When leaders at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Chicago wanted to update their school’s playground, they turned to WeRaise, a Christian crowdfunding site. They posted a short video featuring smiling school kids and a brief description of the $9,000 project. Before long, they had raised $11,200 for the playground. Similar crowdfunding campaigns—which can raise money online through small donations for popular causes—helped to jump-start a small clinic in Nebraska, send a pastor on sabbatical, and fund youth programs in inner-city Detroit.
Crowdfunding sites have long been used to support starving artists and cover unforeseen medical expenses. Kickstarter, a site focused on funding creative projects, has been used to raise more than $1.7 billion for about 86,600 projects since launching in 2009. GoFundMe started in 2008; by 2014, it was raising $1 million a day.
Overall, about $16 billion was raised by crowdfunding sites worldwide last year, with about $3 billion going to social causes, according to a 2015 crowdfunding industry report from Massolutions.
More recently, however, crowdfunding has also been harnessed to fund outrage.
Take the case of Memories Pizza, the Indiana store whose owners said they wouldn’t cater a same-sex wedding. It became the target of online threats, prompting the owners to close their doors. Propelled by the politically conservative website TheBlaze TV, a GoFundMe campaign for the store raised more than $840,000 so the store could reopen.
Similarly, Aaron and Melissa Klein, owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Portland, Oregon, were the recipients of funds from at least three crowdfunding campaigns after the couple was fined $135,000 for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. A GoFundMe campaign on their behalf reportedly brought in more than $100,000 before being shut down, although those funds were given to the couple, according to GoFundMe. The site also canceled a campaign for Arlene’s Flowers owner Barronelle Stutzman, who faces a six-figure fine for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding in Washington State.
Given online crowdfunding’s relatively short track record, it has, perhaps inevitably, become a subject of controversy, with little prospect of economic, ethical, or cultural consensus in sight.
“Anyone who claims to be a robust expert and know this stuff inside and out...is ludicrous,” said Brady Josephson, adjunct professor at North Park University’s School of Business and Nonprofit Management, as well as a strategist and marketer for fundraising sites Chimp and Peer Giving. “We’re talking about a form of fundraising that’s only taken off in the past five years and exploded in the past three. It’s early in the day.”
On the other hand, suggests Josephson, raising money for charitable causes or other projects has been going on for a long time, whether through direct-mail appeals or passing the collection plate. What makes online crowdfunding different is that it allows fundraisers to reach a mass audience with relative ease.
“The bar for fundraising is extremely low,” Josephson said.
Some observers are wary about the crowdfunding phenomenon. David Dixon, associate professor of journalism at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, worries that crowdfunding can tempt Christians to give carelessly.
“The risk in crowdfunding is that the ease and convenience may lull us into giving impulsively all the time, rather than really seeking to understand how God would have us use our resources,” said Dixon.
Fundraising ventures like the one for Memories Pizza can also become “bread and circus” spectacles that lead to more polarization, warns Tommy Givens, assistant professor of New Testament studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Many Americans are “starved for a sense of political participation,” said Givens. Crowdfunding lets them substitute money for hands-on involvement.
“Money as a voice can’t say very much. It mostly acts like a megaphone instead of clarifying anything.”
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