Unprecedented times: Community flocks to online fundraising


By Geoff Livingston

The Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19 have converged to create a perfect storm of pain for people all over the world in 2020. Pictured is a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Manager-in-training Jon Kocjan was excited to pursue a new job opportunity in Kuwait when COVID-19 hit the Persian Gulf. Born in Northern California but living in Egypt prior to the new job prospect, Kocjan became trapped in Kuwait, separated from his wife and child due to the compounding effects of his 90-day probationary period and coronavirus lockdowns. On top of not being able to see his family, Jon also experienced financial problems, being paid two months late by his employer. A few weeks after the Kuwaiti government shut down restaurants and malls, Jon’s contract was terminated entirely.

“It was horrible,” Kocjan says.

“It was a nightmare and it was extremely stressful.”

Kocjan’s circumstances are representative of what working class people around the world have had to deal with this year. His sole source of income was discontinued: he was left with no money across February and March – when the virus first struck his location – and he was unable to see his loved ones due to circumstances outside of his control.

While millions grappled with the same stresses as Kocjan was facing, media all over the world rapidly shifted focus to the killing of African American man, George Floyd, at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin. The killing gave rise to protests against police brutality. Protests began in his home city of Minneapolis a day after his death, which emboldened the efforts of Black Lives Matter movements all across the United States, as well as internationally. While the vast majority of these protests have been peaceful, some have spilled over into violence and property damage, impacting people’s ability to work.

These are the two defining moments of 2020: a global pandemic and the apex of a social conflict that has run deep through the veins of the western world since the first slave ships arrived on US shores in the 1600s.

As a cursory glance at any social media platform will tell you, we are living through ‘unprecedented’ times. Online, many have taken to making life of this overused turn of phrase, though the events that created this sense of unprecedented-ness are decidedly humourless. However, in the debris of this global meltdown, pockets of humanity have started their steady climb to the top of the rubble.

A Twitter user pines for more ‘precadented’ times. (By ifunny.co via Twitter)

Online, we can see this humanity take shape. Lockdowns are causing unemployment rates to skyrocket according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (the rate in Australia reached 7.5 per in July, the highest it’s been in almost 20 years), while ongoing civil unrest has taken a toll on local businesses and, in many cases, has stripped humanitarians, protesters and activists of their liberties.

But those spheres where Twitter users mock rote headlines and livestream their reactions to our new normal, are the same spheres where kindness and generosity are being fostered. Online communities prove to be a bastion of financial and moral support as victims of COVID-19 and systemic oppression flock to the internet for help. Websites like GoFundMe and Change.org facilitate homegrown fundraisers, while social media sites provide a basis for word of mouth to spread in a kind of naturally occurring symbiosis that fosters movements and boosts platforms for communities in need.

There have been countless examples of this online collectivism over the past year. On July 21, a 20-year-old Black Lives Matter activist, Tianna Arata, was arrested on three misdemeanours and five felony charges after a peaceful protest she helped organise unravelled and became violent. Since then, a Change.org petition demanding her release with almost 600,000 signatures has been gaining traction, and a GoFundMe page aiming to cover her legal costs has more than three times the fundraiser’s goal. The campaign’s success has hinged on people across social media platforms pushing the cause into all corners of the online space.

The implications of this are far-reaching.

“Because this campaign has gone so viral, the idea that ‘Black Lives Matter’ has been more publicised,” says Shalini Quattlebaum, an activist who organised the GoFundMe for Tianna.

“People are able to see that the justice system is set up so that African American people are significantly targeted. Tianna is just one example.”

As Quattlebaum explains, Tianna’s case is not an outlier. The events of this year have shone a spotlight on power imbalances across many sectors of society. The landlord/tenant dynamic is another obvious, global example. The conflict of interest between both sides of this contract has led to landlords taking a major deficit to what is, in many cases, their primary source of income, while renters are commonly finding themselves without a home due to not being able to pay rent before the due date.

Once again, we see people turn to GoFundMe for financial support in order to pay their landlords before rent due dates. In regions that have been hit hard by COVID-19 such as Victoria, eviction bans have been extended to protect those in “financial distress”, according to ABC News. Other parts of the world, however, haven’t been as fortunate. An anonymous source in Knoxville, Tennessee, says they received a pay-or-vacate message from their landlord with only five days’ notice – which is illegal in the state, and her family does not have many options left if they wish to remain in their home:

“We have tapped every resource shy of selling personal belongings to raise the money, and no family member is in the position to loan anything,” says the source, whose GoFundMe page reached its goal in four days.

From the perspective of people in these positions, online community fundraisers seem to be doing the work of state and federal governments: “We shouldn’t have to resort to such things, when there’s plenty of help to go around…” the unnamed source says.

“This has taught me that you can rely more on people and community, than you can on plans and programs established by the government.”

Back home, the Australian government has introduced programs such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker to support those who have experienced job losses and cut backs in the pandemic, and the HomeBuilder program to stimulate the economy.

However certain areas of policy, including the housing stimulus and changes to industrial relations, do not address the long-term consequences of recession, according to a new report by Australian National University Menzies Centre for Health Governance.

The report acknowledges the short-term benefits of government programs such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker but criticises housing initiatives like the HomeBuilder Program for neglecting to address housing inequality and the risk of low-income households succumbing to homelessness during the pandemic.

The seriousness of this housing issue is reflected online, with GoFundMe’s search function yielding thousands of fundraising pages for homeless people in Australia alone, while the proliferation of homelessness related news continues to signal a shift in public consciousness.

Despite the fact that GoFundMe has been a source of much-needed income for those in need – particularly throughout the events of this year – there are facets of the website that could be improved on in order to maximise donations, ensure the necessary funds are received by fundraisers promptly, and make communication between parties easier and more efficient.

“…A better explanation of the deposit process would be nice,” says the woman from Knoxville.

“I thought it would deposit what’s available, but instead, it has been deposits from each donation, minus the fees.

“I don’t think the explanation was clear enough.”

GoFundMe has also been questioned over its privacy policies and the disproportionate amount of attention and money some fundraisers receive compared to other, equally deserving, campaigns.

‘When GoFundMe Gets Ugly’ highlights these gaps in GoFundMe’s infrastructure. Chauncy Black, a South Memphis teenager, was trying to help his grandmother pay the bills by carrying people’s groceries. After he helped Matt White, Matt in turn organised a wildly successful online fundraiser on Black’s behalf. The story details their sudden loss of privacy and the superfluous publicity the campaign received. At its peak, the fundraising was bringing in “$1000 a minute” and the Black family’s safety was compromised: “…someone threatened to kidnap Chauncy…so the family relocated to a hotel.”

GoFundMe has an issue with fraudulent campaigns, too. These false fundraisers exploit the platform and siphon funds away from fundraisers with legitimate connections to victims, according to Quattlebaum, who says this has been a particularly frustrating obstruction to her campaign’s success.

“Many donors are frustrated because they cannot figure out which is the real GoFundMe for Tianna,” she says.

According to these organisers, GoFundMe could better facilitate the generosity of the online community if it addressed these flaws. We reached out to GoFundMe for comment vis-à-vis the idea of addressing these issues but received no response.

The positive impacts that online platforms have on the community are undeniable. They stand as a continuing testament to the good will of others, and – as in Kocjan’s case – keeps people from “a very tough spot”. Though GoFundMe and other sites of their kind remain far from perfect, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the modern, working class citizen is relying less on government assistance, and more on crowdsourcing funds to keep from homelessness, hunger, and many other side effects borne from the events of 2020.

“I certainly see GoFundMe as an option, and a legitimate one,” Kocjan says.