GoFundMe, the crowdfunding site no one should need, targets European growth

Ireland is ‘a real success story’ for fundraising, the US company says

Liverpool players celebrate with a banner supporting Liverpool fan Sean Cox who was attacked outside Anfield  last year. Over €1 million has been raised of a €2 million target to pay for his rehabilitation and care. Photograph:  Ettore Ferrari

Liverpool players celebrate with a banner supporting Liverpool fan Sean Cox who was attacked outside Anfield last year. Over €1 million has been raised of a €2 million target to pay for his rehabilitation and care. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari

 

Nine years after it was founded in San Diego, California, the world’s biggest crowdfunding platform is enjoying triple-digit growth across Europe.

Almost one in 10 people in Ireland have used GoFundMe and the number of campaigns set up by people here expanded by 50 per cent in 2018, said John Coventry, its European head of communications.

Since 2016, more than €30 million has been donated by Irish users of GoFundMe, a figure that looks proportionately high relative to the €200 million-plus donated in the UK via the platform over the same timeframe.

“Ireland has been a real success story for fundraising,” Mr Coventry said. “It comes out top on a lot of our metrics.”

Globally, more than $5 billion (€4.4 billion) has been raised to date through GoFundMe for an eclectic range of causes. Fundraisers are set up and supported “when someone sees a wrong and they want to right that wrong”, Mr Coventry said.

One notable Irish campaign, set up to support Sean Cox, who suffered life-altering injuries after being attacked outside Anfield in Liverpool before a Champions League match in April 2018, has raised more than €1 million of a €2 million target to pay for his rehabilitation and long-term care.

The most common use of funds is to pay for healthcare costs, which are the intended use of one-third of all donations.

Mr Coventry, who joined GoFundMe from Change.org in 2017, describes a process that runs from brand recognition to emotional connection to cultural shift.

“At first, there is scepticism about giving money directly to a person rather than to an organisation, but then it becomes more commonplace,” he said. Eventually, it reaches “critical mass”.

The company, now “huge” in its native US, is eyeing further expansion in Europe in 2019 as the concept of “social fundraising” is more readily accepted by a wider pool of people.

Last hope

There will likely be one key difference in how the platform is used in Europe compared to the US. There, charity fundraisers have become the last vestige of hope for Americans who don’t have medical insurance and can’t afford out-of-reach price tags on healthcare.

“In places where there is some form of healthcare safety net, people raise funds for expenses like travel to hospitals or staying with relatives, or as a showing of solidarity,” Mr Coventry explained. “But healthcare is still the largest category of fundraiser in these countries.”

All of this makes GoFundMe the tech platform nobody should by rights need to use, but tens of thousands of people in desperate need are glad exists.

The company says it didn’t anticipate it would become the “leader in online medical fundraising”, as it describes itself on its website. “Quite often when you have these tech products, you’re not sure how they will be used when they go out into the world,” Mr Coventry says.

GoFundMe was founded in 2010 by Brad Damphousse and Andy Ballester, who sold their controlling stake to Accel Partners and Technology Crossover Ventures in 2015, and it is now led by chief executive Rob Solomon.

The accelerating growth has brought greater scrutiny, both of the ethics of profiting from individual misery and the incidence of scams.

GoFundMe dealt with the former concern by abolishing its 5 per cent platform fee for personal campaigns. Users are now charged a payment processing fee of 2.5 per cent plus 25 cent per donation, with the company living instead on voluntary “tips” from donors.

“What I think has surprised us is the extent to which donors are happy to chip in,” says Mr Coventry. “It feels like that was a bold and risky decision, but it is one that has paid off.”

When it comes to marketing GoFundMe, there is little need for the site to “synthesise an emotional connection in a big flashy campaign” – that job has already been done by the often gut-wrenching nature of the fundraisers.

Political use

The task instead is to make sure people trust the site, he says. In Europe, much of the fundraiser vetting and fraud detection work is done out of GoFundMe’s office in Dublin, where the platform employs a team of “customer happiness agents”. Money is not transferred until GoFundMe is satisfied that its destination is valid.

“There is a perception that there is misuse on the platform, but the rate of fraud is less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of all campaigns,” Mr Coventry said.

Campaigns tend to reflect the political landscape. In the UK, this has seen a plethora of people valiantly seeking donations to pay for anti-Brexit billboards and bunting.

The record for the biggest fundraiser worldwide is held by the Time’s Up legal defence fund, which has raised more than $24 million to pay for legal support for people who have experienced sexual harassment, assault and abuse in the workplace.

Catching up is We The People Will Build The Wall, a campaign that since December has raised more than $20 million to privately erect a Trump-esque wall along the US-Mexican border. This one is particularly controversial, as its stated aim is not widely regarded as feasible.