a positive way of thinking about it. And by the way, thanks for letting me ask you some hard questions because I would get murdered by my friends if I didn’t push in on these things.
Emily Dalton Smith: You do. They’re the most important questions. If we’re not asking them, then I think we’re not doing a good job of making sure that we actually are pointed in the right direction. And if we’re not being honest about our mistakes, we’re not going to get better. So one mistake is something you can learn from, but I really don’t want us to make the same mistakes over and over.
Tony Loyd: So I’ll interject a personal story here. In 2012, I flew to New York to run in the New York City Marathon. And hurricane Sandy came through. And hurricane Sandy disrupted lots of things, and you might not have been out there at that time in New York at that time.
But they canceled the marathon after I flew there. Of course not before. Of course not. They couldn’t do that. But I looked on Facebook, and I found a couple who in Brooklyn they had a kickboxing studio that they were about to open, but their kickboxing equipment was stuck in the docks and couldn’t get there.
So they, in the middle of this thing, opened up their doors and said, we’re going to be a clearinghouse. We have this empty space. Bring us stuff. We’ll post on Facebook all the things that people are asking for batteries, candles, personal items, water, et cetera. That was an amazing experience to be part of. And I’m still connected with the people that I met there during that time.
And I have close relatives who are QAnon supporters. That met QAnon people through Facebook. So I think of it almost like a telephone, I can use my telephone to call my neighbor and check in on them, but I can also use my telephone to call my neighbor and curse at them.
So it’s a utility, but it’s also important that we think about what are the total impacts of the things that we’re doing. So that’s the thread that I was asking about. Do you ever run into something that you just go, Ooh, we’re going to have to fix this because I’m here to do good, and this one looks like it’s gone off the rail here?
Emily Dalton Smith: Yeah. I’ll give you some recent examples. We’ve really been focused for most of the past year and a half now on helping people get through COVID. And then last year in the US, we were really focused on the US election. And in both cases, one of the most important things to us was making sure that people were able to make safe and informed choices. And so what we have done on the platforms is we’ve dramatically increased the amount of authoritative information that we share. So we built new products like the COVID-19 information center and the voting information center that have accurate, authoritative information where people can go and find neutral, unbiased information about both COVID and voting.
And then, we shared them throughout the platform. Whether it’s putting labels on people’s posts or putting information at the top of the newsfeed, and then in cases that are really severe, where we think people are at risk of getting hurt or harmed, we have, we do change the content that people see, or I should say, let me state that differently.
It’s not that we changed the content they see. It’s we will take down content that is false and creates a risk to people in our community. And so we want to make sure that people have the space to believe in whatever they believe that they’re able to express themselves freely.
Even if we don’t agree, I may not agree with it, or other people may not agree with it, but that we’re also not allowing people to put up content that puts their communities and their friends and family at risk. And we believe very firmly in that. And we’ll remove content when that happens. And we also want to make sure that people get a high volume of accurate, authoritative information on these important issues.
And so we’ve done a bunch of work to make that very visible and to make sure everyone has access to it because it’s not enough, not just to see the bad, but you really have to make sure that people are able to see the good.
Tony Loyd: The vaccine finder tool. So last year, 3.3 million people visited the vaccine finder tool. Is that something that falls under your purview?
Emily Dalton Smith: It does. I’m really proud of it. And I’m really proud of the team that works on this. We created the vaccine finder tool when we realized that actually one of the most difficult parts of COVID and the vaccine becoming available particularly so quickly, we realized that people would need to be able to find it just had to get a vaccine.
Where can I go? Where is it available near me? And very early on, we were hearing that people were engaged in pretty difficult searches to try to find vaccines near them. And so we wanted to make sure that it would be easy and anybody could go there, and they could look up vaccines, vaccination sites.
And it’s funny now that the vaccines have been available for a while, and the majority of the adult population in the US is vaccinated. It seems less acute, but I remember just desperately searching for my parents, for example, and trying to get them vaccinated as quickly as possible.
