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A new age of giving with crowdfunding

Istock photos; globe staff digital illustration

By now, you’ve likely seen enough hoverboard prototypes, $55,000 potato salad parties, and Amanda Palmer content bubbling up in your Facebook feed to know that Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites are here to stay.

What started as a clever way for artists, entrepreneurs, and creators to pass a hat around their virtual social circles has quickly asserted itself as a revolutionary tool, a pan-industrial standard for getting ideas off the ground and products to market. In the past few years, we’ve seen the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, the Pebble E-Paper Watch, a new Veronica Mars movie, and Neil Young’s high-resolution music service Pono all chipped into existence (or near-existence — the Pono player arrives in 2015) by mobs of donors.


In 2013 alone, crowdfunding campaigns raised $5.1 billion, up from $2.7 billion from the last year. And while 17 percent of that money went to startups and entrepreneurial projects, and nearly 20 percent went to various artistic projects, the greatest percentage of those donations (3o percent) went to social causes, with the mysterious “other” coming closely behind.

While services like Kickstarter and Patreon are open exclusively to creative projects, and other crowdfunding services like Teespring go further by restraining themselves to a single type of product (custom T-shirts), the expanding frontier of crowdfunding sites is increasingly the province of more socially conscious categories. Sites like Crowdrise, Causes, and FirstGiving have opened new fund-raising space for established nonprofits and charities, but that “other” category likely represents the fastest growing sect of the crowdfunding community: individuals in need.

These personal crowdfunding campaigns – themselves crowding sites like YouCaring, GiveForward, and most notably GoFundMe, which has raised of $560 million toward causes ranging from medical bills, to house-fire recoveries, to last-ditch attempts to avert bankruptcy — have been helped along by a particularly trendy pandemic of catchy public altruism that caused displays like 55 Heav’nly Donuts customers in Amesbury treating the next person in line.


But they also reveal two oft-unacknowledged realities. A lot of us are more generous than we think (a possible side effect of these online outlets); and just as many are mere inches from the brink.

GoFundMe’s grid of personal fund-raising campaigns is stacked thousands of pages deep, and while every story is different – you can help an ex-wrestler on dialysis with no car or heat, or assist a Marine and his family who lost everything to a house fire, or save a family of five from eviction, or reward a Boston homeless man who returned a backpack that he found containing $40,000 — many seem crushed beneath the same burden.

The helpscape offers a reflection of current events (some quite specific, as with one campaign to restore laptops to a writers workshop that was robbed at gunpoint in a New York City cafe last week), as well as a virtual cross-section of need. With its crowd of open hands, GoFundMe can feel like an indictment of systemic failures (health care costs, mortgage crises, unemployment), and, more optimistically, an opportunity for millions to take direct corrective action.


But the politics on display across the crowdfunding community aren’t always so passive. These campaigns can as easily be used in service of raw racism (as with one campaign to install a “#PantsUpDon’tLoot” billboard in Ferguson, Mo.), as for wry activism (as with Yaya M.’s campaign to acquire the monetary equivalent of white privilege, which she ballparks at about $135,000 – so far, 335 donors have gotten her about 5 percent of the way there).

And the culture is further corroded by gluts of vain, frivolous, and otherwise questionable campaigns. Take one Oregon man’s Thanksgiving wish to prepare a turducken stuffed in a pig stuffed in an alligator wrapped in candied bacon. Or one from an Australian pole dancer to fund an endurance routine. Or the chess grandmaster, loathe to abandon his grandmastery. Or the Bette Midler fan who doesn’t have $1,250 for tickets to a Midler meet-and-greet.

In my own social bubble, one couple appeared to have posted dueling campaigns, one for moving expenses (seems reasonable) and another for gym memberships and fitness supplements (oh no you didn’t). The ferocity of the shaming (which eventually found its way onto Reddit) was savage, righteous, and mutable, morphing from a wrist-slapping “some people!” admonishment into something more assertive and gross: an equation of need with failure, a conflation of lack and laziness, and a distaste for sharing much beyond a lengthy opinion (which is usually priceless to one and worthless to the rest).


While few would be caught shaming those who turn to virtual support systems in times of dire need, the notion of asking for help remains polarizing. On one end is a faction who believes crowdfunding runs afoul of the good, old-fashioned grease, grit, and effort that, I don’t know, builds character or something. (See: “WorkHarder,” a satirical “non-funding” platform launched by “Daily Show” writer Jena Friedman to benefit Doctors Without Borders.) On the other end is Amanda Palmer, the $1.2 million Kickstarter beneficiary who wrote the book (and talked the TED-talk) on acceptance of help being an art in itself.

It’s important that now, as a new way of giving takes shape, we don’t let the algorithms of our own attention make us cold to the sight of need, even as it becomes so much more of what we see. And as the mixed messages of the holidays rise in volume, here’s hoping that the season of giving stands a chance against the age of asking.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.