Did the Johnny Bobbitt scam ruin it for everyone? The GoFundMe feel-good story of the year -- when the homeless vet’s aid to a young woman prompted her and her boyfriend to start a campaign to help him out -- ended in tears, $400,000 later, after the account was revealed as a lie.
The shame of that saga is how it may have curdled not only the enthusiasm for the donation website, but also for giving in general.
We hope that’s not the case. This is the season of giving, and despite our technological and economic progress, the needs have never seemed greater – especially in Philadelphia, where, perhaps not surprisingly, the Bobbitt story originated.
In the beginning, the story was a testimonial to the power of the social platform designed for donations. When GoFundMe launched in 2010 to raise money on behalf of people who had a compelling story and need, its viral popularity showed there was more than one way to think about charity and donations.
By generating $5 billion in donations between 2010 and 2017, GoFundMe also showed how generous people were.
It also might have inadvertently showed us a country that is failing its people in fundamental ways. Medical bills, education, and disaster relief are the three largest categories on the site. (If you believe the link between climate change and the increasing frequency of natural disasters, you could interpret those three categories as failures we’ve brought upon ourselves.)
GoFundMe also shows us a country that likes things easy. It provides a frictionless platform where people can easily donate to a cause and feel good about giving, often without doing much homework about the cause itself or the actual impact of their donation. GoFundMe has also shown itself to be a genius business idea; it makes 7.9 cents from every dollar raised (5 percent plus a 2.9 percent payment processing fee) – a formula that has made its founders rich.
As big as it is, the site is only a small fraction of overall giving. According to researchers at GivingUSA, a project at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy that researches charitable giving, last year giving rose 5.2 percent to a staggering $410 billion. Between 2007 and 2017, charitable giving increased by $98 billion (in current dollars). The largest share of that pie goes to religions, with education, human services, and foundation gifts the next largest categories. This increase in generosity is good, as long as caution and common sense increase, too.
Maybe the best reminder from the Bobbitt story is that GoFundMe is a good tool to have in the tool kit, but there are many other ways to do good and have impact ... and many of those opportunities are not far from our own front doors. Giving to traditional – and local — nonprofits has the expectation of oversight and accountability (to say nothing of the possibility of a tax deduction ). It’s a chance to ask what you want to accomplish with your donations and recognize that the more time you put in – to researching causes and organizations, or volunteering time — the higher the impact your gift is likely to have. And that’s a good thing.