Steven Petrow wrote a pretty interesting piece for USA Today that is definitely worth reading if you, like me, nerd out on crowdfunding ethics. Specifically, the fact that the success of a campaign can be directly related to the privilege of its owner.
Ethicists are generally circumspect about crowdsourcing for medical care, with good reason. Margaret Moon, MD, an ethicist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, bluntly warns, “crowd funding via social media can be … a sophisticated form of panhandling.” By that Moon means she doesn’t know if the money she donates to “a particularly compelling panhandler” will buy what he says he intends, or repay his own grad school loan. There’s no accountability when it comes to crowd sourcing.
While that may be true, some people might argue that your control over funds given to a panhandler ends the moment you release the money. Once you’ve given a panhandler a dollar, it is not up to you whether he spends that dollar on a bag of chips or a bag of cocaine. The exchange of money — one which is done freely, for nothing in return — is little more than a casual social contract. You hope that he’ll use the money for “good,” but giving him money does not contractually obligate him to do so.
Crowdfunding, however, is a bit trickier. Panhandling is generally considered unregulated and, in some areas, illegal. Therefore, you can’t complain if someone used your dollar to buy booze rather than food, as you technically broke the law in giving him a dollar in the first place.
With crowdfunding, there is a layer of security provided by the technology lacking in your typical panhandling transaction. You hopefully know the person’s name, history, location, and details on their exact needs. Campaign owners are not only required to be truthful per the crowdfunding platform’s terms and conditions, but by law as well.
NYU’s Caplan worries about a different issue: bias. For instance, many campaigns feature adorable kids allegedly in need. “Just because someone is cute and has a very emotionally engaging disease” doesn’t necessarily mean your dollars are better spent there than, say, funding a scientific non-profit that does research into that disease or one that helps many people in need, based on pre-determined criteria.
Being in animal rescue myself, I’ve seen this play out far too often. Many people will happily donate hundreds or even thousands of dollars to help an animal who has been hit by a car or born with severe defects, but ask them to fund spay surgeries and they are less interested. Fact remains: the more dramatic the story, the more likely people are to donate. That doesn’t mean either case is less worthy, it simply means that people give to causes that compel them to do so.
In the above example, the actual story of a small child whose face you can see in front of you on a GoFundMe campaign is certainly more compelling to many people than research which, while important, is more vague and less personal.
Moon also shares that concern, adding that crowd-funding for medical costs is “creating a new disparity in access to health care.” In other words, she says that those who are successful may be so because they tell a story well, and have access to technology and the skills to use it. “Many with the greatest need won’t be able to access crowd funding.”
This is an intriguing view, and one which I think gets easily overlooked when we talk about the most successful campaigns ever made on GoFundMe. Not only do the people behind those campaigns tend to have the communications skills to write such campaigns, they also tend to have stronger networks with which to share them.
Back to our panhandler example, if he is in need of medical care, he’s told to go to the emergency room or try and get seen at a low cost clinic. Have you ever been to one of those places? You wait and wait and wait for hours and maybe get seen; if you’re lucky, there’s low-to-no-cost insurance available to cover you. That’s if you get seen at all.
But your average high school educated individual with a computer and an internet connection can go to GoFundMe, write up a paragraph or two, attach a couple photos, and perhaps meet their goal in a matter of days.
What’s the solution to this disparity? I wish I knew. Crowdfunding platforms should better support their users with advice on writing compelling campaigns. Hell, an even better solution would be to live in a world where people don’t need to beg strangers on the internet for a few bucks just to access health care — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.