By Pia Hallenberg The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
It was an ordinary day in February when Mike Capka called to check on his daughter McKenzie. A student at the University of Montana in Missoula, McKenzie lived in a dorm and was in frequent contact with her family in Spokane. But this time around she didn't pick up.
Fearing the worst, he called the university.
"They found her in her bed, unable to move, unable to speak," Capka said. "She'd had a stroke."
McKenzie was just 18 years old and the stroke hit without warning, destroying about 75 percent of the left side of her brain.
After a short stay at a hospital in Missoula, she was flown to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane for brain surgery. The flight alone cost nearly $36,000. The hospital bills quickly reached hundreds of thousands of dollars. And then Capka was laid off.
That's when family friend Jessica Dehler got the idea to start a GoFundMe campaign to help pay some of McKenzie's medical expenses. The campaign, one of more than 760 active GoFundMe pleas in the Spokane area, has raised more than $30,000.
Crowdfunding as a source of charitable giving has taken off at a breakneck pace.
A visit to gofundme.com serves up a heart-tugging cross section of life circumstances and hardship.
There are requests for money to fix a bird's broken wing, pay funeral costs for loved ones, go on missionary trips to faraway nations, pay medical expenses, buy equipment for sports teams and send couples on honeymoons.
Since San Diego-based GoFundMe launched in 2010, it has raised $1 billion from 11 million donors around the world.
It's a simple concept: using credit card processing provided by GoFundMe, campaigns ask for donations for anything that's legal and the amount raised, no matter how big or small, is paid to the beneficiary.
Other sites, like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GiveForward, have different rules for the kinds of campaigns they allow and how the money is paid out, but they all function pretty much the same way. And they all take a cut of the money raised, either from the donor or the beneficiary, or both.
According to Massolution, a consulting company specializing in crowdfunding, global crowdfunding totaled $16.2 billion last year, up from $6.1 billion in 2013. Massolution expects crowdfunding to bring in $34.4 billion this year. The company notes, however, that while personal fundraisers get the most publicity, most of the money goes to crowd-based lending -- $11.08 billion last year.
Surprisingly to some, crowdfunding websites don't guarantee the fundraising projects are real. And in most cases donors have no way of knowing whether their donations were spent the way they expected.
The Washington state attorney general's office has received nearly 100 complaints about crowdfunding campaigns during the past year.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson said consumers have little protection when it comes to crowdfunding.
"Basically, you should only invest money you are ready to lose," Ferguson said.
When it goes viral Donors respond to crowdfunding pleas for many different reasons. Capka said he believes it's a personal connection: Perhaps the recipient is someone you know, or it's someone in similar circumstances as yours.
Intense media coverage of an event leading to a crowdfunding campaign can help put donors at ease.
When a Coeur d'Alene police officer was killed in the line of duty earlier this month, a GoFundMe page raised $70,000 in seven days.
"I will admit it was chaotic," said Addison Arce, one of the founders of the Kootenai County Police and Fire Memorial Foundation, which managed the fundraising for the Greg and Lindy Moore fund. "We had more than $25,000 donated at the front desk in the first six hours. It was completely overwhelming."
The GoFundMe campaign was complemented by a traditional fundraising bank account at the local Umpqua branch. Arce said donations came in from as far away as Australia.
"Those are donations we would never have received without GoFundMe," Arce said.
Because crowdfunding relies on social media, donors often leave comments with their donations, and it was frustrating to Arce that they couldn't reply to everyone.
"We really tried to keep up, but we just couldn't," he said. "We are monitoring things but we just can't respond to everyone." By now, the campaign for Moore's family has raised more than $200,000 -- about half of that on GoFundMe, where donations are still trickling in.
For the love of dogs and horses One of the more popular fundraising categories on GoFundMe is "animals." There, big brown puppy eyes, wet noses and horrid surgery scars pull at the heartstrings of animal lovers, who donate to cover everything from a dog's hip replacement to hay for horses to the costs of new roofs for rescue organizations.
Horse trainer and breeder Marion Dresel-O'Connor, who owns Cocolalla Creek Sport Horses in Careywood, Idaho, unexpectedly found herself at the receiving end of such a campaign.
When her mare, Romance, gave birth to a colt in February, then soon after developed one bout of colic after another, she shared the story on Facebook.
The mare and her newborn were hauled down to Washington State University's School of Veterinary Medicine, and the veterinary bills began running up.
Dresel-O'Connor took to Facebook initially searching for a nanny mare for the newborn colt.
"I didn't think she was going to make it," Dresel-O'Connor said. "I was beating myself up for letting her have the two surgeries, but what can you do?" Horses often die from colic.
When a friend started the GoFundMe campaign for Romance and the foal, Fiorenzo, Dresel-O'Connor was both surprised and touched that donors quickly gave a little more than $2,000.
"I would never have thought of asking for money for myself," she said. "The money really helped. I'm very grateful to all the donors."
But she said people may want to think twice about putting pleas on social media.
"In my own group of people, this was fine; people were super supportive," she said. "But when we shared it in another group, I got a lot of criticism -- you never know who reads it on social media."
Giving to individuals is one thing, but pet rescues and sanctuaries can be a murky area.
Janet Dixon, of Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service, said she's far more concerned for the welfare of the animals than she is for the people who may be scammed when they give to various pet rescues.
"No licensing is required to start an animal rescue organization," Dixon said. "Many of the rescue people are terrific and well-meaning people, but they get in over their heads, especially with big animals."
For instance, a rescued horse can easily cost $1,000 for the first three months of its rehabilitation, Dixon said.
"It's so important that a rescue has sound financial founding," Dixon said. "Personally, I would never give to an organization that doesn't have a clear vision statement."
Large fan base helps on Kickstarter Another popular fundraising site is Kickstarter. There, entrepreneurs seek investors to support a creative project -- like music, writing, technology or a film -- in return for a share in the project and often a sample of sorts, like a CD or a ticket to an event.
The site has secured funding for more than 85,000 creative projects since its launch in 2009.
Garrin Hertel, a guitarist in the band Hot Club of Spokane, said they used Kickstarter to help fund a new CD. The band's goal was $4,500 and each donor got a CD and a ticket to the CD launch party at the Bing.
"We raised about $3,500 from 75 people and only 10 of them were people we didn't know," Hertel said. "We only met goal because some of us threw in some extra dough to push it over the limit."