Call me a skeptic; I don’t mind. Whenever I read or hear about an online fundraising campaign to help the victims of a tragedy — an apartment fire, a deadly accident, a senseless shooting — a little voice in my head asks, “How do I know the money will go to the intended recipients?”
Technology makes it easy to donate, either through texts or crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe, Fundly and FundRazr. Perhaps too easy, because it raises the potential for abuse.
Take the case of Johnny Bobbitt, a homeless man who made headlines when he spent his last $20 to help fill the gas tank of a stranded motorist in Philadelphia. That motorist, Kate McClure, started a GoFundMe campaign to help Bobbitt, raising more than $400,000 from more than 14,000 people.
Nearly a year later, Bobbitt was in the news again. Only this time the Good Samaritan was suing McClure and her boyfriend for the funds. His pro bono lawyer claimed that the couple committed fraud by spending the fundraising money on themselves for lavish vacations and a luxury car.
If the allegations are true, not only was Bobbitt duped, so were those 14,000 donors. So how can you protect yourself when donating to a crowdfunding charitable campaign?
Our DNA is practically hard-wired to be generous. You see something on the news that makes you feel bad or angry. Emotions swell and you want to do something, now, and thanks to crowdfunding technology, you can. Resist the urge. Instead, jot down the information or bookmark the donation link, and give yourself a day to think about the ways to use that money and whether there are other options, suggests Christopher Olivola, an assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, who studies charitable giving. “Come back tomorrow if you still feel like donating,” he says. Taking a timeout will also allow you to follow these steps.
Although GoFundMe verifies that the person collecting the money is who they say they are, the company can’t verify what they’ll do with the funds. You may have to do some sleuthing on your own. Before you give, find out who will be handling and managing the money. Is it an individual or an organization? Read the campaign description and goals. Where is the money going and what is it for — food, clothing, medical care, funeral expenses — or is it going into a more general fund? If the campaign is for a specific person, that person’s name should be front and center. Talk to the campaign organizer. On some platforms, you can send a direct message to the organizer. Is the money being deposited into a special bank account? If so, who has account access? How will the money be distributed to those who need it? Will records be kept of expenditures? Is the organizer willing to share that and any other information with you? Is there a plan to keep donors informed after the campaign ends?
A catastrophe may occur in minutes, but recovery may take weeks, months or years, says Larry Lieberman, chief operating officer of Charity Navigator, an independent evaluator of U.S. nonprofits. Crowdfunding campaigns are often the first response by a well-meaning do-gooder. But there may be more established ways to ensure your donation is maximized. Law enforcement agencies, for example, often have associated benevolent funds to help officers injured or killed in the line of duty and their families. It may take a day or two for that agency to disseminate that information to the public.
Unless you start a crowdfunding campaign, there’s no need to be the first to pony up. Wait to see what others do. Also, the platforms usually have a place for donors to leave comments and feedback. Read them to get a better feel for where your money is going and whom it is helping. If something looks wrong, ask questions or contact the crowdfunding website directly.
Not only can you use technology to give, but social media makes it easy to let everyone you know you did so. Olivola says one factor in crowdfunding can be “look at me.” Just because everyone in your orbit is donating doesn’t mean you must. More important is feeling good about your donation.
Unless you know the person running the campaign or the recipient, there are no assurances. A good rule of thumb: Donate only to those you know personally or to a friend of a friend and/or family member.
One-third of GoFundMe campaigns are for medical bills. That makes the category ripe for scams. Besides researching the individual benefiting from the funds, maintain a connection after your donation. Typically, that person or others will report on their progress, either through the funding site, social media or a personal health-journal site such as CaringBridge.
This may be an instance, however, in which you can opt to bypass crowdfunding. Many hospitals have nonprofit foundations through which you can make a directed donation to help a specific person. And unless the person has specifically asked to opt out, a medical facility can tell you whether an individual is a patient. If you do make a directed donation, ask for a receipt acknowledging both the amount and to whom the money is going.
Still a skeptic? Despite the headlines, most crowdfunding charity campaigns are legit, according to Lieberman. Here’s an example: When Simon Brown learned one of the maintenance staffers at his 166-unit D.C. condo complex faced deportation to El Salvador in 2019, he helped initiate a GoFundMe page. The goal was to raise $15,000 to cover fees and legal expenses so that the man could apply for permanent resident status.
“We chose crowdfunding because we wanted something easily shareable online. Our building manager set up the page, we emailed the link to the entire building and shared it with friends,” Brown says. Within a month, the group had contributed $18,000, and the maintenance man and his wife are working their way through the application process.
As for Johnny Bobbitt? Turns out his story has a happy-ish ending. GoFundMe has promised to give him the money raised, releasing a statement that says in part: “Our platform is backed by the GoFundMe Guarantee, which means that in the rare case that GoFundMe, law enforcement or a user finds campaigns are misused, donors and beneficiaries are protected.”
Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net