Crowdfunding Helps Pay For Almost Anything These Days

By Susan Jacobson
Orlando Sentinel.


Daliah Lugo wants a license to practice law in Florida, but she can’t afford the Bar exam fees. Lori Krause has fallen behind on her bills and needs new tires. Rich Wise didn’t have the cash to retrieve his dogs from the pound.

The three Floridians are among thousands of people who have turned to crowdfunding to pay for necessities and luxuries alike.

Known as places to appeal for help with catastrophic medical expenses and raise capital for business ventures, crowdfunding websites also are awash in requests for assistance with veterinary bills, vacations and video-game consoles.

They’re a more efficient and less intrusive method of raising money than the phone calls, letters and in-person appeals of the past, crowdfunding experts said.

“People have always begged for money and asked for money, and crowdfunding has more easily allowed you to make that call heard through a large group,” said Ethan Mollick, a Harvard- and MIT-educated professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Pennsylvania.

And people do ask, for a lot.

A check of two of the most popular sites, GoFundMe and Indiegogo, shows Floridians rely on friends, relatives, acquaintances and strangers to fulfill myriad wishes, including supplies for a “once-in-a-lifetime” cross-country hike, eye surgery for a dog, a honeymoon (along with a new roof), study abroad, new cars, infertility treatments and even “chest-masculinization” surgery for a transgender man.

“I guess you could say this is a different form of panhandling depending on the nature of the need,” said Sherry Thomas, founder and president of Palm Beach Etiquette.

GoFundMe cannot monitor the accuracy of each of the hundreds of thousands of campaigns on its site, and campaign organizers are free to decide how to use the money they raise, spokeswoman Kelsea Little said.

Absent fraud, it’s caveat emptor.

“If the original statement is honest, then there’s not a problem,” said Stuart Cohn, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law. “The real problem is that once you part with your money, you never know how it was used.”

Krause set up her campaign, “Help Me Catch Up and Pay for Tires,” on GoFundMe last month, although she later updated the title to “Help My Family Get Back on Its Feet.” The mother of two said she has borrowed from relatives in the past, but there’s no one to help her this time.

Krause said she saved the money from her tax refund, but then her timing belt broke, and she’s behind on the bills for her cellphone, which she needs to keep in touch with her younger daughter in a residential-treatment center.

“For me, it has been one step forward and two big old steps backward, said Krause, 42, who works in the hospitality industry. “It’s not like I’m trying to buy a season pass for Universal. I can’t make ends meet for my kids. This is not by any means for extras.”

Soon, she had raised $1,275.

Lugo said she initially was uncomfortable making her difficulties public on GoFundMe, which requires campaign organizers to use their real names, but she was pleased when acquaintances and former co-workers were among those who rallied. GoFundMe advises contributors to donate only to people they know and trust.

Formerly a civil-rights and employment-discrimination lawyer in Puerto Rico, Lugo, 49, moved when she encountered financial problems. She cannot practice law in Florida unless she passes the Bar exam here, and that costs thousands of dollars for a Bar application and review course.

At the time of writing, she had raised $1,395.

“If you cast a wide net, people feel like, oh, I’ll give you whatever I can _ $10, $20 _ rather than asking one person for $3,000 or two for $1,500,” Lugo said.

Crowdfunding websites generally keep a percentage of donations. The San Diego-based GoFundMe charges 5 percent, plus a payment-processing fee of about 3 percent. The for-profit company says it has raised more than $900 million from 10 million people.

Indiegogo was founded in 2008 and GoFundMe in 2010, but the roots of crowdfunding go much further back. In 1885, using appeals in the New York newspaper The World, Publisher Joseph Pulitzer persuaded readers to donate more than $100,000 toward the construction of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, according to the National Park Service.

In years past, most people had too much pride to ask for money for themselves, but times have changed.

Wise, 35, found that out when he realized he didn’t have the cash to retrieve his Labrador-pit-bull mixes, Mickey and Mallory, from the pound. At the urging of friends, he turned to GoFundMe.

He raised the $800 he needed and brought his pets home this month.

“Sometimes you’ve got to swallow your pride,” he said.

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