If there were a stock for outrage, conventional media, 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 non-profit and lobbying groups, and fundraising platforms would be mutual investors. Outrage is hot right now, and it’s making some people hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Earlier this month I shared an Indiegogo campaign that closed having raised over $17,000 for a Chicago youth homelessness project. The student-led campaign, still not matched or complemented by the students’ campus, generated a great deal of media attention and nearly 400 unique donors contributed before it closed.1
If you were one of these donors, thank you.
Crowd-supported campaigns excite me.
I work with organizations as they raise funds, and I’m energized by the heart of philanthropy, the love of humankind. Grassroots activists have always thrown block parties and passed the hat at meetings or services to engage community supporters, but only in the last decade has internet-based crowdfunding mated with social media platforms, and this match scales far more rapidly than a neighborhood party or offering plate could.
The result: fundraising companies like Kickstarter, Razoo, CauseVox, Indiegogo, and GoFundMe, and payment services like Stripe, WePay, and PayPal that organizations and individuals can use to connect directly with audiences, post quick updates, and receive money online— all with not much more than the skills they’d use to build a common social networking page.
This technology puts the request in front of more and more people, and the social sharing uses social proofs to sell the cause, but the heart of the phenomenon is what it always was. Third parties like grant-making foundations, local and national government agencies, religious communities, and larger non-profit groups will always support public giving, but organizations’ trump card is still the ability to serve a community and inspire that community’s direct investment. With that ability, even small, local non-profits can stay independent enough to focus on their mission and adapt with their audience rather than balance community concerns against sponsors’ priorities.
Yet there’s an underbelly to this shift.
There’s a thread of misanthropy in this philanthropy.
Not all of those deploying web crowdfunding platforms tap into the love of humankind. Several major fundraisers have sprung up in the last three years that have trafficked less in philanthropy and more in misanthropy.
George Zimmerman earned over $130,000 from web fundraising after shooting and killing Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL in 2012. Two fundraisers launched the week after Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, last year raised just under $500,000 for the officer while he was still receiving a full public salary.
When Indiana restaurant Memories Pizza reaped criticism for announcing that it would serve LGBT people but not cater their weddings, a talk radio host inspired 29,161 people to give $842,442 in less than a week. A bakery that refused to bake a cake iced with an anti-LGBT message was crowd-funded to the tune of $14,549 in 6 days. And a campaign that, like the Andrews University students’ fundraiser, will support a youth homelessness program, has raised more than $132,000 in 5 days.
Funding needs are being met.
The fundraising platforms benefit as well.
I checked out GoFundMe’s terms this week: the company gleans 5% from each donation made in the United States, the fundraiser pays a 3% transaction fee, and the remaining 92% goes to the cause. A ninety-two percent net gain isn’t bad, and 8% pays GoFundMe et al. for facilitating donors’ wish to give. Under these terms, fundraising brokers earned more than $67,000 in fees from the first Memories Pizza fundraiser. If #Pizza4Equality does as well, GoFundMe and WePay will have earned more than $134,000 from facilitating outrage-based giving in just two campaigns.
During the 20th Century, the archetypal Neutral Broker was Switzerland. In our century, the crowdfunding and payment services industry has adopted that role, and online giving fueled by outrage and disgust is making these companies very tidy profits.
Disgust works, but at a cost.
Three weeks ago, I listened to writing, tech, science, and risk communication researchers describe how their students study poverty and other civic issues. They shared how a citizen campaign failed to stop the US Navy from wiping Port Chicago off the map (Sam Dragga2 and Gwendolyn Gong), how much grant-seeking scientists struggle to engage the public as equals (Sarah Perrault), and how ordinary people debate the merits of hydraulic fracturing on web forums (Brian Ballentine).
Connie Mick (Poverty/Privilege: A Reader for Writers
) explained the “politics of disgust” that undergird the enduring myth of the “welfare queen.” These politics separate the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving,” drive public policies and regulations that carve up the public into acceptable and unacceptable classes, and then reward only the former.
In the same session, Dragga and Gong recounted the 1944 military explosion in Port Chicago, CA. Port Chicago’s community activists failed to overrule the Navy’s claim over their land, and their campaign didn’t produce a complete accounting of sailors or residents killed, injured, bankrupted, or made homeless by the military accident. In that incident the Navy asserted an eminent domain claim over one town, but today, landowners around the nation are being asked to yield surface land and mineral rights to natural gas companies for fracking programs. Some residents resist out of disgust for corporate encroachment on family property, and others cooperate.
