On the popular site kickstarter, tens of thousands of users have tapped friends, family and strangers to help finance everything from comic books to movies to a dream-enhancing sleep mask. But can that same model work for medical bills?
With U.S. health care costs at least $8,000 per capita, a group of new Web platforms are offering people an opportunity to ask the public for help. Of course, families have long held informal fundraisers for such causes. But now, by creating pages on GoFundMe (where medical asks are now the biggest traffic draw, trumping education and travel), GiveForward and other crowdfunding sites, patients and their relatives are raising thousands of dollars to pay for surgeries, cancer treatments and more. Without such aid, in fact, James White, an electrician in East Bridgewater, Mass., could not have helped his 7-month-old son, who was born with a heart defect. "I don't think we would have raised this much doing a fundraiser in a hall," says his sister Jennifer, who was able to solicit $14,000 in just four days to pay for crucial surgeries. (GoFundMe takes a 5% cut to cover its overhead.)
The secret to a successful campaign: leveraging social-media contacts. With the help of friends who spread the word via Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, what starts as a family affair can eventually reach people all over the world. "I don't know the family," says Valerie Fischetti, a mother of three in Philadelphia, referring to the Whites. But after a friend's mother sent her the link on Facebook, "I read the story and felt I needed to donate."
Such online generosity can be risky, though; the model's simplicity makes it an easy target for scammers. A New England GoFundMe user, for example, was caught lying about having cancer to defraud donors of thousands of dollars. To guard against those risks, the company mandates that each donation page be linked to a valid Facebook profile, and it won't open a campaign beyond an organizer's social-media network until it has raised at least $100. From there, it's up to the users: "We rely on the grapevine to report suspect pages," says GoFundMe CEO Brad Damphousse. In other words, if a campaign goes viral, it's inevitable that someone will know someone who can expose the truth.