And I know that there were millions of people across the country doing the same. So we’re really proud that we could help people
Tony Loyd: Yeah. My wife and I actually joined a few Facebook groups that were vaccine finders, and they’d go, oh, this place has an opening right now. Or you can go over here to CVS and get in line right now, and they’re available. It wasn’t just that vaccine finder tool, but there were a lot of ways in which people were connecting
Then the voter information center. So how many people do you know how many people visited the voter information center during the 2020 election?
Emily Dalton Smith: The voting information center, we actually helped more than 4 million people register to vote last year, which is, I’m pretty proud of it. It’s for context; that means we ran the largest voting information campaign we think in US history.
Tony Loyd: I have here in my notes, 39 million people visited the voter information center.
Emily Dalton Smith: Yes. Thank you. I will say that.
Tony Loyd: But still, you know, more than 30 million people, is it 36 million or 39? Yeah. Let’s just go with more than 30 million people voting – almost 40 million people visited the voter information center – and that’s nonpartisan, right?
Emily Dalton Smith: Totally, it’s completely nonpartisan. And our goal from the outset was to make it nonpartisan. So it wasn’t about helping people engage in the political process. There are lots of ways to do that. And last year, there was no shortage of opportunities to engage in the political process or debate. But what we wanted to make sure is, especially as electoral processes are changing. Remember, a year ago, actually, a lot of us were uncertain how we would be able to vote. Would the polls be open? Many states were introducing mail-in voting and were trying that for the first time or expanding it dramatically for the first time. So we wanted to make sure that everybody across the country, no matter where they live, no matter how they want to participate, no matter who they wanted to vote for, would be able to find out how they can safely vote.
And nearly 40 million people used our tools for that. And Over 4 million people use the tools to register, which was which is pretty impressive. We think it’s the largest effort in the history of the country.
Tony Loyd: Yeah. So let me ask you, Emily, where does this sense of social impact and purpose come from for you?
Emily Dalton Smith: It’s an all of us. And it just kind of like shows up differently. But for me, my family has always been really socially- been deeply involved in the community. My parents volunteered, and they helped out neighbors and did a lot of political volunteering in local elections.
They both ran for school board and sat on my city school board which as a teenager is incredibly embarrassing when your parent’s name is on a yard sign, and you’re campaigning for them, but it was an incredible example. And so it’s always it’s really always been there in my family and in my life.
And I also come from a really big family, which shaped a lot of it: so a really big family, people who have live in all different ways. And one of the things that was consistent across it was people helped one another. My dad grew up in public housing in the Bronx.
And his family, in particular, was always really focused on helping one another out. And with seven brothers and sisters, that meant I had a lot of cousins. And so I think that’s just carried forward. I spent most of my early career working on public education and then helping kids go to college and get through college, particularly kids from low-income or first-generation families.
And I grew up in a really blue-collar area. So I got to see what happened when you had the opportunity and the support to go to college and be successful there. And what happened when kids couldn’t, and you know, it didn’t matter who the kid was. You could have really high-potential kids who really want to do something different in their lives. And if you didn’t have that support, it was so much harder for a lot of the kids I grew up with to get through. And so, I really wanted to be able to make that available to everybody.
Tony Loyd: You spent some time you were a director at Arizona State University. I think you mentioned that a few minutes ago. You also were a senior program manager in next-gen learning at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So what do you think you picked up there? What did you learn from that experience?
Emily Dalton Smith: It’s funny, I, it took me a while to realize it, but both of those jobs all of those experiences were really about innovation. Sometimes it’s about a new process, or sometimes it’s just a new framing for an old problem. And sometimes it’s a new product, which is what we often think of innovation as, but that was really all innovation around social problems.
And I carried a lot of that through really got lucky to carry through a lot of the rigor around research and measurement and methodology into the work that I do today.
Tony Loyd: How did the opportunity to join Facebook come up?
Emily Dalton Smith: Well, I’m laughing. I was at it. So I was at a conference. I worked at ASU. And we started this little tiny conference called the ASU GSV. I think at the time, it was called the education innovation summit, and we thought, wow, there are all these people who are working in education innovation, and in technology in particular.
