Invisible by Default: What You Won’t See on GoFundMe

Welcome to Tiny Spark, a podcast of the Nonprofit Quarterly. We focus on what is required to build a more just society—in matters of race, health, the environment, and the economy. I’m Amy Costello.

When a crisis hits, and a social safety net is nowhere to be found, many turn to the crowdfunding platform, GoFundMe. The site says it has raised over $9 billion since it launched eleven years ago, and that it has received 120 million donations from across the world.

As a result, the for-profit company has benefitted from a celebratory narrative that it’s a great equalizer. Experiencing a health crisis? Mounting medical bills? Unable to pay rent? Just launch a campaign and a crowd of friends—and even strangers—will help you out. So, when COVID-19 hit, a ton of people hopped on the platform with these same hopes in mind. At the time, people were dying. Many were struggling financially.

Voice: In March, I did lose my job…

These are clips from videos that people made for their COVID-related Go Fund Me campaigns.

Assorted Voices: It’s hard. I’m trying to think about it as an opportunity, but you know, like, everything is now a little bit more stressful.… Today, you can help an artist pay their bills. You can help an artist get food. You can help an artist pay their rent.… As of now, I’ve lost between like 9,000 and 20,000 dollars of work…. And what I’m asking from you today is contributions to help me afford to grieve and to heal, and I’m praying that this platform, GoFundMe platform will help create that.

Nora Kenworthy has been studying and analyzing these GoFundMe campaigns for years. “A lot of people think of GoFundMe as a sort of open marketplace where, if you kind of put your needs out there, that hopefully they’ll gain traction and kind strangers will give you assistance,” she says. “But that’s not quite how the platform works.”

Kenworthy is associate professor of nursing and health studies at the University of Washington, Bothell. We spoke to her a few years ago about how many people relied on crowdfunding for medical bills. Back then, Kenworthy told us that rather than being a great social leveler, there are stark inequities on sites like GoFundMe, having to do with wealth, class, race, education—even your ZIP code. And these factors tend to be decent barometers for whether your campaign will succeed or fail. And the majority do fail. Only about ten percent of campaigns meet their fundraising goals. So, when the coronavirus struck, Kenworthy and her colleague Mark Igra decided to look at the data anew. They analyzed 175,000 GoFundMe campaigns created in the first seven months of the pandemic. We invited Kenworthy back again to talk about what they found for COVID-19 related campaigns. The stats, it turns out, were even more staggering.

Nora Kenworthy: So, I think the most striking thing for us, which really took us aback, was that a very large proportion of campaigns, even larger than in the past, were really not raising any money at all. So, 43 percent of campaigns that we looked like hadn’t received a single donation. And we were really seeing a very large number of campaigns that were aimed at basic needs, as well as really complex overlapping crises. You know so, so-and-so’s disabled father who’s working a front-line job, who’s also immunocompromised and the mother has COVID…you know, it was just like these multiple layers of crisis that people were experiencing and sort of projecting that need onto the platform. And the needs were acute, but they were also prolonged, and they were, in many cases, quite significant.

Costello: I mean, that is shocking, the percentage that raised not a penny. Is there a case that sticks with you? Is there a case that kind of illustrates for you all the problems with this platform and with our societal problems more broadly?

Kenworthy: I mean, there’s so many cases. I don’t want to, like…so many of these cases are so specific that I don’t want to, kind of—

Costello: You want to protect people’s identities.