Each study presented in that session made me think of the balance of power among organizations, citizens, governments, and interest groups, and the disgust rhetorics that drive racist violence, LGBT-antagonistic policies, and discrimination against people based on beliefs, assumptions, and fears about their social groups.
At a psychological level, disgust reduces to revulsion, and it triggers reflexes like withdrawal, dissociation, and avoidance. Applied to people, disgust marks the border between “alive” and “dead,” “safe” and “dangerous,” our group and theirs, and the contamination risked when the boundaries between Us and Other soften. As Daniel Bitton writes, “People are compelled to force others to cease disgusting behaviour in others, and to humiliate or do violence to people with disgusting personality traits.” Disgust has social consequences.
Because disgust affects how we perceive and respond to people, so does triggering that emotion through rhetoric: there are human/humane costs to using metaphors and arguments that tie social groups to our disgust reflex, and yet the strategy is so common in political rhetoric, in the cable news cycle, in internet comment sections, and in non-profit fundraising campaigns. I once warned a non-profit organization that I would never donate again if they sent me another reactive outrage solicitation. I doubt my email stopped them from publishing that kind of rhetoric elsewhere, but it did stop them from continuing to inflict it on me!
If it’s true that disgust is reflexive and operates at a more “primal” neurological level than complex thought, how helpful is it to invoke it in public discussions? Does deploying disgust preempt a thorough debate? Who benefits when it becomes a routine part of communication or fundraising strategies? I wonder, too, if we adjust to outrage and disgust strategies in public communications and whether we notice if an organization divests, giving up disgust as a way to mobilize its supporters.
Disgust is legal. It doesn’t breach fundraising ethics codes. And it works.
Can it get us the results we want?
The values and ethics codes of the Association for Fundraising Professionals, CFRE International (the leading fundraising certifier), and the Society for Technical Communication (which governs technical communicators and rhetoricians like me) don’t have much to say about deploying disgust in public fundraising communications. Of course, professional codes don’t constrain non-professionals like those who use GoFundMe, but professional norms can define the behavior boundaries in which lay people choose and act.
The AFP ethics code, for example, requires AFP members not to “engage in activities that harm the members’ organizations, clients or profession or knowingly bring the profession into disrepute,” and insists that solicitations be “accurate.” It doesn’t otherwise limit the kinds of solicitations that fundraisers can make or the language they use to invite donors to give. Members may not “disparage competitors” and must describe their organizations’ services truthfully, but they aren’t bound to restrict the use of stereotypes or biased language and metaphors in development communications.
By contrast, the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy’s professional conduct statement does include an explicit requirement that members respect “all individuals without regard to race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, or any other characteristic protected by applicable law.” However AHP members honor this rule in their routine choices, respect and revulsion cannot coexist, and only respect can nurture a culture in which the love of humankind becomes the air we breathe.
When I looked at the distribution of small donations to large on the Indiegogo and GoFundMe sites I referred to at the start of this article, I noticed how many of these donations were small, one-time amounts: $10, $20, $50, $100, $200. Each federal election cycle, there’s excitement about the small donor’s power to combine with hundreds of thousands of other small donors and influence legislators through crowd force. Compare this more realistic analysis of Obama’s 2008 campaign income: Politico frets that the era of small contributions “appears to be ending before it ever fully took hold”.
I share Politico’s concern about mega-donors gaining disproportionate influence over the legislative process. Yet I’m not so cynical as to imagine that a culture of philanthropy can thrive without either the exceptionally wealthy or the exceptionally poor. A generous giving culture involves us all, no matter who we are, and no matter how much money we have to share. A generous giving culture also challenges us to reconsider our definitions of wealth as well as our implicit or explicit rules about who’s “deserving” enough to give and receive.
These rules aren’t set above our pay grade.
In the end, as specialists and as community members, we decide who may join us in our ideal world.
And only we can decide whether disgust is the best possible strategy we have for getting there.
1. This week, Andrews University president Dr. Niels-Erik Andreasen announced a new taskforce “to help us gain greater understanding of this problem [LGBT youth homelessness] and propose helpful responses to the needs of these young people.” The university is receiving comments on this at email@example.com.
Andreasen’s letter includes no timeline for the new study, for assessing proposals, or for implementing action.
2. Sam Dragga (Texas Tech University), one of the co-presenters at the CCCC 2015 panel I refer to here, supervised my doctoral research on the organizational structure, competing values, and government staff that influenced the British government’s case for war in Iraq in 2002.