Much has been said about the power of social media to bring attention to global crises, but raising money for big organizations and fighting climate change is not the end-all be-all of charity. Every year, millions of people go through personal tragedies - they face terminal illnesses, lose jobs and family members. While their causes aren’t particularly ‘sexy’, they are no less important. Thankfully, social media helps people break through the noise and get the help they need.
A brief history of crowdfunding
The internet opened up new avenues for human collaboration. It is a collaborative platform in and of itself. It helps push software forward, create new cultural phenomena and re-evaluate our common past. Financial collaboration is no different. The first platform for digital crowdfunding appeared soon after the dotcom boom - in 2001. The website, known as ArtistShare, was meant to help finance musical recordings on the niche and obscure side of the spectrum. The experiment proved successful, with 30 Grammy nominations and 10 wins under the collective belt of its graduates.
In the late 00s, the same model that made ArtistShare a success was modified to fit startup financing. First IndieGoGo, then Kickstarter entered the scene - and soon became forces to be reckoned with. While ArtistShare proved that institutional support is not necessarily a mark of good, award-worthy music, Kickstarter proved that the world of venture capital can underestimate products and services that people actually want to use. A number of products used Kickstarter to raise huge sums of money - millions and millions of dollars - without the backing of industry leaders and big-name investors.
GoFundMe and peer-to-peer giving
When people got used to the idea of trusting internet strangers with their money, a new breed of crowdfunding websites appeared — ones that raised funds for people instead of brands. GoFundMe is probably the best-known personal crowdfunding website. It was founded in 2008 as 'CreateAFund', and assumed its current form in 2010. It allows users to create a Kickstarter-like campaign, but, unlike Kickstarter, you don’t have to be selling a product. Instead, you can just ask strangers for money. The website processes the payments and takes a 5% cut.
As safety nets designed to keep people out of poverty and sickness disappear, services like GoFundMe become vital. Millennials are facing economic hurdles the likes of which the previous generations have not seen. They work more hours, but earn less and pay higher rent. College-educated young people have to deal with massive student debt, despite having fewer career opportunities than their parents at the same age. Living from paycheck to paycheck means that a single emergency can have disastrous consequences. That’s why they need to have an outlet like GoFundMe to keep them going in times of crisis. And, thankfully, their peers understand this plight. Charitable donations in the US are at an all-time high. During GoFundMe’s first decade of operation, its users raised a total of more than $5 billion. But it is not the only game in town.
People with different needs use different financial services to get that important extra bit of cash. Peer-to-peer payment apps, such as Venmo and CashApp, are used as online ‘tipping jars’. Nano-influencers, that is to say, regular social media users, often ask their audience for financial aid if they are having a trouble getting by. Venmo and CashApp make it easy to donate a small amount to your friends and followers. Bigger content creators use Ko-Fi — which serves the same function, but comes across as more professional. The idea behind this particular product is that many content creators ask for nothing in return. To show you appreciation for this free work, you can buy them a cup of coffee - or, rather, donate a latte’s worth of money. 'Tipping' apps have the advantage of not displaying a set funding goal. They embody the idea that every penny counts, so people aren’t ashamed to donate smaller sums of money.
Saving lives on social media
While the aforementioned platforms do most of the payment processing, the real work of getting strangers to part with their money is done on social media.
The most tragic and outrageous personal stories are going viral, connecting the person in need to users far beyond their immediate network. A great example is the story of Zohar and Gabi Ilinetsky - a couple whose newborn twins were diagnosed with Canavan disease. This rare illness is hard to detect early. The newborn children who suffer from this affliction typically look normal, as their brains are yet to develop. However, they lack a crucial enzyme necessary for the healthy development of white matter. At the age of a few weeks, they start getting seizures, lose the ability to hold their head up. Their intellectual development stops before they develop speech, and they rarely live to see their 10th birthday.
Zohar and Gabi couldn’t give up on their kids - but the price of treatment was out of their reach. So they turned to the internet. In December 2018, they created a viral GoFundMe campaign, and procured more than a quarter of a million dollars to get their kids’ treatments started.
Health emergencies aren’t the only use for personal crowdfunding. A good example of this is the recent story of 'Target Tori', a store manager from Massachusetts. A customer repeatedly harassed her - first in-person, and then online, for not selling an expensive item at an erroneously printed cheaper price.
When the story circled the internet, someone created a GoFundMe campaign to help the innocent store clerk quit this job for good and ‘go on vacation’. Kind strangers got together to raise more than 34 thousand dollars for Tori — even though she refused to spend it on herself. When the campaign is over, Tori plans on donating the money to a charity.
We at MNFST believe that social media created a world that amplifies marginalised voices, and brings much-needed attention to grave injustices. This is as good an indication as any of the power of nano-influencers: they are the army behind the good that’s being done online. Not the celebrities that splurge a bit of cash on a charity case that makes them look better, but the regular people who donate a few bucks at a time — to collectively amass thousands and even millions. That’s why we allow our influencers to donate money to charity straight from their account, and encourage brands to take part in this revolution. Because when we fight injustice together, we make the world a better place.
Misha Sokolov is the co-founder of MNFST