Kenworthy: Yeah, I want to protect people’s identities, especially because these are very unsuccessful campaigns in many cases. But I’ll say a couple of things. There was a surprising number of campaigns for car repairs and RV repairs, which you would think is not the most urgent thing, except most of those people had been laid off of work and were pivoting to driving for Uber or doing other sorts of gig work to try and make ends meet, or were needing to drive across state lines to take care of a family member who had gotten sick with COVID. And there were a number of campaigns for pets—which, again, you know, we tend to think, “Oh, well, like, vet bills is an inevitability, but maybe not the most urgent thing.” But in this case, it was the really sick pets of people who had lost all income during the pandemic who, you know, I think, in some ways the pet was the most urgent problem. But there were so many other problems alongside it of lost wages, of rent that couldn’t be paid. I think in many ways, for me, looking at these campaigns underscored just the density of this crisis within specific communities of the US and specific sort of socioeconomic tiers of the US where people were just so hard hit and had so little that they could kind of fall back on. And I will say that that was particularly true in the time period that we looked at, which was pretty early on in the pandemic, before a lot of the benefits that had been passed by Congress but also by states had been sort of put into place and become really accessible to people.

But I also want to point out that there were other campaigns that we were looking at, that were highly successful, that represented these vast differences in the world in terms of how people were experiencing the pandemic and, we saw highly successful campaigns for things like the restaurant employees of a very fancy New York City restaurant, or golf caddies at an extremely fancy L.A. golf course. It was this kind of proximity to wealth and privilege that determined a lot of those most successful campaigns, and in some ways, people’s ability to leverage GoFundMe to kind of weather the storm. You know, we also saw a couple of campaigns that just happened to sort of capture the public interest really early on and kind of do that sort of traction-gaining thing that social media posts sometimes do. So, we had one campaign run by a Black activist and writer here in Seattle, Ijeoma Oluo, who started a Seattle Artist Fund that went very viral early on and raised a ton of money for artists.

Ijeoma Oluo (from campaign video): We started this fund as artists who were being impacted by this outbreak, and the moment that we started seeing cancellations of our events that we often depend on, we realized that we were in a fortunate position of being able to weather that financially, but our peers are not. We still have hundreds of artists who need help, and the amount we’ve been able to give, honestly, isn’t enough. It’s not going to sustain them through this entire crisis. We need foundations. We need corporations to step up and also show that they appreciate the artists…

Kenworthy: We also saw a number of campaigns like Oluo’s that were really intended to raise a bunch of money, but then divide it among a lot of people who were very needy. So, for example, a school district in a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC, wanted to raise money for food-insecure families in their area. And they raised a ton of money. Really affluent area; it’s not surprising that they had a lot of affluent donors, but they posted on the campaign repeatedly how much they were struggling, and they still didn’t have enough money to even give out small payments to everyone who was in need. You know, they used phrases like “it’s a drop in the bucket,” and “we’re not sure that we can help everyone who needs it.” So, it’s important to recognize, like even among this top-50 number of campaigns, each campaign was raising, you know, millions of dollars, there wasn’t enough to go around even for these kind of small, fairly wealthy communities with strong connections to wealth and privilege. So, I think one of the invisible stories here is about how much crowdfunding can fall short, even when it’s successful, in terms of meeting broad-based population needs as opposed to more kind of government social safety net programs.

Costello: You know, a thing that I find really interesting with your research, both the earlier research you’ve done and this, is the way that GoFundMe actually exacerbates inequities, whereas I think so many people think of GoFundMe as like the great leveler, that it’s this democratic kind of process where anybody who needs help can find it. And not only do you point out in your research how few campaigns are actually successful, but you seem to really dig into this idea that it exacerbates inequities. And I’d love for you to talk to me a little about that. How do you see that happening on a platform like GoFundMe?

Kenworthy: It’s really hard to track what is existing inequality in the American society and what gets worsened by any particular technology platform. But I can tell a little bit about what we found in this study with regards to questions of sort of class and privilege. Basically, what we found was that there were more campaigns for COVID-related relief in higher income communities and better educated communities, and that those campaigns in higher education and higher income communities also did far better. So, where 35 percent of college graduates are residents of a county, we can expect about 50 percent more campaigns. And similarly, we expect like far greater earnings among campaigns in those types of places. So, I think—

Costello: Now, let’s just stop there for a minute, because I’d love to just dig into that whole notion for a moment, if we may. One could think that in more affluent, well-educated areas, there would be less of a need for GoFundMe, despite the fact that COVID undoubtedly hit so many organizations and individuals and families hard, no matter their socioeconomic background. But even so, to hear that there were actually more campaigns in more affluent, more well-educated areas…I mean, did that itself surprise you, or was that expected?

