Over the past few years, the market for crowdfunding websites has become saturated with a dizzying number of platforms jostling for attention — and donations. GoFundMe and Patreon allow supporters to fund creators, Kickstarter focuses on making creative projects come to life, and Experiment funds scientific research — there are even websites dedicated to crowdfunding for university tuition. All platforms advertise the exciting new possibilities they create.
Over $4 billion has been raised on GoFundMe through more than 40 million donors. Kickstarter positions itself as an important resource for advancing the arts in the context of consistent under-funding. In an email to The Varsity, Experiment Co-founder Cindy Wu wrote that crowdfunding is a good way to “democratize the research process” and fund ideas that may be too ‘out there’ for conservative funders.
While this diversity is exciting, it often overshadows the public need engrained in these platforms. After all, as GoFundMe spokesperson Rachel Hollis told The Varsity, “GoFundMe has become synonymous with helping and we’ll continue providing the best fundraising tools to make it easy for people to come together to support causes they care about. We are always listening to our community and finding ways to empower more people across the world to help others.” Accordingly, some of GoFundMe’s most popular types of campaigns are for medical and emergency expenses.
Canada’s universal health care system still leaves gaps in funding for prescription drugs. This often leaves those with cancer and other illnesses on the hook for potentially thousands of dollars each month in medical fees. Meanwhile, young Ontarians are facing increasingly unaffordable housing alongside a decline in full-time earnings. Even in the once-stable field of academia, corporatization has brought precarious work conditions that make research funding far from guaranteed. Arguably, expenses are overwhelming students and young adults more now than ever before — and websites are happy to step in with the promise of new possibilities.
There are many astonishing success stories of crowdfunding. For instance, in 2016, Torontonian Toni Morgan crowdfunded her tuition costs to attend Harvard for her master’s degree, garnering media attention for her ‘homeless to Harvard’ story.
Websites like Experiment also provide a platform to non-traditional projects in order to allow more communities to engage in their passions. “Experiment is often the first money in. Experiment strives to be the place where all science starts. Funding is just one obstacle that some scientists face, so we’ve built a product to address that,” Wu wrote. “In history we’ve seen that the best ideas are often the ones overlooked, the outliers. As the traditional funders trend towards funding things that are more and more predictable, there needs to be an institution that supports the high risk early stage ideas.”
Third-year student Adam Sheikh turned to crowdfunding when he had an idea for a project but knew it would be difficult to move forward without initial funding. Reflecting on why the project was not successfully funded, Sheikh wrote to The Varsity, “I just feel like its a lot easier to get backing when people contributing are directly benefitting from their contribution… that’s not to say that people don’t act in a way that is not benefiting them… but it’s harder to raise money because the margins are higher and the platforms don’t generate as much attention.”
Third-year student Julianne de Gara successfully used crowdfunding to pay for damages incurred at an event she organized at Trinity College. However, in an email to The Varsity, de Gara wrote, “I was surprised by how few people were willing to donate. Despite having over 300 people attend our event, the $300 was donated by about 15 people– one of whom donated over $75.”
For York University PhD student and anti-sexual violence activist Mandi Gray, crowdfunding provided an opportunity to raise money without hosting a fundraising event while still generating publicity for her project, a documentary called Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial, about navigating the legal system following a sexual assault.
In an email to The Varsity, Gray expressed surprise at the fundraiser’s supporters, writing, “It wasn’t people who are wealthy. It was primarily people who have fixed incomes, are single parents, working precarious jobs, or are students. I really was hoping that more ‘allies’ would donate to support the cause but it was mostly people who had experienced sexual assault who donated.”
In many ways, crowdfunding campaigns can be opportunities for people to come together over issues they care about; often, issues that might not otherwise get attention. In the case of de Gara and Gray however, these services can have barriers in engaging larger communities with certain projects or expenses. Beyond this, these websites also have the potential to perpetuate the same dynamics present in more traditional sources of funding.
Crowdfunding the far-right
Crowdfunding has been essential for conservative activism and Rebel Media has considered it a crucial way of staying free from left-wing attempts to target advertisers of conservative media. Dave Rubin, whose conservative show The Rubin Report has featured Southern and Milo Yiannopolous, has appeared on the front page of the Patreon website.
Jordan Peterson has supplemented his full-time professor salary at the University of Toronto by running a Patreon account through which he currently earns over $65,000 each month. Peterson is listed in the top 20 Education accounts on the website. Last academic year, Peterson’s videos fuelled rallies on campus, some of which saw violence and transphobic and racist remarks directed at protesters.
In July, Patreon removed the page of Lauren Southern, former Rebel Media contributor, for participating “in activities that are likely to cause loss of life” for her coverage of a far-right movement aiming to stop migration into Europe. Still, this hard stance against ultra-conservative activism seems rare among crowdfunding websites.
On the flip side of crowdfunding successes are administrative issues that affect users. Gray wrote of “the administrative nightmare we had with indiegogo” after funds donated to their campaign had been mistakenly added to another account beginning in March 2017. The funds were not returned until summer. Gray added, “It was a really frustrating and trying process. We didn’t even think we were going to be able to make the film because we didn’t know if we would ever get the money from them.”
Similarly, Sheikh commented that the crowdfunding process feels “stacked against those who aren’t trying to sell products.”
Successful crowdfunding stories can often seem like fairy tales: a group has a serious problem, reaches out for help, and within an improbably short period of time they raise the money needed with the help of a community of kind strangers. Beyond feel-good stories, however, crowdfunding is also increasingly serving as a hub for different ideas and ideologies to spread and grow successfully. This can range from the funding of non-traditional science to the funding of conservative ideologies, which allows people like Peterson who already have full-time jobs to earn over $65,000 a month.