By Shira Ovide
Online charity drives help some in need, but don’t expect them to fill the gaps in the social safety net.
Turning to the internet for financial help didn’t work very well in a pandemic.
That was among the discouraging conclusions of a new academic research paper that examined efforts on the fund-raising website GoFundMe to collect money for health care bills, groceries, funeral costs and other needs that resulted from the coronavirus crisis.
Out of nearly 165,000 pandemic-related campaigns in the United States from March to August last year, more than four in 10 received no donations at all, the researchers found. The typical charity drive collected just $65. And the most successful GoFundMe campaigns for coronavirus assistance seemed to be for people in wealthier communities who most likely needed the least help.
Overall, charitable giving in the United States increased during the pandemic, and GoFundMe campaigns raised more than $416 million for pandemic assistance, the researchers found. Still, it was stark to see the gap between the prevalence of GoFundMe requests for help and the numbers of people who didn’t get very much.
The research found that in a country with high wealth inequality, digital fund-raising tools reflect and, in some cases, may worsen the real-world gulf between winners and losers. In short, online charity drives don’t equitably or consistently fill the gaps in the social safety net.
“There is a long history in social crises for people who need the help the most being last in line to get it,” said Nora Kenworthy, one of the paper’s authors and an associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell School of Nursing and Health Studies. “I’m troubled that this seems to be the pattern here and contributing to further inequities.”
Kenworthy and Mark Igra, another co-author of the paper and a University of Washington graduate student in sociology, talked me through some explanations for why many online donation campaigns failed to raise much, if any, money.
The people who needed the most help last year might have had family, friends and neighbors who were in similar circumstances and weren’t able to donate much. Some people who set up fund-raisers likely didn’t have sprawling social connections that make a big difference in spreading donation requests on Facebook. (GoFundMe last year released its own analysis of pandemic-related fund-raisers. Using different data, it found that coronavirus assistance campaigns raised about $625 million from March through August 2020.)
But Igra and Kenworthy also said there were deeper issues about both technology and America.
They said that they worried that the prevalence of mass online charity drives might divert attention and funding from traditional charities, or reduce people’s interest in addressing the root causes behind why so many people needed to turn to online donations. GoFundMe’s chief executive has also said that the company shouldn’t be a substitute for effective social services.
I asked Igra and Kenworthy what we and companies like GoFundMe should do to make sure that people in need are more likely to receive donations. And if we should think twice before we donate to GoFundMe campaigns.
They said that GoFundMe and websites like Facebook could be more transparent about what campaigns get the most attention online and why. They also said that we all needed to consider the wisdom of a for-profit company like GoFundMe playing a larger role in charitable giving. Some prior research and reporting also suggested that GoFundMe campaigns in wealthier parts of the United States tended to be more successful.
The researchers also made a fair point about spreading the help we can give. Kenworthy suggested, for example, that if you’re donating to a crowdfunding campaign for a financially stable friend who is being treated for cancer, you could also give to an organization that assists lower-income cancer patients.
Most of all, Igra and Kenworthy don’t want mass charity websites to blind us from the big picture: It’s a problem that so many Americans have to resort to internet donations to meet basic needs like food, housing and medical attention.
“Don’t stop giving to individuals when there are systemic problems but make an effort to think a little more broadly about trying to address the broader issue, not just the individual one,” Igra said.