April 1, 2023

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Finding financial help on the internet didn’t work very well in a pandemic.

This was one of the disheartening conclusions of a new scientific research paper that examined efforts on the GoFundMe fundraising website to raise money for health bills, groceries, funeral expenses, and other needs that arose from the coronavirus crisis.

Of nearly 165,000 pandemic-related campaigns in the U.S. from March to August last year, more than four in ten received no donations at all, the researchers found. The typical charity drive raised only $ 65. And the most successful GoFundMe coronavirus aid campaigns appeared to be people in wealthier communities who were most likely in need of the least amount of help.

Overall, charitable donations in the United States increased during the pandemic, and GoFundMe campaigns raised more than $ 416 million for pandemic relief, the researchers found. Still, there was a clear gap between the prevalence of GoFundMe requests for help and the number of people who weren’t getting much.

The study found that in a country with high wealth inequality, digital means of fundraising can mirror and in some cases widen the gap between winners and losers in the real world. In short, online charities don’t fill the social safety net gaps evenly or consistently.

“There is a long history of social crisis for those who most need help to get it,” said Nora Kenworthy, co-author and associate professor at the University of Washington’s Bothell School of Nursing and Health Studies. “I am concerned that this appears to be the pattern and that it is adding to further inequalities.”

Kenworthy and Mark Igra, another co-author of the article and a sociology student at the University of Washington, gave me some explanations for why many online fundraisers haven’t raised much, if any, money.

The people who needed help the most last year may have had family, friends, and neighbors who were in a similar situation and couldn’t donate much. Some people who run fundraisers likely didn’t have extensive social connections that would make a huge difference in how fundraising requests were spread on Facebook. (GoFundMe released its own analysis of fundraising related to a pandemic last year. Based on various data, it found that coronavirus relief campaigns raised approximately $ 625 million from March to August 2020.)

But Igra and Kenworthy also said there were deeper problems with both technology and America.

They said they fear the proliferation of mass online charities could divert attention and funding from traditional charities, or reduce people’s interest in tackling the causes of why so many people turn to online donation. GoFundMe’s CEO also said the company shouldn’t be a substitute for effective social services.

I asked Igra and Kenworthy what we and companies like GoFundMe should be doing to ensure people in need are more likely to get donations. And if we should think twice before donating to GoFundMe campaigns.

They said GoFundMe and sites like Facebook could be more transparent about which campaigns are getting the most attention online and why. They also said we all need to consider the wisdom of a for-profit company like GoFundMe, which has a bigger role to play in making charitable giving. Some previous research and reports also suggested that GoFundMe campaigns tended to be more successful in more affluent parts of the United States.

The researchers also paid great attention to spreading the help we can give. For example, Kenworthy suggested that if you donate to a crowdfunding campaign for a financially stable friend who is being treated for cancer, you could also donate to an organization that supports lower-income cancer patients.

Most importantly, Igra and Kenworthy don’t want mass charity websites to distract us from the big picture: It’s a problem that so many Americans have to resort to internet donation to meet basic needs like food, shelter, and medical care.

“Don’t stop giving to individuals when there are systemic problems, but try to think a little broader about trying to address the broader problem, not just the individual,” Igra said.