Kenworthy: I think the extent to which it was happening surprised me. You know, we do tend to expect campaigns to do better in those types of areas because people have more access to networked wealth, and the skills to create and launch a campaign. But the fact that there’s just fewer campaigns in the places where we would expect the most need to be arising due to COVID is, to me, very troubling. And it’s hard to determine from this data whether that’s due to barriers to entry to the platform, right? So, is it lack of broadband access? Is it a lack of technological literacy skills? Is it the difficulty of accessing the web platform from, for example, a mobile phone? Or is it that people look at this and—you know, especially people from low-income areas or from low educational backgrounds, they look at this option and say, there’s no way that that’s going to work for me. And so, they don’t even try it in the first place.

Costello: And it seems a microcosm of America, in that your report found that the top one percent of campaigns earned nearly 25 percent of all money raised.

Kenworthy: Yeah.

Costello: Just help me understand. Why is that, and how does that happen? And talk to me a little bit about the advantages that these top one percent campaigns have and why are they taking a quarter of everything that was taken in on GoFundMe?

Kenworthy: Yeah, I mean, I think we’re certainly starting to see some real widening inequalities on this platform, as we actually see with a lot of different platforms in terms of how much traction or influence different users can actually kind of attract and hold onto. I have a couple of hypotheses about what’s going on here; it’s hard to say for sure. I think one thing that may have been going on was that, in the early months of the pandemic, all of us were just facing this information onslaught and there was so much social media activity. There was so much kind of coming at us all the time. I wonder if we were not as well equipped to digest all of it. And in that sort of social media firestorm, in some ways, it was more likely that highly popular campaigns gathered more traction more quickly and were more trusted among donors.

But I think the other thing that happened was that there was a pretty concerted effort by influencers, by celebrities, by fairly powerful people, to capture public interest and direct it to specific types of campaigns. We looked at the top 50 performing campaigns in this sample and we found that, I think it was seven or eight of them were actually started by GoFundMe. They were kind of GoFundMe sponsored campaigns. And a lot of others had really deep connections to investors, to celebrities, to philanthropists. So really, this dense concentration of power at the top, which, as you noted, reflects some of the broader dynamics of wealth inequality in our country. So, it’s not surprising that that’s all getting projected onto this site as well.

But I think the last thing that’s happening is, we have to look at the architecture of GoFundMe as a platform. You know, if you go to their website, you can’t really see that many campaigns. You see top performing campaigns; you sometimes get directed to stuff that’s geographically close by. But I certainly don’t think we’re coming across many campaigns that represent that 43 percent that have raised zero dollars. And so, I think there are good questions to ask GoFundMe about how they make specific content on their website visible, and also what is less visible—or, essentially, by default invisible—to a casual user.

Costello: Have you asked them that?

Kenworthy: I have not. We’re constantly trying to figure that out, but it’s a really hard question to answer from the outside without access to the kinds of data that they have as a corporation internally.

Costello: It may seem self-evident, but I’m curious to ask you, why are you so interested in this? It’s absolutely important, but I imagine there’s a number of research areas that you can look at, and I’m sure you do, but what is it about that GoFundMe platform that keeps drawing you back?

