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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 CONUNDRUM, REVISITED
Lateefah Simon falls somewhere between the two extremes of crowdfundees—comfortable promoting a noble cause that will benefit other families, but ambivalent and tight-lipped about the one to aid her own. Simon has plugged the bone-marrow registry on KQED and KALW and her Facebook page. At her vow-renewal ceremony at City Hall, there were signs with the slogan “Will you marrow me?” as well as several folding tables where attendees could swab inside their cheek for DNA (that’s how easy it is these days to get on the registry for a future match). With 28 donor drives in the past months, the campaign has registered more than 1,100 donors (the target was 1,000). Yet Simon didn’t mention her GoFundMe campaign in any of those forums. “I’m a little shy about it,” she admits. “When you start saying ‘and help us individually,’ it might dilute the more important message of potentially saving hundreds of lives.”
Instead, friends have been pushing Simon’s fundraising efforts, which, as of press time, have brought in $4,000 in checks, $12,000 via PayPal, and just over $7,000 on GoFundMe. (Simon says that many people have been turned off by the 5 percent charged by the site, a standard cut in the crowdfunding universe.) By late March, Simon and Weston’s savings had hit zero, and it was time to start using the crowdfunded cash. Despite all their efforts, Weston hadn’t found a perfect marrow match, but his half-brother is a half-match—much better than nothing. The couple was bracing for $90,000 in medical and living costs by the end of the year, including a move to Seattle for a transplant at the pioneering Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and an estimated $40,000 copay.
So Simon’s friends decided to intensify fundraising efforts the old-fashioned way: a brainstorming dinner of highly networked acquaintances, including San Francisco supervisor Jane Kim, at the Oakland home of California Bar Foundation executive director Sonia Gonzales. “We’re professionals, and a lot of us grew up poor, and we’re middle-class now,” Simon says. “But being pretty young, we don’t think that we need a big fat nest egg.” She updated the guests on her husband’s progress and asked for their help paying the bills.
“To really look your friends in the face and say, ‘I need your networks, and love, and compassion, and we need your money’—it’s harder face-to-face than online,” Simon says. It’s also harder to say no. By the end of the dinner, the group had pledged to raise $25,000—or $2,000 more than all their previous efforts combined. Some discussed holding a cocktail benefit, and others planned to hit the phones. If there’s one thing Simon has learned, it’s this: A funding site may be a useful tool to collect money, but nothing beats the efforts and support of an actual crowd.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of San Francisco.