If you’re looking for a Rorschach test to reveal how you view the millennial generation, check out the crowdfunding site GoFundMe — or, more specifically, the appeal it featured earlier this year from Bec Gronski of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
Describing herself as “a spiritual teacher, life coach, reiki and crystal healer, artist, YouTuber, traveler and writer,” the 25-year-old Gronski solicited donations to support her dream of traveling the world and sharing her healing gifts. Her fund-raising goal? $10,000.
If you’re inclined to see millennials as plucky, entrepreneurial, and open to the world, you might react the way Karl Toomey did, and pony up $5 while posting this encouraging note: “Fair play and Namaste to you, Bec. Traveling really helped me discover my inner creativity.” (You probably won’t even be taken aback by Toomey’s closing line, in which he reveals how traveling also helped him deal with irritable bowel syndrome.)
If, however, you’re inclined to see millennials as lazy, entitled, and addicted to oversharing, you’ll likely gravitate more toward the reaction of Colleen Madden. “You might try getting a job,” Madden advised Gronski in her post. “Here’s $5 so you can print your resume at Kinko’s.”
GoFundMe, launched in 2010 by Massachusetts native and Emerson College graduate Brad Damphousse, managed to outpace its online crowdfunding rivals in part by being less restrictive. While CrowdRise is geared toward charitable causes and Kickstarter is meant for creative projects, GoFundMe lets people go online and solicit dough from the public for just about anything, from covering family medical bills for an infant with cancer to financing a globe-trotting trip like Bec Gronski’s. And while the artists who launch Kickstarter campaigns do not get to keep a single donation if they fail to reach their overall goal, GoFundMe lets people hang on to every dollar they raise — minus, of course, the 8 percent the site collects in fees and processing costs.
The formula has been ridiculously successful. To date, GoFundMe campaigns have raised more than $3 billion, drawing on the generosity of more than 25 million donors, who skew young. A study released last year by the Pew Research Center found that 30 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 had contributed to a crowdfunding website while only 8 percent of those 65 and older had.
Two years ago, Damphousse and his cofounder sold controlling interest in GoFundMe, by then already valued at more than $600 million. In January, the company bought out rival CrowdRise, which had been cofounded by actor Edward Norton.
At 35, Damphousse is part of the oldest cohort of the millennial generation, whose overall membership now ranges in age from about 20 to 36 (though definitions differ). And the site he created embodies most of the attributes that make millennials stand out: their community-mindedness, their ability to harness technology for good, their preference for experiences over possessions, and the fact that they don’t just have chutzpah, but chutzpah on stilts.
Yet in the myriad fund-raising campaigns launched by young people on GoFundMe, older generations can find evidence of just about every millennial excess that drives them batty: their impatience, their self-involvement, and their stunning lack of self-awareness, which, of course, also prevents them from recognizing their own impatience and self-involvement.
For boomers and Gen Xers, the link between work and money is obvious and uncontested. That’s why many of them are appalled by the idea that young, able-bodied millennials would sit at Starbucks, sipping overpriced Mocha Macchiatos, and post online appeals asking others to fund their dreams — rather than, you know, working behind the counter at Starbucks and saving up enough to make that dream come true on their own. You can hear the grumble even before it tumbles from their lips: “Whatever happened to pride? GoFundMe? GoFundYourself!”
BEC GRONSKI DIDN’T THINK MUCH ABOUT IT before she posted her GoFundMe appeal in the middle of February. And for a while after it went live, neither did many other people.
Born and raised in New Hampshire, Gronski had lived in Australia for one life-changing year. By February, after she’d been back home for about four months, she was feeling desperate to go down under again — seeing it as an eventual launchpad for more travel. She was also broke.
How she had made it to Australia in the first place was a bit of a wonder. She’d grown up home-schooled in a strict Christian household. But after her parents divorced when she was 18, she no longer saw her religion as “the truth,” but rather as a set of chains, which she eagerly threw off. She skipped college and became a self-taught searcher, aggressively open to new forms of spiritualism and a more fluid identity. “I’m very much into quantum physics,” she tells me. “I also believe in elves and fairies. Everything is yummy and good.”
She got hooked on a spiritualism YouTube channel hosted by a young, handsome Aussie with blue eyes, flat abs, and blond dreadlocks, and they corresponded for a few months. “I think you’re awesome,” she messaged him one day. He messaged back: “I think you’re awesome. Come live with me.” She sold most of her stuff and put every buck she had into buying a ticket. Before she knew it, she had landed in Sydney. “I moved in with him that day.” Her visa ran out after one year, and that romance had expired even sooner. But after joining a drumming circle, making a close-knit group of friends, and finding a new boyfriend, she knew that even though she had to leave, it wouldn’t be long before she returned. “Australia is definitely where my soul needs to be.”