Kenworthy: It’s such a good question. I sort of joke about it as the research topic that I can’t escape. I think part of what draws me to this are some pretty urgent questions about how this actually works that I think haven’t been answered, and that I think the public has a right to know about if this is going to be as popular as it is. Partly, it’s a question about what we know about technology platforms and how they’re changing our societies and what we should sort of publicly know about them. But I think another question that I keep coming back to is, you have this sort of shiny new technology, and yet at the same time, so much of what is happening there is a microcosm of these much broader challenges in American society and in more neoliberal societies around the world. You know, this fierce individualism, this sense of, “Oh, this is a safety net, but actually it only catches 10 percent of people.” You know, the sort of market-oriented approach to charity and to assistance. I’m always interested in how this kind of cultural space of crowdfunding is changing the way that we as a society more broadly think about charity, and helping, and who should get assistance and who shouldn’t, and what safety nets actually are, and what they look like and how they function.

Costello: I think at the beginning of your response, you indicated that there were profound, large questions that you think are unanswered that the public has a right to know about. Like what, for example?

Kenworthy: Well, I think there’s some really urgent questions about the corporate activity of a lot of platforms that haven’t been answered in part because most of these platforms are privately traded. So, for example, I would love to know what a platform like GoFundMe does with user data and, importantly, where it gets sold, and for how much, and what it’s worth to the platform. And there’s so many unanswered questions about how people use crowdfunding and what they use it for, and what that experience is for different people. You know, recently I’ve been talking to people about what it’s like to raise zero dollars. And I think that’s an important thing that we should pay attention to as a society, because that’s a very public experience of denial, of shame, right? Of being implicitly sort of rejected or told that you’re not worthy. And I’m not saying that any of that should be believed by crowdfunding users when they have that experience, but for many, that is how they feel about not raising any money. So, there’s also these kind of qualitative questions that I think are important for us to contemplate as a society.

Costello: When we interviewed you last time, we also included the experience of Chiquita Paschal, who had to turn to GoFundMe to raise expenses after she fractured her fibula. And, you know, I think she really had to muster up her courage and probably swallow a fair amount of pride to go on GoFundMe and to raise funds from colleagues and friends:

Chiquita Paschal (excerpt): It brought to light this very uncomfortable truth for me, which is that on paper, my life looks great. I’m like, quote-unquote, “successful.” I was a media producer. I helped get a Peabody this year, you know. It’s not within my narrative to also be, like, I’m poor, and I’m struggling, and this is hard.

Kenworthy: Yup. Yeah. We hear a lot from people about just how hard it is to ask for this kind of assistance, and how it’s particularly hard for specific groups of people, right? I think people are sometimes trapped in a notion of not being able to ask, or not wanting to ask, or feeling shame about it, which is also a byproduct of our very American value system that, you know, it’s shameful to be poor. It’s shameful to have a medical bill that you can’t cover, despite the fact that we have really inadequate medical coverage in this country. And so, I wonder about the extent to which crowdfunding shifts those values for us, changes our perception of whether or not it’s okay to ask for money—or more importantly, for whom is it OK to ask for money? And I think those are some really unanswered questions for all of us that we need to pay attention to.

Costello: You know, I am interested in the media narratives that surround these campaigns, especially the ones that are successful. They’re often touted as these wonderful, pull-on-your-heartstrings stories about somebody who really needed help, and people turned out, and look at them now. Everything from, like, the girl who needed a prom dress but whose family couldn’t afford one because her mother was dying of cancer, to people with larger needs because they got flooded out of their home, and now they have a new one. It doesn’t really matter. The point is, I am very intrigued by the narratives that accompany these as: “Isn’t this amazing? Isn’t this great?” And I think, “Isn’t this tragic, that people have to resort to a crowdfunding site like GoFundMe just to kind of live?” And yet we all pat ourselves on the back for having supported people through their most dire circumstances, when in fact our social safety net is the thing that should be providing this for all people. And I guess I’m just curious for your thoughts about the narratives that are built around even the most successful campaigns, and whether indeed these narratives are ones that should be celebratory, or should they be damning?