And I worked on the ASU online team when it was kind of like a program, not a giant online university like it is today. And we thought we’d bring all these people together. So I think we had 198 people in two conference rooms at the university the first year. And we were just thrilled. We were like; all these people came, this is amazing. This could really be something.
And I heard at the conference that there was a woman from the Gates Foundation had attended, and I was just dying because it was really my dream to work at the Gates Foundation. And so I was looking all over for her, and I could never find her. And I was on a panel the final morning of the conference.
And afterward, she came up to me, this woman who became my manager eventually, and said, have you ever thought about working at the Gates Foundation? And I looked at her, and I said, yeah, in my dreams. And then I was like, oh my God, I can’t believe I just said that out loud.
Tony Loyd: Hard to negotiate a salary after that.
Emily Dalton Smith: Totally. It was very uncool, though. I am very uncool, so it was at least consistent, but I got to work at the Gates Foundation after that. And I was really lucky because it was just full of really, not just smart people, but really creative thinkers and people who really thought about the work we were doing as problem-solving. And were really curious, I wanted to learn. And I think that was an incredible experience. And it was one of the things that I really was thinking a lot about when I came to Facebook, that I wanted to continue to learn from people and learn from people who were good at things that I wasn’t. And I’ve been pretty excited to find that.
Tony Loyd: I want to talk a little bit about being an intrapreneur, right? The name of his show is Social Entrepreneur. And so obviously we obviously – [laughs] “obviously, obviously” – obviously we, we often interview people who are company founders and early in their journey. And some who have arrived at great success, but then, you know, lots of people who are just starting up and running these – a piece of baling wire and a piece of bubblegum stuck together and holding the whole thing together, and it’s up to them and all that. But also Facebook is an innovative company. You’re in charge of growing this product line here.
And so, you are an intrapreneur. So how do you think about – what have you learned from being an intrapreneur within that Facebook organization?
Emily Dalton Smith: This is a great question. It’s funny because I think now we often conflate entrepreneurs with venture capital financing.
Tony Loyd: Yeah.
Emily Dalton Smith: When really, entrepreneurs are just people who solve problems, and they hustle a lot to get it done. And one of the things that I have learned from Facebook is to keep that mindset and that kind of, that hustle and that problem-solving mindset constantly.
And it’s been really cool because the company has evolved. It has forced me and allowed me to. imbue that sense of iterative development. We’re constantly improving our products. We’re constantly thinking about these problems. We’re working on new and different ways and to really think big.
And it was really scary and hard-edged, and just the way I thought about problems, I had to adjust the way I thought about my own capabilities.
Emily Dalton Smith: I really had to think differently. When you get to a place where everyone’s trying to take a big swing, it really causes you to think differently and to take some bigger swings too. And and I think that’s what We failed a lot, but it also really but I think that’s great.
And I think that’s part of being an entrepreneur, as well as you get very comfortable with failure because you see it as part of the learning process. And we learned a lot from the early days. We like we’ve failed at more things. I think that you get used to that.
Tony Loyd: What’s something that you got wrong when you first arrived there.
Emily Dalton Smith: So many things. One of the things we got wrong in the early days was actually in fundraising, which was the core of the work that we did for a long time; I speced a challenge that happened on Facebook in 2014. And so we had, we’ve decided to build products that would allow people to fundraise natively.
And we originally started with helping people – excuse me – nonprofits fundraise for themselves. And that just did not go as well as we had hoped. It turned out that the platform is not built around organizations connecting with people. It’s really built around people, connecting with people. And so, we shifted our strategy and have been focused since then on helping people connect with one another.
And so now, when people fundraise for a great cause, it’s really about me sharing a cause that I care about with you and asking you to contribute because of our relationship and me sharing why that’s so meaningful and impactful. And that’s generated more than $5 billion for great causes, but we never would have got there had we not failed at the first thing, the first approach, and then changed our direction.
Tony Loyd: You make a good point too. That scale is important even in this social good space. And that you just said off-handedly and we enable people to raise over $5 billion for causes they care about. So scale is important too, right?