For two years before that overseas adventure, Gronski says, she had juggled several part-time jobs, working up to 60 hours a week. She loved one of her retail jobs, at a funky clothing and henna shop in Wolfeboro, and would even go in on her days off. But because she returned to New Hampshire from Australia in the fall, after all the summer tourists had left town, there wasn’t much hiring going on. Even if her former employer at a different Wolfeboro store had been hiring, she had vowed never to return to that job because she’d found it to be spirit-crushing. “There’s this myth that millennials don’t want to work,” she says. “It’s not that we don’t love working. It’s that we don’t like working at jobs where we feel like crap.”
Living with a friend in New Hampshire, Gronski couldn’t stop dreaming about getting back to Australia when, in reality, she couldn’t afford groceries. She was doing a mix of reiki healing, tarot readings, selling clothing and jewelry she had designed, and assisting another energy healer in town with social media. But business was slow across the board. That’s what led her to GoFundMe.
Gronski is an active poster of those types of chatty videos that start with “Hey, guys” and are all over YouTube. (She says that in the last couple of years she’s made a total of about $80 in ad revenue from her YouTube channel, Soul Journey.) But when she created her GoFundMe page, she hadn’t yet recorded an accompanying video explaining the rationale behind her dream-travel appeal. She figured she would get around to that.
She set $10,000 as the fund-raising target for her “spiritual journey” more as an aspirational goal than a realistic one, Gronski says. “Kinda like when a person who is starting out a business goes ‘I’m going to write a million-dollar check to myself,’ and then hangs it on the wall.” (Skeptics: Rest assured that your reflexive objection to Gronski’s comparison of her GoFundMe solicitation with a merchant opening an actual business will be noted in the minutes.)
The early reaction on GoFundMe was positive but sparse — a few donations of $5 to $15, with encouraging messages like “I believe in you” and “Happy Traveling!”
One week after Gronski had posted her appeal, a reporter for the British news website the Independent stumbled onto her GoFundMe page and wrote about it. When that piece went viral, it unleashed a torrent of reaction, most of it negative.
The comments struck a similar theme. “What physical condition . . . do you have that stops you from working but doesn’t stop you from traveling?” Or: “If your crystal healing, reiki career isn’t paying the bills, try getting a real job and saving your money like the rest of us.” Or: “I’ve worked at a job I barely tolerate for 20 years and have never been able to travel around the world. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? This comment cost me 5 dollars, please donate to reimburse me for it.” That guy then created a GoFundMe page seeking the $5 in restitution. (He recouped that and more.)
This brings us to one of the most interesting dimensions to the contempt that certain GoFundMe campaigns trigger. When the comments feature is turned off, people have to make a minimum donation for the privilege of posting biting reactions on a GoFundMe page.
As Gronski tried to withstand the drubbing she was taking from the Internet community, she felt conflicted. One guy donated $5 so he could comment, but for some reason his post didn’t appear, she says. “So he donated another $5, just so he could hate on me.” She struggled to make sense of it all. “I made over $1,000 in one week — most of it on hate.”
She started getting messages from her friends in Australia, letting her know she had made the news there.
More irony for Gronski: The most successful of her GoFundMe critics turned out to be from her beloved Australia. Stu Hill of Melbourne made a $5 donation on her page so he could promote his own GoFundMe campaign, writing: “Let me help Bec on her Spiritual Journey. I will follow along with a megaphone offering moral/spiritual support. NAMASTE!”
When I catch up with Hill via e-mail, he tells me he initially thought Gronski’s appeal might be a spoof. “I still hold out hope that, on some level, it is satire.”
Hill injected some satire into his Gronski- inspired GoFundMe campaign. “In Australian culture, it’s quite common to do what we call ‘taking the piss out of people,’ ” he explains, describing it as good-natured mockery “to highlight how ridiculous someone’s behavior is — and hopefully make them reconsider what they’re doing.”
Hill is also a millennial, though at 33, he’s on the older end of the generation. I like to think of this group as the “gray millennials.” (I don’t think that’s an actual term yet, but I’m betting it won’t be long before it is.) Hill cautions that there is entitlement in every generation. “But, pound for pound, I’d say millennials as a whole are a little more likely to pull these stunts,” he says. “Shame isn’t much of a deterrent in the age of reality TV and YouTube superstars.”
Hill didn’t expect to get much traction from his GoFundMe parody. But he ended up attracting lots of Internet applause, and he even made a cool $350. “It’s probably the most impactful five minutes of work I’ve ever done,” he quips.
This puzzles Gronski even more. “That guy makes more than three hundred bucks,” she says, “but somehow I’m the terrible person?” Then again, her final haul of more than $1,200 was 3½ times the size of his. Besides, she picked up a couple hundred new followers on YouTube and Instagram, as well as plenty of free material she will be able to work into the classes she plans to teach on self-love.
