As charity crowdfunding soars, accountability questions linger

The most successful campaigns are easy to understand, and easy to share, but the industry is "frustratingly Wild West," says one academic

VANCOUVER – Julia Hawkins offers a simple explanation for why she set up an online crowdfunding campaign that brought in $22,000 for a severely beaten homeless man, who she had previously seen a few times near where she works in Cape Breton.

“I just like helping people,” said Hawkins, a soft-spoken woman from Little Pond, N.S.

“He seemed like a really nice guy. I liked his dog.”

Shawn Jack was seriously injured last summer when police say a group of young people attacked him in a wooded area behind a department store.

When Hawkins heard the news, she set up a fundraising page on the website GoFundMe. Within 24 hours, the page had brought in more than $14,000 from donors across the country, shattering its initial goal of $1,000, and the money kept coming in.

“We never really expected that much, that’s for sure,” she said.

Hawkins’ campaign for Jack is among a growing list of cause-based online fundraising efforts that have made headlines across Canada, including two high-profile – and highly successful – campaigns in the past several weeks.

After a Quebec woman refused a judge’s order last week to remove her hijab in court, a pair of supporters who didn’t know the woman launched an online campaign that has raised more than $45,000. The initial goal was $20,000 to help her buy a car to replace one that had been seized, which is why she was in court.

Last month, the death of three-year-old Elijah Marsh of Toronto, who wandered out of his grandmother’s apartment building into the frigid winter night, inspired a deluge of online donations, with one campaign bringing in more than $170,000.

The most successful campaigns are easy to understand, easy to share, often tap into a topical social justice issue and allow people to become somehow personally involved, said Alfred Hermida, a digital media scholar at the University of British Columbia.

“There’s an element of, ‘We’re being altruistic but we’re also making it about ourselves,”’ he said, adding that successful campaigns allow contributors to become the centre of attention.

“A lot of what we do on social media is about ourselves.”

Michael Johnston, founder and president of fundraising consulting firm HJC, says the people donating most in this new era of altruism tend to be disproportionately younger.

“They don’t want the charity in the way,” said Johnston, describing millennials – roughly between their late teens and early thirties – as the biggest crowdfunding contributors.

“They don’t want it to be mediated by an organization. They want that direct connection.”

While the digital world offers a potent tool for direct, cause-based crowdfunding, Johnston warned there are still risks and uncertainties.

Traditionally, established organizations and charities provided accountability, legal responsibility, and often a code of ethics and a clear mandate beyond any individual fundraising campaign, said Johnston.

“In the case of crowdfunding to an individual, there aren’t all those safeguards,” he said, describing the current industry as “frustratingly Wild West.”

“All we’re left with is a moral imperative – that we hope the person who created the page that’s collecting the money has both the moral and ethical perspective to make sure that the money gets to where it needs to.”

Another issue Johnston raised is that of scale – whether there should be hard caps on fundraising. He pointed to the case of young Elijah as an example, where fundraising efforts brought in nearly nine times the initial target of $20,000.

“The person who set it up took no foresight in thinking about proportionality,” said Johnston. “By leaving the taps on now, there’s a burden on (Marsh’s) family that’s undeserved.”

Crowdfunding sites typically take a cut of funds raised, which Johnston said leaves little incentive to deter users from raising more money.

Some fundraising portals, such as GiveEffect, have dealt with potential pitfalls by only hosting crowdfunding initiatives linked directly to a registered charity.

Other companies see a larger role for themselves in providing oversight.

“It’s the platform’s responsibility because in the end we hold the money,” said Apostolos Sigalas, founder of Canadian crowdfunding site GreedyGiver.

Hawkins, who set up the crowdfunding campaign for the Cape Breton homeless man, continues to manage the funds with the help of one of Jack’s family members, sending clothes and money for his TV bill while he continues to recover in a Halifax hospital.

Her plan is to send him everything once he is well enough and able to set up a bank account.

“I was told by his family that he really appreciates it,” she said. “He knows what everyone has done for him and he really appreciates it.”

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