Do Black Lives Matter to GoFundMe?

As protests over police brutality and the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade (among many others) spread across the US this month, GoFundMe emailed their “community” with a message of commitment. “To drive change we must get involved and take action,” the new CEO, Tim Cadogan, wrote. His message echoed those of other tech platforms this week that publicly endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement but failed to recognize, or reckon with, the ways their platforms have been used to exacerbate racial bias and amplify the voices of hate groups.

But is GoFundMe different? Surely to many Americans it seems like an innocuously feel-good company. Millions of dollars have been raised for the family members of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade through campaigns on the platform. In addition, Cadogan’s message Tuesday announced a commitment of $500,000 to a new Justice & Equality Fund that would be managed by GoFundMe’s non-profit arm, GoFundMe.org. It has already raised more than a million dollars.

It’s worth, however, looking more deeply at several dimensions of how GoFundMe handles, and profits from, racial inequities, and whether the platform is one that can truly address racism, rather than simply launch fundraisers in response to it. As demonstrated below, GoFundMe stands to make millions of dollars in profit from the profound anger and grief that are spreading across social media, into the streets, and ultimately, onto crowdfunding campaigns.

History: #Dontfundhate

GoFundMe is often quick to brandish its progressive credentials. But as my colleagues and I wrote in a recent article, the platform has historically been “widely associated with prominent campaigns in support of nationalist or anti-black activism.” While current Terms of Service on the site prohibit campaigns for legal defense funds for crimes associated with hate or intolerance, GoFundMe retains full discretion to determine whether and when a campaign violates these terms. The site has hosted numerous campaigns to support armed citizen militia to unlawfully police the US-Mexico border, and to support police officers involved in the murders of unarmed black citizens. These campaigns usually end up shut down, but as we have previously noted:

“GoFundMe’s past reluctance to shut down such campaigns was read by many as tacit endorsement. This, alongside observations that GoFundMe directly profits by playing host to such causes, has led to campaigns such as the #dontfundhate campaign, protesting fundraising in support of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown.”

Recently, GoFundMe has been more aggressive in shutting down campaigns that endorse racism. On June 7th, the platform closed down a campaign started by Candace Owens, a well known conservative commentator, in support of an Alabama cafe owner who harshly criticized BLM protestors and George Floyd. Owens’ account was removed, but Owens herself announced that the campaign had nonetheless raised more than $200,000 prior to its shut-down that would go to the cafe.

Platforming Bias

There are also more invisible ways that racial bias is allowed to thrive on the GoFundMe platform. While our attention is drawn to highly successful campaigns, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of campaigns — 9 out of 10 — don’t reach their financial goals. Most only raise a few thousand dollars. In this highly competitive charity marketplace, inequities are often compounded: if you’re a person with savvy social media skills, a large, wealthy network of friends, and plenty of social capital to lean on, you are likely to do better. This competitive system is built on a model whereby donors are invited to ask themselves, “Is this person deserving? More deserving than another person?” This model reinforces a centuries-long history of racism in our country has ensured people of color — and Black people in particular — are often perceived as less deserving, particularly of charity and aid.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these dynamics are reflected — even amplified — on GoFundMe. In a recent paper examining medical campaigns on GoFundMe, we found that Black users are both under-represented on the platform, and that their campaigns tend to do more poorly than campaigns for white people — often to a stunning degree. Black campaigners receive an average of $22 less per donation than white campaigners. And Black people — Black women in particular — are significantly under-represented in campaigns on the platform, despite heavy burdens of medical need and medical expenses in this group. Mark Igra, one of our team members, has found similar results in a different study of medical crowdfunding which explores how embedded wealth within networks explains some of these differential outcomes by race. As many scholars have noted, the wealth gap between white and Black Americans is enormous, and likely contributes to inequities in where online charity money is directed.

There are many more questions to explore here — about how these dynamics operate for truly ‘viral’ campaigns, and how donors actually make choices that may be shaped by bias. We’re also trying to better understand how the way the platform is designed might amplify biases and social inequities, and thus contribute to more unequal outcomes among campaigners. Some preliminary thoughts on that can be found in this paper.

Who is GoFundMe?

As many activists have noted this week, messages of support for Black Lives Matter are unlikely to have much (if any) impact unless they are coupled with intensive efforts to dismantle systemic racism, particularly within powerful institutions. Tech companies in particular have a profoundly problematic history of encouraging and amplifying hate on social media platforms, and providing invasive surveillance tools and data to governments, police, and private companies.

It’s worth asking whether GoFundMe is engaged in this broader work to dismantle systemic racism. While representation in leadership is only one part of this work, it is often a telling one, showing us the extent to which institutions are willing to give power to often under-represented voices. In this regard, GoFundMe’s record is striking. Its founders, and current and former CEOs, are all white men. The company’s current executive leadership team is notably lacking in racial diversity.

Source: https://www.gofundme.com/c/executive-team

Profiting from Loss

Finally, it’s essential to remember that GoFundMe is a privately-traded, for-profit company that dominates the charitable crowdfunding marketplace. While reliable financial details about the company’s revenue are hard to come by, one of its primary revenue streams is a ‘suggested’ 10% tip that is added onto donations on the site. (Users can select 5%, 15%, or ‘other’ tip amounts as well). We shouldn’t look past the fact that GoFundMe directly profits from campaigns hosted on its site, though it’s easy to miss the size and significance of those profits. For example, assuming an average 10% donation to the most recent campaigns this week, GoFundMe stands to gain:

These are rough, back of the envelope calculations, and they don’t include the myriad other fundraisers started for similar causes across the country this week, or in years past. But that’s more than $2.4 million in cash to the platform in less than two weeks. That also doesn’t count what may be far more valuable to GoFundMe than your tips: your data, which its own terms of service state it sells to third parties.

As my colleague Tamara Kneese writes, GoFundMe has long been a tool for organizing and memorializing in the Movement for Black Lives. It has become even more important at a time when COVID-19 and physical distancing mandates make other kinds of support and shows of solidarity more difficult. Yet the makers of this tool profit directly from the suffering and violence of Black people — and from white guilt, and consumers’ desire for quick and easy actions they can take to ‘fix’ racism.

As noted in a recent article by Marcus Green, there are better ways to fundraise for our communities and show solidarity for causes we care about. This includes donating directly to individuals or, better yet, established community organizations, especially those led by Black organizers, that are doing the hard work of addressing and combatting systemic racism. This is not to say that the families of those killed don’t deserve aid — they do. But this form of aid puts far too much in the pockets of a private corporation, and does little to address the systemic injustices and deeply entrenched racism that cause these deaths in the first place.

Written by Nora Kenworthy, PhD, on behalf of the UW Crowdfunding Research team. Nora Kenworthy is an Associate Professor of Nursing and Health Studies at the University of Washington, Bothell.

Research updates on crowdfunding from Nora Kenworthy, Mark Igra, Jin-Kyu Jung, and Lauren Berliner at the University of Washington. https://bit.ly/34xhfiY

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