THERE ARE PLENTY OF GoFundMe campaigns that are not the least bit controversial. An appeal to rebuild the home of an Oklahoma tornado victim raised more than $73,000. A campaign inspired by a 5-year-old girl to fund research into a rapidly degenerative disease often described as childhood Alzheimer’s ended up raising more than $2 million.
The GoFundMe appeal that sticks with me the most appeared in 2013, after the heartwarming story of Glen James (the “Boston Homeless Man”) went viral. Quick refresher: James was the fiftysomething man who, while walking around a Dorchester shopping plaza, found a backpack containing $42,000 in cash and travelers checks. Even though he had no money and was spending nights in a shelter, James acted with textbook morality, doing the right thing when no one else was looking. He turned it in to police.
Alas, the owner of the backpack, a foreign student, responded less admirably by failing to offer James any kind of reward. Nonetheless, the wisdom of the crowd stepped in to make things right. Putting in motion this communal karma was a millennial by the name of Ethan Whittington.
After Whittington, a marketing professional from Richmond, Virginia, read about James, he set up a campaign on GoFundMe, a site he had learned of just a few weeks earlier. The selling point for him was that it promised to make crowd-giving easy, safe, and secure.
The pledges started small, but after a journalist wrote about Whittington’s GoFundMe page, he tells me, “it just exploded. It went from a couple of hundred dollars to ten grand in something like twenty-four hours.”
“It was one of those freak things that took off,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it without GoFundMe.”
Still, Whittington, who is now 31, felt blindsided by certain aspects of his GoFundMe experience. Some posters just couldn’t believe that he’d simply been motivated to do a good thing for a stranger who had done a good thing for another stranger. They accused Whittington of somehow trying to profit off the campaign. With online appeals, he learned, a least a little hate is unavoidable.
In the end, Whittington was immensely proud that the appeal raised more than $160,000. He worked with people in Boston to set up a trust fund for James, so the homeless man could handle his windfall prudently.
Whittington says he remained in touch for a little while with James’s sister but hasn’t heard from her in some time. “I hope Glen’s doing well,” he says.
If seeing his GoFundMe campaign catch fire and greatly benefit a man in need was the biggest surprise for Whittington, the next biggest came when he heard from the Internal Revenue Service. “I got a letter from the IRS saying I owed them more than $50,000,” he recalls.
Whittington explained to agents that “I didn’t get one cent of that money” from GoFundMe, but says they told him it was his tax liability. After all, his name was on the campaign that had generated $160,000. He says he grew frustrated with GoFundMe after he tried repeatedly to get help from the company, but it never came through. (I can relate. My attempts to get an interview with GoFundMe’s founder ended with the company’s communications manager ghosting me.)
Whittington says the good news is that “after like 20 phone calls to the IRS, I got somebody who helped me resolve it. Ultimately, I didn’t have to pay any tax on that.”
Until that resolution, though, an aphorism that his mother had often cited was ringing in his ear: No good deed goes unpunished.
DRAWING CONCLUSIONS ABOUT entire generations is always a dangerous exercise. One of the biggest mistakes people make, says Amy Lynch, a speaker and consultant who specializes in generational issues, is that they fail to distinguish generation from life stage. For instance, boomers and Gen Xers tended to be idealistic and impatient when they were 22, just as 22-year-old millennials are today.
The trick is to examine whether there are dimensions that make today’s 22-year-olds genuinely different from their counterparts in previous generations. Although Lynch is a boomer, her experience raising two millennial children, who are now 28 and 30, helped make her much more aware of her built-in generational bias. While she might once have had the same boomer reaction to a millennial soliciting money for a dream trip on GoFundMe — “Get a job and pay your own way!” — she now views it differently.
With stagnant wages, rising health care costs, and crippling college debt, she says, “the old paths to opportunity are at least frayed and, in many cases, failing.” In light of that, a millennial might rationally conclude that, even if she works for a year in a low-paying service job, she’ll never make enough to fund that dream trip. So why not look for a shortcut?
But when I suggest to Lynch that there’s at least one important generational difference between twentysomethings today and in the past, she doesn’t push back. The reality is, technology has trained millennials to be more impatient.
When you come of age at the dawn of Amazon Prime, when it’s possible to get pretty much anything in the world delivered to your door within 48 hours, that can’t help but erode your capacity for waiting.
As a Gen Xer, I grew up in a time when my classmates, if they wanted to go on that special marching band or cheerleading trip to Florida, had to endure a month of Saturdays canvassing the neighborhood or setting up a table outside the Stop & Shop. Millennials learned to skip the exhausting shoe-leather work by doing their canvassing and collecting online. And this much I’m sure of: Generation Z (which my three daughters belong to) will eventually devise a new approach that will make GoFundMe feel as dated as a dial-up modem.Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.