Kenworthy: You know, it’s a particularly powerful question, in our online media saturated moment, but it’s important to also note that it’s not an entirely new experience. We’ve always had this sort of media circulation of the particularly suffering, deserving individual—the sort of “queen for a day” phenomenon. But I think that one thing that marks these new stories is just how deep the suffering is in some cases, but also this sort of positive kind of affective feeling that we can get as a crowd, as this kind of anonymous crowd, by helping someone out. But I wonder what insight it really gives us into, not only the person who’s on the receiving end of all of that, but also the innumerable people that we don’t see who are probably equally as deserving, who don’t go viral, who don’t get anything. And so, for me, every time I see one of those stories, I think, “My goodness.” Like, first of all, I want you to have health insurance and, you know, social support programs so that this never has to happen. But also, let’s take a moment to think of all the stories that we haven’t seen today that are just out there in the ether, that we’re not going to come across, that aren’t going to give us warm, fuzzy feelings of people who are asking for funding to survive.

And then I think the last thing that I would like people to think about is, think of what we could all do collectively if we weren’t just worrying about paying off people’s medical debt as a society, if we all put our collective consciousness towards creative ways to address climate change or these hugely pressing concerns that we have. Because ultimately, these crowdfunded solutions are so often what we think of in public health as deeply downstream interventions. You know, six or seven bad preventable things have already happened to this person to put them in this place that now needs to be fixed by money. What would it look like if we could prevent these situations from happening with a robust social safety program, and what would be possible for us as a society if we did that?

Costello: I want to talk to you a little bit more explicitly about race. When it comes to COVID, Black and Latinx people have been nearly three times as likely to contract COVID-19 than white people, and they are twice as likely to die from the virus. From what I understand, you did uncover different outcomes on GoFundMe for those who are fundraising around COVID-19, but what are your concerns about racism as it relates to these platforms?

Kenworthy: I have a few. I think it’s important for us to think about the myriad ways that racism could operate through a platform like this. You know, first of all, there’s the kind of structural racism, which is the systems and institutions and historical legacies that have created poorer conditions for Black folks and Black communities. So, for example, as my colleague Mark has found, there’s a lot less wealth embedded within Black social networks because of centuries of wealth inequality propagated by racist policies within the United States, and then that impacts how much a user can sort of tap into within their network as they set up a crowdfunding campaign. But there’s also the willingness of someone who’s of a marginalized identity, being willing to sort of put themselves forward and ask for help in the first place. The potential fears about experiencing judgments based on racial bias once one has a campaign set up. But I think there’s also a social racism in terms of how we perceive different kinds of campaigns, and also the broader ways that race impacts our giving to crowdfunding campaigns more broadly. So, some of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns, as I’m sure a platform like GoFundMe would tell you, have been for Black victims of police violence, who have gained so much kind of name recognition during the Black Lives Matter protests, particularly last summer. One question I often have is, how much of this sort of donation to a campaign like the one for George Floyd is a reflection of white guilt or White Savior Complex, our desire to kind of do something to make ourselves feel better, rather than a desire to sort of change the racist systems that resulted in his death in the first place.

Costello: I want to ask you about mutual aid, something that’s been around since at least the 19th century, and it’s a form of aid that’s sustained over time, whereas GoFundMe seems to be kind of a one-shot deal and somebody receives a bunch of cash, or a number of individuals do, and then it’s done. But with mutual aid, people work more cooperatively and over time to meet the needs of everyone in a community. There isn’t so much a giver and recipient, but each of us is helping each other in different ways that we can. Is mutual aid something that you’ve thought about at all, in light of your research?

