501(c)(me): The rise of personal fundraising

What would you do if this came across your dash:


i am so so bad at asking for money this is horrible i wasnt raised to do this

basically okay here’s my current situation. our lease is up in june and we’re going to be moving out to a house closer to town somewhere around the end of may, two months from now. when we do move each of us (and there are four of us) has to pay security deposit (basically 400 bucks), $50-100 for fees, and rent for the first two months. so I need at least $1300 in two months.

my new job pays bimonthly paychecks, so in a month I will have about $1600 from that plus small cash from my old job (that I’m still working at). problem is, I still have to pay two months worth of rent ($600) and pay for food and pay application fees for college and save up enough to pay for tuition this fall which is going to be something like $1500

I went to apply for FAFSA but even though I don’t live with my parents they’re classifying me as a dependent and since my parents make well into middle class range it won’t cover the rest of my tuition

please. if you can donate anything at all the button is on my blog and i will promo you or draw you anything you want or sell you nudes put what you want in the notes section

like i’m desperate here i cannot move back in with my abusive mother im terrified i might not make it back out if i go back into that mess please help me (but if you can’t that’s fine you’re an angel for reading this and your hair looks v nice today)

here’s my situation at the moment, guys. you are in no way obligated to help me but if you could that would be so wonderful

Would you donate? Would you click through to her blog to see more of her story? How did reading that make you feel? Did you feel any different from when you last got hit-up for money by a nonprofit or candidate?

I’ve seen more and more personal fundraising online recently, and have given at least 3 times this year. Though approaches like this may look like online fundraising, to me they feel a lot closer to spotting a friend for groceries when she’s running low. They feel like they serve a community-stablizing function.

One of the parts of my job that I don’t talk about a lot here is online fundraising. I’m responsible for bringing in about half-a-million dollars through online giving per year. The way Americans give, that means about a quarter-a-million in the first 46 weeks of the year and a quarter-a-million in the last 6 weeks of the year. There are books and conferences and mailing lists and magazine articles and blogs all devoted to the exercise of getting people to give online. That’s not what this is about; this is something new.

I mention the “the way Americans give” because that end-of-year hockey-stick is caused by the intersection of 2 things:

  1. Holiday feelings of goodwill towards our fellow humans, and
  2. Avaricious hopes to get a tax break in April

Donations that are tax-deductible are those to organizations given nonprofit status by the U.S. government through section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Other actions that feel like donations–like giving to a political candidate–are covered by other designations, like 501(c)(4), which includes campaigns and Super PACs.

For a long time, those were the binary worlds of online giving–either to a candidate or an organization that supports candidates, or to a nonprofit.

But more and more, a different type of online fundraising is gaining ground and mindshare. It provides no tax benefit, and the IRS has no role in regulating what I gave.

This rising type is personal fundraising, like this campaign I gave to a few minutes ago to help a father who is a friend of a friend get back on his feet. I’ve also given to help a bisexual young woman pay for round-trip gas to return to her abusive mother’s home briefly to retrieve her cats and then get away again, and a trans* woman in England to pay for a night at the hotel between her abusive family and a good friend’s place across the country.

I never got a thank you email, and 2/3 of these I gave straight to someone’s PayPal account. I face the possibility that I got scammed. The value of all of the structures around formal nonprofits–like Charity Navigator ratings, 501(c)(3) or (4) status, Form 990s, Annual Reports, media inquiries into candidates’ spending, and open social media channels where donors can ask about their gifts–is they help ensure that my money goes to where I intended it to. But we’re not talking high-dollar amounts here, and the blogs and online presences of the people I’ve sent small amounts of money to are much richer and more consistent than would be worth the time of a huckster.

My method of verification is more simple, more basic than those we regularly apply to nonprofits. I rely on social ties. The first campaign I mentioned I saw because a friend posted about her friend’s need for a job on Facebook. I trust her, and if she says family behind the campaign is trustworthy, then I believe her. For the other campaigns, I relied on a more complex, but no less effective means of verification.

Both women I gave to support thrive in the same online spaces I do, often relating to a fandom. Both run public blogs with long paper-trails supporting their claims of abuse, of moving away, of needing support. Neither had been called out as a scammer, which is something that happens loudly and often on Tumblr (delightfully,  anti-scammers sometimes turn their efforts fundraising campaigns for nonprofits). I relied on social ties, rather than government-mandated reporting, to ensure my gifts would help someone.

These campaigns rely on those social ties, but also the megaphone-on-crack which are co-supportive online communities. When urulokid posted about her situation, she first did it to her blog, which not unpopular, but not huge. Then she retumbled it to a blog she curates, which at the time had over 25,000 followers and posts regularly sparking hundreds of interactions.

That blog? Texts from the Avengers. (It’s wonderful, really, check it out. Be warned though, the source texts are from that standard of internet time-wasting, circa 2009, Texts from Last Night)

The conceit is the author/submitters take text messages submitted to a website known for funny, often inebriated, texts, and pairs them with superhero-happenings. Most of the posts are delightful, like this one:

Or funny-like-hitting-a-funny-bone-is-funny-ie-not-at-all-funny, like this one:

That’s what Texts from the Avengers is like, all moderated by urulokid. But sometimes conversations on her personal blog bled over into the more common space. Here is where Tumblr, like many other co-supportive online spaces, thrives. People who’d survived abusive situations gave advice on FAFSA applications; people gave hugs. A month earlier, she’d promoted a similar fundraiser for a friend in Argentina to the Texts from the Avengers community, trying to help her escape an abusive home situation. urulokid celebrated when her community wrote fanfiction based on her photos, and she ran her blog like a good moderator.

In the 20th century, she could have gone 3 routes. 1, and a heartbreakingly common 1 it is, she would have been forced to move back in with her abusive mother, because there has rarely if ever in human history been a time when resources available for abuse survivors match their needs. 2, she could have asked friends for money and relied on her geographically-limited social capital. 3, she could have gone to a nonprofit that might have a grant from a foundation to provide limited emergency housing assistance and tried to make it work from there.

Instead, she raised $1,800, money, direct to her account, in a few days. Contributing to this kind of campaign feels beyond good–it feels like, through the cost of a few meals out or an Uber ride home, you just helped someone move the arc of the moral universe just a fraction closer to a just world.

The question of being scammed or afraid of money being misused has even longer teeth in giving situations like this because these gifts and these fundraisers rely on personal ties, violations of those ties cut inside our armor. I follow the people I’ve given to on social media, so I regular get a feeling for where they are in their lives, but for this post I wanted to do something more proactive. I followed up with urulokid a few minutes ago when getting permission to tell her story in this post. Answering whether the campaign helped her meet her goals, she said:

“yes, they did definitely help. raised over 1800 dollars in donations which allowed me to stay another few months where i was”

I’m not saying stop giving to your local shelter–men, women, trans* folks, kids, adults, there are a lot of people who need structural help. If your risk comfort is low, you may like giving to someplace whose tax forms you can read on their website. But if you see a post like this roll across your dash, you’re seeing a chance to make a person-to-person commitment to a better world. Pretty cool stuff.

Inspirational Quote:

“This linking together in turn lets us tap our cognitive surplus, the trillion hours a year of free time the educated population of the planet has to spend doing things they care about. In the 20th century, the bulk of that time was spent watching television, but our cognitive surplus is so enormous that diverting even a tiny fraction of time from consumption to participation can create enormous positive effects.” ― Clay Shirky


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