An Impulse to Give: Bad News Drives Crowdfunding. But What Else Can?

Fundraising isn’t the first thing most people think of after a national tragedy like the Orlando shootings. We ask why this keeps happening. We wonder what can be done. Many of us are furious that more hasn't been done already to stop gun-related carnage. Still, legislative deadlock aside, the public’s response has been heartening.

In particular, online crowdfunding campaigns have done a phenomenal job raising resources for the victims, their families, and Orlando’s LGBTQ community. The most prominent effort is the Pulse Victims Fund on GoFundMe, which, as of this writing,  has raised about $5.16 million from over 100,000 donors. That averages out to around $50 per donor, with a median probably closer to Bernie Sanders’ famed $27. And that’s in five days.

The GoFundMe campaign has already broken records in the crowdfunding space, and is the fastest campaign to reach the $1 million mark in the site’s history. And donations continue to stream in, prompting Equality Florida, the organizer, to keeping bumping the funding goal higher and higher. It currently stands at $7 million. As Helaine Olen at Slate, “crowdfunding has come of age.”

These aren’t the best circumstances for a coming-of-age. But the ongoing campaign does tell us a lot about what makes crowdfunding tick. For one thing, negative publicity and tragic news motivates donors who want to fix the problem. I have no doubt that donations to LGBTQ organizations have spiked throughout the country, as well as money for and against the gun lobby. Of course, we've seen before how horrible events bring in a cascade of donations. Most famously, relief and charity groups raised $657 million in the three weeks after 9/11, and that was before sites like GoFundMe existed. (At a lesser degree, a GoFundMe campaign for the family of the little boy taken by an alligator in Orlando this week has raised over $50,000.)

People who donate in the wake of a tragedy or outrage are not necessarily thinking about how their money will help the victims. Rather, making a contribution is a way to register their strong feelings about what happened. In that sense, crowdfunding campaigns may be less like charity drives and more like referenda. People are voting as much as they are giving.

All this is sobering for those who want to crowdfund on the basis of good news and beneficial work, but it doesn’t mean the method only works after tragedy. What it does mean is that nonprofits that want to crowdfund need to think like journalists and politicians. Not just in terms of the stories they tell about ongoing work, but before the work even starts. What will capture the public eye? And what will connect with people at a gut level?

This is problematic since a lot of vital work doesn’t lend itself to media sensation or impulse giving. Case in point: the LGBTQ rights movement actually lost some visibility and funding since the decision to legalize gay marriage, despite ongoing discrimination against people who don’t fit sexual and gender norms. That is, until the tragedy in Florida.

Related: Where Are Companies Like Verizon Going With Their LGBT Funding?

Equality Florida’s GoFundMe is only the largest of a whole host of crowdfunding campaigns that sprung up in Orlando’s wake. So far, about 150 campaigns have raised money for the victims, and that’s just on GoFundMe. Concerns about the legitimacy of some campaigns led the site to take special measures to vet Orlando crowdfunding, and all donors should go through the appropriate due diligence.

While this week’s crowdfunding successes come after a horrific crime, the philanthropic community shouldn’t be afraid to use this powerful digital tool, not only to raise funds for good causes, but also as a barometer. Crowdfunding is essentially a database showing where the public (and not just the rich) want charitable money to go. Crowd cash won’t fund solutions to deeper, more systemic, and more boring issues, but it’s a valuable look into how regular people think about giving money away.