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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.
The onslaught of crowdfunding is all the more socially loaded in light of this country’s fractured relationship with giving. The Constitution says that we the people shall “promote the general welfare.” More than 200 years later, we the people are constantly bickering over what “the general welfare” means and who should pay for it. We are among the nations with the most money to give. We’re also broke, unemployed, and underwater, and, with the recession, we’re less ashamed to admit it. We esteem philanthropy and support charities with dollars and tax breaks. Yet we frown on handouts and shame the freeloaders who take them.
It was into this churning pool of contradictions that Michele Turner launched her plea for help. Separated from her husband and raising two young daughters in Bernal Heights, the 47-year-old freelance copywriter was finishing up a children’s book when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last September. The chemo soon made it impossible for her to earn a regular living. Insurance covered most of the medical costs, and disability checks helped with the groceries, but not her rent or the gas to get her to treatments at Stanford. To all outward appearances, she was a fashionable career woman who ran with a hip, solidly middle-class crowd. Who would believe that she was broke?
Members of the Mrs. Robinson Society—a women’s club that Turner cofounded—discussed hosting a benefit in a bar, as they had done for other causes. But that seemed too much like a party. Eventually, Turner’s friend and frequent collaborator Laura Stepping convinced her to give GoFundMe a try. Turner went to work crafting a version of the marketing copy she excels at, as if she were one of her clients and her neediness was something that she had to sell. “I wrote something 30 times and just couldn’t do it—how do you say this?” she laments. “It was hard to let the world know you’re in that position—in dire straits. I had to put ‘desperate’ up there. I couldn’t make it pretty or hide anything.”
It’s a really tricky thing, walking the fine line between sympathetic and just plain pathetic. Faced with legions of first-timers, crowdfunding websites offer loads of advice on how to make an effective ask. Offer a story, they urge, not just a plea for money. “It’s not a donation, it’s funding,” says Danae Ringelmann, a San Francisco native and cofounder of Indiegogo, which claims to be the world’s largest crowdfunding platform. “When you ask for money, the only emotion you’re tapping into is guilt. That’s far less powerful than the motivation of acting on your passions.” In Turner’s case, this has meant selling benefactors on the experience of being part of her recovery, not just on alleviating her poverty.
Most sites require you to post a photo, but they advise that campaigns with videos raise more money more quickly. Another key pointer: Ask for a realistic amount—broken down into specific costs to give donors the feeling that they can make a tangible difference. In Turner’s case, $25 might buy a few bags of cancer-fighting kale, $90 a therapy session for her kids. You’re urged to relentlessly promote your campaign on social media—not just blasting out the same pitch, but posting updates and thank-yous to donors, keeping them abreast of every morsel of good news. All this can be exhausting for someone fighting a serious illness, not to mention demoralizing, so many people deputize a family member or friend to do the work instead.
Turner ended up going for a soft (albeit still heartbreaking) sell, excerpting an entry from her seven-year-old’s journal: “My Mom has brest canser. I want to go and burn this letter.” Turner then penned her own elegantly restrained plea—“enter: breast cancer. a course of treatment. a loss of income and ability to make ends meet. a need for help”—posted under a nom de plume, Penny Walk, and let Stepping put it on Facebook.
Jon Gasparini, the owner of the TenderNob bar Rye, where the Mrs. Robinson Society had hosted fundraisers in the past, was relieved to see the Facebook post. He had heard about Turner’s diagnosis but hadn’t known what to do. “It’s mildly anxiety-inducing to talk about money and health,” he says, “so having this kind of site to roll it into a social network is a helpful platform.” Gasparini chipped in $1,000 on his iPhone—he thought that he was doing so anonymously, but the website notifies the campaign organizer even if a donor chooses to keep his name and/or contribution invisible on the site. “Not everyone can give that much,” Gasparini says, a tad embarrassed to have been outed. “I didn’t want to be a big shot about donating that amount, and I didn’t want her to feel bad about it.”
Donors came from even more unexpected places. Michelle Ruggels is a city health administrator who graduated with Turner from Palo Alto High School in 1983. They hadn’t seen each other in a decade, but Ruggels donated $300—also without inscribing her name all over the site: “I have enough ego that I wanted Michele to see that I’d donated,” she says, “but not enough ego that I needed everyone to see it.”
Turner’s initial goal was $10,000. Five months later, she’s at $11,747 and has raised her ask to $14,000. With so many people invested in her recovery, she can’t shake the feeling that she’s on the hook to heal—added motivation at a time when she needs every ounce she can muster. The response, too, has eased her squeamishness about having to ask for help in the first place. “I think that because it’s an online forum, and there’s levity to it and a happy brand—it once removes the fact that it’s money,” she says. “It makes an uncomfortable thing comfortable. It’s socially couth on both ends.”
