Cause and effect: GoFundMe aims to set fundraising bar higher

A cursory scroll through a typical Irish Facebook feed reveals a few things. There’s a birthday reminder, a ‘friendship anniversary’ notice, a funny animal picture and a holiday or family photo that someone’s posted. But increasingly, there’s also a financial appeal for something: someone who needs an operation, a political campaign, even help with funeral costs.

More and more, such appeals use GoFundMe, the online fundraising platform now defaulted to by Irish people looking to gather money for various causes.

“One in 10 folks in Ireland have already given to a GoFundMe campaign,” says CEO Rob Solomon. “That’s happened very quickly. The Irish are a very generous people.”

In fact, Irish people donate more than any other country per capita on GoFundme, Solomon says. So far, that amounts to over 500,000 people contributing more than €30m in the last three years.

There are high-profile campaigns that many people have seen, such as the effort to raise medical funds for Liverpool football fan Sean Cox, badly injured in a violent attack at Anfield before a Champions League match.

But there are also thousands of low-level fundraising efforts. A glance through the first few pages of GoFundMe’s Irish section shows appeals for cancer treatment, a memorial fund, a heart transplant operation, a charity cycle and repatriation costs of someone badly injured abroad.

Many of the campaigns could be classed as expense categories that some would hope a civilized society would cover for its citizens, particularly medical costs such as transplants or cancer care.

What does it say about society that people need to fundraiser on a platform for things like medical costs?

“We’re a bit of a mirror of life,” says Solomon. “People are trying to make ends meet, to survive. But it’s harder and harder. Sometimes there are systems in place that help people out when they need help. But often, people are falling through the cracks and it’s up to the community to help them.

“You want there to be a perfect system where the Government is there to help. You want to have support from NGOs. But that’s not always the case. And when there isn’t somebody to help, that’s when communities of people come together.

“It’s a reflection of the realities of life. Life hits you hard sometimes. And when you have nowhere else to turn, it’s amazing that you can turn to your community and your friends.”

GoFundMe has stepped into this breach pretty effectively since it was set up in 2010 by Brad Damphousse and Andrew Bellester. It processes around €150m in fundraising cash a month. But it’s unabashedly a for-profit enterprise, being acquired four years ago by the US venture capital firm Accel Partners in a deal valuing it at $600m.

Solomon does not see a discrepancy between GoFundMe’s status as a for-profit enterprise and its main business of appealing for desperately needed funds on behalf of people in hardship.

“There will always be detractors,” he says. “There’s always going to be people who say, ‘How can you have a for-profit business when you’re in this space of helping people out’? “My answer to that is that we have the best and brightest artificial intelligence and machine learning experts who are part of our trust and safety team. This model allows us to invest in the teams of people who helped make these fundraisers more effective.

“We became one of the world’s largest giving platforms in a very short amount of time by building what a typical consumer internet company builds in terms of vitality and protection. So you really have to be a for-profit if you want to change the game in the giving space.

“We think that we’re a very positive force of good and we think it’s okay to do well while doing good.”

GoFundMe has other challenges. Anything associated with raising significant amounts of money naturally draws the attention of scammers and shysters.

Last month, a woman and a homeless man pleaded guilty in a US court to a scam that garnered some $400,000 on GoFundMe. The story put forward was that a homeless man gave his last $20 to a woman who had run out of petrol for her car. A GoFundMe campaign was set up to help the selfless homeless man. The story caught the public’s imagination, raising hundreds of thousands in donations from well-wishers.

Solomon says that sort of thing is an outlier. “Less than one tenth of one per cent of the campaigns on our platform result in any type of misuse,” he says. “And we literally have hundreds of thousands of campaigns on a monthly basis.”

The company also has what Solomon calls a ‘GoFundMe guarantee’.

“We will guarantee any donation made on the platform of the money is raised and doesn’t go to the right person or the right cause,” he says. “So everyone’s protected on the platform.

“The trust and safety team is made up of technologists, people with law enforcement and military backgrounds. They have deep knowledge about how to spot misuse on platforms like ours. We leverage technology that’s similar to what financial services institutions and banks use. We invest lots of time and money in technology, and it can be any kind of misuse off of the platform.”

But what about campaigns that don’t neatly fit into categories of financial scams yet are still objectionable or problematic? Here, GoFundMe has to navigate a foggy, murky landscape of political campaigns and issue-based controversy.

In general, it tries to steer clear of being a referee on what amounts to an allowable political fundraising campaign.

“Our philosophy is to not be the arbiter of whether a cause is a good cause or a bad cause,” says Solomon.

“We want the communities of people to ultimately decide. So you’ll see different sides of political issues, raising funds on GoFundMe, and we don’t want to take a stance as to whether we’re left or right, progressive or conservative.

“That said, we do have terms of service. You can’t raise funds to purchase weapons, for example. But there certainly are some grey areas.”

But sometimes, the company just has to make a call on issues that may do damage. For example, it has just taken the decision to ban GoFundMe campaigns that support anti-vaccination causes. Why did it intervene on that issue?

“In the US, the anti-vaccine movement has been around for a long time,” says Solomon. “But there’s a lot of misinformation being spread on it and it is a huge public health risk. It’s gotten to the point now where the [US] Surgeon General and many others are talking about the misinformation that’s being spread.

“So we will evolve our terms of service and change things, based on the realities of what’s happening. This is an example of us following what’s happening with regulators and legislation.”

Last year, GoFundMe changed its business model, which used to take a percentage of everything raised. Now it asks for a ‘donation’ from the giver at the time of the donation. Solomon won’t say whether that has improved or disimproved the company’s financial position. But he says that “a lot” of Irish donors leave a tip.

In general, he says, the company has a solid future “GoFundMe has become the ‘take action’ button of the internet,” he says. “When things happen locally or globally, when there’s an emergency or disaster or somebody needs to save a business, and everything in between, we’re seeing people coming together as a community to raise money. It’s a testament to the power of community.”

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