There were already plenty of good reasons to refrain from donating to that GoFundMe for the homeless man who allegedly gave his last $20 to a stranded woman at a gas station. It was a suspicious story from the start. Not because such an act of generosity from a homeless man is impossible or even implausible, but because any heartwarming story that ends with “by the way, here’s a link to give me money” must be met with extreme caution.
As it turns out, caution in this case was warranted. Police now believe that the homeless man, the woman, and her husband, all conspired to invent the whole thing and defraud the public. It’s just too bad that so many well meaning people had so little caution. The fraudulent viral story earned the scam artists over $400,000 before all was said and done.
Perhaps we should take this opportunity to pull the brakes on the GoFundMe trend. No doubt, there are many worthy campaigns and many needy people who use the site, and sites like it, for legitimate reasons. But we have reached a point where every story that breaks or warms our heart becomes a defacto fundraiser. Every person who gets national attention for doing something nice, or suffering some misfortune, gets rewarded with a financial windfall. Even the most wonderful tales of compassion and kindness, and the saddest tales of misery, begin to reek of opportunism.
Not long ago, a black Trump supporter shared an affecting tale on Twitter about the alienation she supposedly experienced after coming out as a fan of the president. People started giving her money, for some bizarre reason, until she admitted that the sob story was an invention. Actually, she hates Trump. I struggle to feel any sympathy at all for the people she scammed. Why give her money in the first place? Even if she did support the president and her family really had disowned her for it, how would money solve that problem?
Christine Ford raked in over $700,000 in crowdfunding dough after her testimony against Brett Kavanaugh. Whether you believe Ford or not, why does she need $700,000? Her lawyers were working for free. What’s the point of the money? What is it supposed to do, exactly?
There’s a lot of this kind of thing on GoFundMe and other platforms. People with problems that can’t be fixed by money, asking for money anyway. Or people who aren’t asking for money, and don’t appear to necessarily need it, being given it anyway. The problem with GoFundMe campaigns isn’t just that any single one of them could easily be scams and you have absolutely no way of knowing — though that is a significant problem. The bigger problem is that they encourage this weird new dynamic where we express our support or affection for someone by giving them a cash tip. “Wow, that’s a nice story. Here’s 20 bucks.” We wouldn’t do that in person. Why do we do it online?
Even if the story about the homeless man and the stranded woman were completely authentic, it still would have been, and was, utter madness to throw money at the guy. The vast majority of homeless are drug or alcohol addicts. Many have severe mental health issues on top of, or partly caused by, their substance abuse problems. We should be compassionate toward these people, but the last thing we should do is hand them a boatload of cash. $400,000 for a drug addict is a death sentence. It’s good that the three scam artists were too stupid and dishonest to split the money evenly and ride off into the sunset. The man may well have died of an overdose by now.
But the thing that bothers me the most about these crowdfunding sites is the impersonal nature of it. Now people who would never dream of soliciting in person have no problem setting up a GoFundMe profile begging for college tuition money or whatever else. And, on the other end, people who can’t be bothered to reach out a helping hand to the needy in their own families and communities can still feel charitable by tossing 10 bucks at a trendy crowdfunding cause.
There is still a place for this kind of thing, I think. My wife and I just donated yesterday to help with a child’s medical bills. But we know the boy’s family and we know how the money is going to be allocated. That’s very different from how GoFundMe and the like are often used. There are ways to use the tool wisely, but it requires prudence. And it’s probably best to focus first on helping those closest to us.