Stepping, on the other hand, has been more surprised by the number of people in their social circle who haven’t ponied up even small amounts: “It’s like, ‘C’mon, let’s see your names.’” While an online campaign makes donating less awkward, it also makes requests for help less awkward to ignore, as if they were a form of spam.
Finding people who have passively neglected or outright rejected a crowdfunding plea from a friend isn’t difficult. These days, it’s a nearly universal experience—we’ve all done it. Take Polina Smith, a 27-year-old personal trainer and parttime clown who runs in the city’s artistic, circusy circles, where creative ambition is in abundance and cash is not. She often forks over $25 or $50 to friends’ projects, yet she is still haunted by the one to which she didn’t donate—The Grimaldis, a ghost story with circus arts and cabaret. A friend personally emailed her a link to the Kickstarter campaign to fund a short run of the show in San Francisco, but Smith missed the deadline to donate. The next time that she saw her friend practicing at the Circus Center, she felt like she was being judged. “She seemed more distant, but I don’t know if it was my own projections,” Smith says. The guilt has lingered: “It’s been a year, and every time I see her, it’s like I have to give her something.”
Indiegogo’s Ringelmann is the first to say that donors are not saints—they often get something out of giving. “People fund for four reasons: They’re passionate about the idea; they want to participate in something bigger than themselves; they want the perks; or they want recognition for being someone who discovered something early. These are selfish things, but they’re also empowering things. We wake up in the morning, and we want to be good people.”
Still, mixing friends with money is invariably a loaded proposition. You can’t help judging their priorities, their values, their budgeting skills. What if you’re short on cash yourself? Do you owe someone a note explaining why you didn’t give, or should you opt for the plausible excuse that you never saw the campaign? What if you’ve given someone plenty of money already—say, your kid’s piano teacher, who now wants you to fund a solo concert along with the pricey lessons? If someone donates to you, are you obligated to return the favor, no matter what? An acquaintance recently emailed Michele Turner with a Kickstarter plea for a business idea. “It’s someone who’s really successful and just wanted to add on something else to their success,” she says. “It was this really aggressive campaign. In light of where I am, it seemed really excessive to me.”
It’s easy to resent that kind of peer pressure when the person asking is better off than your are. More complicated is the entreaty that carries a social reward (and you know it). Crowdfunding has wrested the term “benefactor” away from society ladies waving leather checkbooks on the charity circuit. Now all of us can get a little recognition for helping out. I was recently Facebook chatting with a friend I’ll call Niki, a wine importer who is one of the least calculating people I know. She said that she once donated a small amount to the Kickstarter campaign to open Doughnut Dolly in Oakland—but not because she loves fried carbs. She wanted to support the owner, but she also wanted to signal to her Facebook friends, many of whom are business colleagues who also donated, that she is as generous as they are: “That, of course, influenced my decision.” Scanning the amounts given by others in your social circle and income bracket—and measuring yourself accordingly—has become as normal as checking out your competition at a singles bar.
Then there’s the type of crowdsourcing site that doesn’t ask for money—which, if you have it to give, is gratifyingly hassle-free—but for more labor-intensive favors. Friends of both Michele Turner and Lateefah Simon started a registry on Lotsa Helping Hands, where people can volunteer to drive Turner to the hospital or be part of Simon’s casserole train. “We’re asking folks to be a village to support us,” Simon says. Factoring in the leftovers, “bringing a meal literally saves me four hours, so I can sit down and rest.”
But what if no one responds? One new father in the East Bay, who asked for anonymity, reluctantly went along with his wife’s friend’s idea to put up a registry on MealBaby, which organizes meal deliveries to sleep-deprived parents. Yet after the site emailed six local couples whom he considered friends, not one of them signed up. He veered between feeling ridiculous for having asked in the first place and checking the site obsessively. “It’s funny and baffling at the same time,” he says. “The food is a bonus, but don’t you want to meet my daughter? Apparently not.” A few weeks later, he tells me that all the couples eventually did come through—it seems that they simply didn’t like using the site. Phew.
When I tell my friends this story, some of them side with the procrastinators, as if the new dad’s hope for something more than money crossed some invisible line. It makes me wonder whether, for a lot of donors, crowdfunding’s appeal isn’t its community-mindedness so much as its impersonality. You can help a long-lost friend or passing acquaintance without having to hold her in your arms and feel her pain wash over you. She can accept your money without having to answer prying questions or worry about how her situation makes you feel. No one has to make small talk. Which is a relief, because often the timing is terrible—and if you’re both honest with yourselves, you may not particularly want to reconnect anyway.