Emily Dalton Smith: It is, scale is important, but the way I think about it, as it’s important to do big things and big numbers. But what it really means is we want to get to everybody, like scale becomes important because you don’t want to be satisfied just that you’ve helped facilitate fundraising in the US, or because you set up blood donations in India and made that possible.
You want everybody to have those benefits, and we’re far from there. All of our products are not available to all people across the world yet, but that’s what we’re trying to get to. Because if you’re the person who doesn’t have them yet, it means you don’t have that opportunity. And that means you can’t give back to your community in the way you want to.
Or it means that the person who you could connect with who could change your life, the mentor if you’re trying to start a small business, or the person who could donate to your fundraiser, if you’re trying to support your community for natural disasters – if you don’t have them yet, that really makes a difference in your life.
And we want to make sure that everybody gets there.
Tony Loyd: Just one more thing we didn’t ask about crisis response. I know that you’ve mentioned your charitable giving. You’ve mentioned help, and you mentioned mentorship. What about crisis response?
Emily Dalton Smith: So crisis response is actually one of the products we’ve worked on for years and years. It predates me it started as a hackathon project, which is just a bunch of people coming together because they saw a problem they could solve. And we have safety check, which allows people to tell their friends and their family that they’re safe.
We activate safety check, or actually, our community activates it. So we look for signals from our community that there’s something happening in their area, whether manmade or natural disaster. We run fundraisers to help people. So, for example, just recently, we ran a fundraiser to help people affected by the earthquake in Haiti and provide funds for relief.
And we actually have a product that’s newer, that started in crisis response and is now available all the time called community help. And that enables people to help one another in their community all the time. And so we see sometimes there are very acute needs. There’s a natural disaster, and people will come together.
People were using community help after the wildfires or during the wildfires last year in California to help one another evacuate and find places to stay and things like that, but they also use it. People use community help every day for really small things.
Like I lost my dog, and can someone help me find it? Or I’m collecting supplies for my kid’s art class; I could use some of those supplies. And so it’s really cool to see people pull together in ways big and small.
Tony Loyd: What’s something you’ve learned on your journey that you could pass along to other people?
Emily Dalton Smith: The most important thing is just, find something you care about and go for it. You can think about big social issues. You can think about what matters on your block, but find something you just care deeply about. Actually, when I started at Facebook, one of the best pieces of advice I got was just figure out how to make impact.
Don’t worry about, don’t worry about whether you’re doing the right thing or if it’s going to be the right thing for a long time, but just figure out how to help your team and make some impact and get going. And I think for all of us, just figuring out something that you care about and how you can make a difference and get going.
Tony Loyd: I often ask people where could they find your company online? I’m guessing most people know how to find Facebook online. Is there a particular URL Bo or a subset of the URL, but you direct people to?
Emily Dalton Smith: Yes. If you do happen to know about Facebook, Inc, and you maybe have once or twice to use Facebook or Instagram or WhatsApp,
Tony Loyd: yeah. Yeah.
Emily Dalton Smith: But I would say there are really two places you can go. First of all, it is on the Facebook app. If you go to the more menu, which is the bottom of your app on the right-hand side, it’s just like three little lines.
It’s like a hamburger that’ll pull up bookmarks, which is where you can find our fundraising and community help products. You can find our information centers; you can actually get to everything straight through that bookmark. And then, if you’re on Instagram, we’re a little bit newer there, but if you go into your profile, you can just create a fundraiser directly from there.
Tony Loyd: A call to action, then you said figure out how to make an impact is something you learned. What would you call on listeners to go and do as a result of this conversation?
Emily Dalton Smith: Giving Tuesday is coming up. And so, I encourage everybody to think about a cause that they care about and create a fundraiser for Giving Tuesday. We match every year on giving Tuesday. We have a multimillion-dollar match you may be able to get a little extra toward your cause.
But really, figure out a cause that you care about and share with your friends and family why it matters to you, and ask them to join you.
Tony Loyd: Excellent. Well, Emily, thank you so much for being with us on Social Entrepreneur.
Emily Dalton Smith: Thank you.