In a recent piece in the New Yorker, Nathan Heller worries that GoFundMe exacerbates the problem of using stories to exploit the emotions in order to generate donations—rather than relying on more data-driven giving.
But what makes a story compelling? When we’re talking about telling stories for the purposes of raising money, is ‘compelling’ really just another word for ‘manipulative’? And, anyway, isn’t a story, no matter how compelling, a flimsy pretext for making a donation? Shouldn’t donations be prompted by something more rational or evidence based than a story?
Nathan Heller’s recent piece in the New Yorker explored many of these questions. He takes a close look at crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe, where he worries that fundraisers, desperate not to be overlooked by would-be donors, are incentivized to tell the most “heartrending” story possible.
Heller is worth quoting at length:
"Yet putting so much weight on storytelling also underscores its limits. Stories dictate their own span: beginning, middle, resolution. This is not how major change happens, and the strength of social storytelling—its ability to make problems seem individual and ordered—can also become a weakness. Storytelling looks past all the interlocking motions of society in favor of the personal, the private, the atomized view […] We risk building a theatre in which individuals are led onstage, told to perform their moving stories, showered individually with cash and allyship, and then summarily dispatched […] Advantages in crowdfunding still go to the people who arrive with the most powerful connections and the best networks. After that, there is competition, with perverse incentives: whoever has the most heartrending story wins."
The flow of money on a site like GoFundMe feels somewhat arbitrary. Just because one campaign tells a sad or compelling story doesn’t mean it’s more deserving of support than other campaigns. How can we possibly quantify and compare relative needs? Taking an even broader view, Heller worries that GoFundMe diverts energy and attention away from “actual systemic reform,” allowing the “causes of problems [to] go untouched.”
Heller’s critique echoes the arguments of effective altruists and those who prefer that philanthropists focus on root causes of systemic problems with data-driven solutions. They would have us discard stories in favor of vast spreadsheets, focusing not on the particular but on the whole.
What Heller rightly points out is that the success of GoFundMe campaigns are highly contingent on factors beyond the control of the campaign organizer: how many strangers share the story on social media, whether the story is uniquely compelling, whether people who encounter the story are inclined to give.
But you could make the case that GoFundMe has largely swapped one set of contingencies for another. Prior to the advent of online social networks, the success of any campaign for charitable support would have relied on a welter of other factors equally outside your control: where you lived, where you worked, who you knew, and who knew the people you knew.
The appeal of GoFundMe is that you can overcome those particular limitations—the ones of the pre-internet past. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter if your parents are rich, or have rich friends. You can put your story out there for other people to hear and respond to. You can raise millions of dollars.
You can raise millions of dollars. You probably won’t. As Heller points out, deserving causes get overlooked all the time. There are still limits. Crowdsourcing is imbalanced, dependent as it is on the inscrutable workings of online social networks, and on each fundraiser’s effort to be as heartrending as possible.
I have no great love for crowdsourcing platforms, just as I have no great love for most aspects of social media. If someone wants to mount a compelling argument that crowdsourcing is bad for philanthropy or nonprofits, I’m ready to hear it.
But Heller’s argument that stories themselves are an essentially invalid or even harmful pretext for acts of charity is misguided. I return here to the notion of contingency. We humans are—and will ever remain—contingent beings. We are situated in particular places. We love, and are loved by, particular people. We respond in particular ways to the particular stories we hear from our particular family members, neighbors, and coworkers.
I happen to live in Cincinnati. I live here because of a confluence of factors, some of my own choosing, some not of my own choosing. But because I live in Cincinnati, I care about Cincinnati. I care about my church, I care about local nonprofits, I care about my neighborhood.
You might argue—and some do—that this is all completely arbitrary. There are other communities with more pressing needs. There are other places where my donation could potentially help more people or accomplish more quantifiable outcomes. If you and I could just take a more impersonal view, studying a few spreadsheets and heat maps, we could work around some of those pesky contingencies.
One of the great projects of liberalism is to free us from the ties that bind: family, birthplace, religious traditions. These are the contingencies that make us human. We might lament them. We can certainly recognize that they are “unfair” or “suboptimal” in many ways.
We can also embrace them. It’s only by honoring our own limitations that we can, in small ways and on occasion, overcome them. We can, moved by stories, give to charities that serve the communities where we live, never forgetting that there are people in distant countries who also deserve aid. We can, moved by his story, give to a neighbor struggling to pay hospital bills, never pretending that our gift justifies or excuses a dysfunctional medical system.
Our gifts originate in how we feel, who we love, where we live, what we’ve experienced, the stories we’ve heard. It isn’t particularly efficient, or systematic, or fair. It’s charity.