We’re sitting on this particular story right now as there is an open criminal investigation and we want the detective in that case to gather all his evidence before we blab about specifics. That said, I spoke to both sides involved and can give you a brief synopsis of the case for the purposes of this conversation, with a full report to follow.
Let’s get to it. So, a young man tragically passed away awhile back, and a friend of the family put up a GoFundMe campaign to cover his final burial expenses. The campaign was, for all intents and purposes, totally legitimate. The money poured in from people who knew the young man, all seemed well with the world, you know the drill. As it turns out, however, relatives of the young man came forward later and paid the burial expenses directly. Again, the campaign organizer had no way of seeing the future and as such, started the campaign with the best of intentions in the hopes that the grieving friends and family would get to bury their loved one.
At this point, the sensible thing to do would be to reimburse those relatives using the GoFundMe funds already raised toward the burial and leave it at that. Again, we can’t get too deep in the details but let’s just say that didn’t happen.
Thus began the infighting among the campaign organizer and survivors, all of whom seemed to have differing ideas on how the GoFundMe campaign money should be spent. This, as so often happens in cases like this that come across my desk, is when everything goes awry.
At some point along the way, the campaign is reported for fraud. As they do when they get such a report, GoFundMe reached out to the campaign organizer. It seems as though the campaign organizer explained things to GoFundMe; namely why she hadn’t handed over the funds raised for this young man’s burial, and how she now intended to use them for another purpose that would benefit his children instead. Then, something crazy happened. I can’t believe this is actually what GoFundMe is telling people but here it is directly from the email (names redacted to protect the innocent):
[Random GoFundMe dude] (GoFundMe Customer Happiness)
Hello [Campaign Owner],
Thank you for following up about this.
Because the purpose of your campaign’s donations has changed, we will need to inform your donors. This will ensure they understand how their contribution is being used and give them the opportunity to request refunds if they disagree.
At your earliest convenience, please post an update to your campaign explaining the following in as much detail as possible:
1. Why the purpose of your campaign has changed
2. How the donations will be used moving forward
3. If they disagree, donors can request refunds within seven days of the update by writing into our team at https://www.gofundme.com/contact.
You can post an update on a computer by following these instructions:
1. Sign in to your account at www.gofundme.com/sign-in
2. You will arrive at the update screen
3. Add your update message
4. Make sure to select the “Email” option, as displayed here: http://screencast.com/t/HKnrTPs9mTY
5. Hit “Post My Update”
Please note that because you have already withdrawn your donations, any potential refunds will be deducted from your bank account on file. Once you have posted the update, please reply to this email and I can further review your account.
GoFundMe Trust and Safety Team
So, even though countless people donated toward one cause — the young man’s burial — and now that cause has been changed to something different after it turns out the burial was covered, GoFundMe is telling the campaign organizer not to close the campaign to further donations, nor to contact donors directly to offer a refund, but to keep the campaign up, change it to whatever the hell she wants, and then shoot out some form email to those who donated? Is this real life? We’re unsure if that email even went out, we do know at least one of the original donors requested a refund.
Our opinion has long been that GoFundMe shouldn’t allow campaign organizers to change the intent of their campaigns at all. Once a campaign for, say, putting my cat through college is up, then it stays that. If, say, I decide I need a new TV and screw my cat’s college dreams, I shouldn’t be able to change my cat college fund to something totally different like a new TV since the previous donors were funding feline education, not a TV. GoFundMe, however, seems to feel as though this is totally cool, so long as the campaign organizer slaps up a sentence about the new intent.
Here’s the issue I see with that, and it is a big one. Using the example above, let’s say people donate $10,000 toward my cat’s college fund (woo hoo, Cash, you’re finally gonna get that underwater basket weaving degree you always wanted!). Then I decide you know what, fuck it, I want a new TV. I go into my GoFundMe account, erase all record of ever asking to send my cat to college, and replace it with a plea for a TV. I may not get any new donors but hey, I’ve already got $10,000 (sorry, Cash, you’re going to stay uneducated) so who cares.
The intent has changed. Technically, I can now blow that $10,000 on a new TV and say well look, I was TOLD to change it by GoFundMe and gave you idiots the chance to request a refund. Here’s the problem: all those people who gave $10,000 did so for my cat’s college fund, not so I can hook up a fancy new TV.
The GoFundMe “Trust and Safety” team is basically telling people to go ahead and change course mid-campaign after money has already been raised for one particular cause. “Hey I know you donated to bury my dead grandma but FYI I’m getting breast implants instead k thx!” Feels like one big CYA to me, but what do I know?
I can’t be the only one who sees how ridiculous this is. Perhaps it’s time to get some judicious legislator to consider implementing Dodd Frank for personal crowdfunding. Or something. Hell, my uneducated cat might have some suggestions, too. Whatever this is, it isn’t working.