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Lauren Smiley | Photo: Margo Moritz | April 22, 2013
When everyone you know is passing the hat, who gets supported and who gets the shaft? Welcome to the new ethics of crowdfunding.
There are few people in the Bay Area more dialed-in, networked up, Oprah power-listed, and philanthropically connected than Lateefah Simon. Simon, the teen mom and budding activist who, at just 19, became the executive director of a San Francisco nonprofit to help troubled girls like herself. Simon, the 26-year-old MacArthur “genius” who created a pioneering program for the district attorney’s office to keep young drug offenders out of prison. Simon, the civic dynamo who raised $7 million for her first organization, the Center for Young Women’s Development, and $2 million more as head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. When she and her husband, Kevin Weston, recently renewed their vows at City Hall (her ex-boss, state attorney general Kamala Harris, presided), it seemed like half the city’s politicos were in the audience cheering them on.
So it says something about this cultural moment that you can find Simon asking—or begging (we’ll get to semantics in a minute)—for help on GoFundMe. But sure enough, plug her name into the site, and you find a photo of Simon, Weston, and their adorable toddler, Lelah, looking blissful. Their story is anything but.
Until last summer, the 44-year-old Weston was an editor at New America Media, a nonprofit news site where he, too, spent a good chunk of his time raising money for worthy causes. Just as he was about to report to Stanford for a journalism fellowship, he went to the doctor with a sore throat and came out diagnosed with a flesh-eating bacterial infection—and a rare type of leukemia. Doctors gave him days to live, but he held on through intensive chemotherapy. Simon, meanwhile, launched a nationwide drive to register African-American bone marrow donors, hoping to find a transplant match for Weston and others in his situation.
No less catastrophic was the family’s sudden plunge into financial chaos. The MacArthur grant had arrived a decade ago, and Simon had long since funneled most of that $500,000 into various youth groups. Over the years, she and Weston had made a point of helping relatives and friends financially, as well as giving to charity, to the detriment of their own savings—“We’ve never thought of our salaries as our own,” she says. Despite her earnings and health insurance as a program director at the Rosenberg Foundation, a social justice nonprofit, she and Weston were soon swamped by hospital copays and the day-to-day costs of tending to a family in crisis. She had climbed out of poverty to become one of the philanthropic world’s rising stars, but suddenly she needed to do what she had never done before in her life—pass the hat for herself.
“There’s something very personal about struggling with money,” Simon admits. “We both learned from our single moms how to white-knuckle our way through the month. I’ve never asked anyone for money. It’s crazy humbling.”
In the end, the couple agreed to swallow their pride and let a fellow activist create the “Help Kevin Weston” campaign on GoFundMe, one of 500 or so crowdfunding sites that have transformed hitting up your email contacts and Facebook friends—and their friends, and theirs, ad infinitum—from a decidedly alt concept (fans fronting money for fledgling bands) into an estimated $2.8 billion industry. A Kickstarter-backed short documentary—Inocente, about a 15-year-old homeless artist—won an Oscar this year, and now even savvy entrepreneurs with access to “real” investors and decent lines of credit are crowdfunding as much to generate buzz as to raise cash. Meanwhile, the SEC is debating rules to let amateur investors take equity stakes in crowdfunded ventures. Soon, an industry born of creativity and altruism could be awash in Wall Street–style speculation.
What’s really turned us into Crowdfunding Nation, though, and what makes the Simon-Westons’ story so emblematic, is the once unheard of, now nearly commonplace practice of e-begging—not for our ideas, but for our dreams, and for ourselves. Serious causes, frivolous causes: They all compete like so many Darwinian finches in a fast-evolving ecosystem. Tunnel through an online warren of campaigns on sites like FundRazr and Indiegogo, and you’ll find a plea for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings alongside one to reimburse a guy named Koven who got stuck with a $600 karaoke bill. People trying to finance a search party for a missing teen vie with the owner of an arthritic spaniel named Rosy who needs hip surgery. For every Lateefah fighting to keep her husband alive, there’s a Matthew, yearning to excise the rolls of flesh around his gut after losing 300 pounds. Barack Obama, with a reported $690 million raised online in 2012, crowdfunded his way to the presidency; now he’s crowdfunding for background checks on gun owners.
This is what grassroots entrepreneurship looks like in the age of social media—more often than not, our venture is Me & Company, and our customers are you and everyone you know. Then there’s the silent majority: those of us deciding whether to dig into our pockets for a few spare dollars or to click on by. We have a new power: to collectively float or sink our friends’ plans, from their food-cart fantasy to their ability to pay their rent while undergoing chemo. We have big hearts and like big ideas, and we want to help, but—admit it—we are also constantly negotiating our place in the social pecking order. Knowing that our donations can be announced for all our networks to see (and that we’ll probably run into the asker at work, at the gym, on LinkedIn) gives rise to new calculations: When we give, are we exercising selflessness or self-promotion? Are we enabling or supporting? Is this generosity or an expunging of guilt? As more and more people take up the crowdfund megaphone, those being solicited (which is to say, all of us) are being pushed up against the wall to do the right thing again and again and again. And this is becoming the most pressing moral quandary of them all—because no matter how many other palms are outstretched, do you really want to be the miser who didn’t help Lateefah and Kevin in their hour of most desperate need?