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 ...

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