Kenworthy: Yes, absolutely, and it’s not just something that I’m thinking about, but it’s something that, you know, like, mutual aid organizers are thinking about their relationship to crowdfunding platforms and crowdfunding “influencers,” if you can call them that, are thinking about mutual aid and doing that kind of work. But I think it’s also important for us to have conversations about how our understanding of mutual aid may be changing over the course of this pandemic. Writers like Dean Spade, who published a book on mutual aid this year, will tell you that it’s not just about mutual reciprocity in assistance and giving, but it’s really about solidarity-building and consciousness-raising, about the systems that necessitate mutual aid in the first place. And so, I think that crowdfunding can be a particularly poor sort of platform for doing that aspect of the work. But at the same time, I do talk to a lot of mutual aid organizers who are relying in some capacity on crowdfunding platforms because it’s an easy way to raise and manage money. And unfortunately, during the pandemic, giving cash to people was, for some mutual aid networks, a fairly important dimension of the work that they were doing. My colleague Tamara Kneese wrote a really lovely piece at the beginning of the pandemic titled Crowdfunding is not Mutual Aid, which I think provokes a lot of these questions around crowdfunding as a tool versus crowdfunding as a practice, and to what extent it can ever really be aligned with mutual aid principles.

Costello: I’m interested in that: crowdfunding as a practice rather than a tool.

Kenworthy: Well, from what I know of mutual aid, I would say that a lot of the mutual aid work is really a work of practice, right? It’s the act of coming together, of figuring out what you need and what I need, and how we can help each other. And then also doing this sort of collective awareness-raising and consciousness-raising as to what has kind of brought us into this spot in the first place. And I think in many ways that is very different from what we see happening on a GoFundMe page.

Costello: Yeah, I mean, that’s the beauty of it to me is that—the platform is much too large to try to generalize too much—but those are all the things that are missing from this platform, it seems to me.

Kenworthy: Yeah, and there are interesting efforts by web developers and other folks to try and develop what would be a more kind of mutual aid platform. Because my understanding is that mutual aid, especially throughout a pandemic, has also just been like a challenge of administration, right? Of trying to figure out who’s where and who needs what and who’s responding to what. And also, a challenge of like financial management, of taking in various kinds of donations and figuring out the tax laws around them and everything else. There’s both a need for these kinds of tools, and mutual aid organizers are often using tools like GoFundMe, even though they sometimes have quite a bit of discomfort with them.

Costello: Nora Kenworthy, is there anything else that you wanted to say that you haven’t had a chance to say?

Kenworthy: I guess I would always want people to keep in mind that most crowdfunding platforms are for-profit companies, and they do a lot of work to sort of reassure us that they’re not making too much profit off of COVID-19, or medical bills, or whatever it is. But I think it’s a really important thing for us to keep in mind; who do we want to be sort of mediating and hosting our space of helping one another, of charity, of communicating need with one another? I would hope that we continue to keep in mind questions about what we want these corporations to be in our public life, and what role we want them to play, because unless we sort of articulate that, they’re going to keep on sort of finding new roles and new spaces where they can continue making profit and, at least for GoFundMe, their big new space of that is this GoFundMe.org nonprofit arm that is enabling tax deductible donations to 501c3 charities, but is also sort of GoFundMe positioning itself as a sort of clearinghouse for charitable giving in the United States. So I think we should always be attentive to what the next kind of corporate step is, and whether we really want for-profit corporations in those spaces.

Costello: Well, Nora Kenworthy, associate professor at the School of Nursing and Health studies at University of Washington, Bothell. It was such a pleasure to speak with you again about your research and thank you so much for your time.

Kenworthy: Thank you for your continued interest in this topic. I really appreciate it.

This article is a transcript of the Tiny Spark podcast.

Cover art: Created by Devyn H. Taylor.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Mark Igra, Nora Kenworthy, Cadence Luchsinger, Jin-Kyu Jung, “Crowdfunding as a response to COVID-19: Increasing inequities at a time of crisis,” ScienceDirect, August, 2021.

Nora Kenworthy, “Opinion: Crowdfunding is an imperfect weapon against the pandemic,” Washington Post, April 2, 2020.

Tamara Kneese, “Pay It Forward: Crowdfunding is not mutual aid,” REAL LIFE, June 22, 2020.

Dean Spade, “Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And The Next),” October 2020.

Tiny Spark Podcast: “Inequalities In Crowdfunding: An ‘American Struggle,’” December 7, 2018.

On Twitter: Nora Kenworthy

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