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Individual charitable giving can’t compete with the lofty aspirations of big government and big philanthropy. But is that a bug in the system or a feature?

One of the most robust changes in philanthropy in the past decade has been the rise of GoFundMe. This nonprofit has enabled 50 million people to donate $5 billion to charitable causes and local, individual needs as of the end of 2017 (the most recent figures available).

In my previous article about GoFundMe, I noted how GoFundMe decentralizes charity by allowing donors to personally pay for medical contributions for people in need.

However, a recent piece in The Atlantic by Rachel Monroe claims to uncover the dark side of GoFundMe. Monroe’s piece “When GoFundMe Gets Ugly,”  has several cases, including the story of Chauncy Black.

In June 2016 Chauncy Black approached Matt White in a “rich-person Kroger supermarket” in Memphis and offered to help White load his groceries if he’d buy Black a “dinner” of a box of donuts. White listened to Black’s story and decided to set up a GoFundMe page for $250 to help Black buy a lawn mower to start a landscaping business. That goal was quickly met, and White learned how poor Black’s family was—they slept on blankets because they couldn’t afford mattresses. Eventually the campaign went viral, and “Chauncey’s Chance” raised $343,000—enough to enable Black and his family to buy a house in a neighborhood, where, as Black’s grandmother, Barbara Martin put it, no one would have to “hit the floor” because of gunfire. The money that wasn’t used for the house is put in a trust that Chauncey Black, currently a teenager, can’t touch until he is 40.

Monroe sees this act of charity as a failure because it fails to eliminate the root causes of poverty, inequality, and addiction.

“What doesn’t fit neatly into GoFundMe’s salvation narratives are the limits of private efforts like Matt White’s,” Monroe writes. After describing all the good that Matt White and the GoFundMe campaign accomplished for Chauncy Black and his family, Monroe criticizes White for all that he did not accomplish.

Matt White did not eliminate the economic inequality that exists between his white neighborhood and Chauncey Black’s inner-city neighborhood. He did not prevent Black from dropping out of high school and fathering a child out of wedlock. He was not able to answer every call for help from Black’s family, and tried to establish healthy boundaries in their relationship.

 Monroe’s longest case study is about the fundraising campaign for a 501c4 called “We Build the Wall,” which intends to privately build portions of the border wall between New Mexico and Texas. This remains GoFundMe’s most successful campaign.

“We Build the Wall” is an exception because it is a national campaign that has attracted a lot of news coverage. But the lesson I got from Monroe’s piece is that the best and most lasting campaigns from GoFundMe are the ones that don’t make the national news.

I looked up the GoFundMe campaigns in the town where I live. The successful ones I found included helping a mother who suffered a stroke when giving birth, paying for the funeral expenses for a six-year-old, and supporting a musical about Reconstruction.

These countless little campaigns don’t go viral. The people who get or receive aid don’t become stars on social media. But these countless, below-the-radar GoFundMe campaigns, small-scale and local, are ultimately the ones that strengthen civil society.


2 thoughts on “The dark side of GoFundMe?”

  1. Austin Detwiler says:

    Thanks for your comment, MR! To clarify, I’m not sure what Mr. Wooster’s personal opinion is regarding the campaign to build a wall… but the article is certainly not suggesting that the build a wall campaign is strengthening civil society. On the contrary, the “wall” campaign is GoFundMe’s biggest campaign ever which received significant national news coverage — whereas Mr. Wooster writes that the “local,” “below-the-radar” campaigns that don’t go viral are the ones strengthening civil society.

    Also, I just want to clarify that GoFundMe does not charge a fee for their service. That is actually a key marketing claim of theirs. They charge a processing fee — as any payment platform does, including many nonprofit organizations — but GoFundMe does not charge their own platform fee. They actually have a blog post about that here: https://www.gofundme.com/c/blog/gofundme-fees

  2. MR says:

    Well in my opinion, a go fund me campaign to build a wall certainly does not “strengthen civil society” as your last sentence suggests. And, it’s a bit surprising that your article doesn’t also mention the fee that they charge (of course they provide valuable infrastructure for their platform, but they are a For Profit endeavor and a lot of donors don’t realize that they are, nor how much their fee actually is.)

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