Pay It Forward

Crowdfunding is not mutual aid

Unemployment is the highest since the Great Depression, but federal, state, and local governments have failed to provide material support for people in the United States. From food for children who aren’t receiving free school lunches to PPE for health care workers, there are a range of online campaigns to help those in need, often funneled through platforms like GoFundMe and Kickstarter. From the start of the pandemic, coronavirus related campaigns flooded crowdfunding platforms, as individuals, cultural institutions, and activist organizations struggled to raise money for their survival. For over a decade now, crowdfunding campaigns like these have been popular mechanisms for garnering support for any number of causes or pet projects; they have also, as now, been used to raise money for basic needs. In the U.S., the lack of universal health care means that all too often crowdfunding pays for medical necessities like chemotherapy treatments and surgery. The pandemic has seen an uptick in crowdfunding campaigns for burials, but this was a common use, even before.

Mutual aid draws support from within communities instead of relying on external charitable actions often tied to colonialist rhetorics of development

As a general rule, crowdfunding relies on neoliberal notions of charitable giving and the responsibility of moral individuals. For example, the shuttered Tenement Museum, which captures the history of the immigrant experience in NYC, is employing a crowdfunding campaign to sustain itself, following the same donor-based philanthropy model as its usual galas and other fundraising ventures. This money, however, isn’t reaching furloughed security guards and other museum staff. Altruistic donors provide money to those who have less to make up for state malevolence and neglect or the failures of entrenched institutions, often to paper over austerity measures passed during times of apparent crisis. The model depends on atomized donations from far-flung kin members, local communities, and internet strangers, maybe some larger ones from the wealthy or famous.

To receive funding, people must perform their worthiness and craft compelling narratives that will tug at an online audience’s heartstrings and catch the attention of proprietary algorithms. Through my research on crowdfunded funeral practices, I found that the financial success and circulation of crowdfunding campaigns depended on influencer strategies and boosts from social movements, including popular hashtags. Covid-19 is pushing this model to its breaking point. Redistributing resources on a large scale also means taxation and other measures so that billionaires are not the ones deciding which causes sink or swim. The crowd can’t possibly save them all.

The problems that exist in crowdfunded campaigns in the best of circumstances are intensified by the current collapse of support structures. Studies have consistently shown that crowdfunding reproduces existing inequalities, as campaigns initiated by and intended for Black people are more likely to go unfunded. Researchers found that 75 percent of donations go to white people. A GoFundMe campaign for City Lights Books, the iconic San Francisco bookstore, went viral almost immediately. A campaign for the oldest independent Black bookstore in the Bay, Marcus Books, did not receive the same number of shares. Only when Roxane Gay and other well-known donors called attention to the campaign on Twitter did it meet its financial goals. Publicity doesn’t necessarily work, either, because people’s prejudices influence which campaigns they donate to and which they pass over. The story of Valentina Blackhorse, a dynamic 28-year-old Navajo woman who died of Covid-19, appeared on NPR and Democracy Now. Despite the media coverage, the GoFundMe campaign raising money for her burial and for her bereft family members fell short of its goal. In May, the Navajo Nation’s rate of Covid-19 infection surpassed that of New York’s. Black and Latinx people, who are disproportionately dying from Covid-19 because of a long history of structural oppression and overt racism, are also the least likely to benefit from crowdfunding initiatives.

Crowdfunding campaigns can follow neoliberal models of charity, emphasizing individual responsibility; or they can be attached to greater mutual aid efforts. Mutual aid has taken on new resonances during the pandemic, appearing in popular publications such as the New Yorker. Popularized by Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin in the early 20th century, mutual aid strategies have existed for centuries and have been deepened by community survival efforts like the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program and free health clinics or mobilization in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Mutual aid emphasizes solidarity — or relationship-building and mutual support — over charity, which relies on hierarchical structures. It enlists self-organizing, egalitarian, and reciprocal social relations to address systemic problems in the long-term instead of merely addressing immediate symptoms. Another core tenet of mutual aid is drawing support from within communities instead of relying on external charitable actions, which are often tied to colonialist and paternalistic rhetorics of development.

The pandemic exposes the shallowness of a system predicated on philanthropy. Too many people are at the mercy of the rich

From the early days of Covid-19, mutual aid networks redistributed stimulus checks and used grassroots, peer-to-peer exchange to send funds to activist organizations. Long-time mutual aid organizer Mariame Kaba employs her social media presence to facilitate immediate material support while also pushing for radical change. Even NextDoor, known for its role in racialized surveillance and pettiness, got engaged in mutual aid practices as neighbors found ways of redistributing food, masks, and cleaning supplies. A GoFundMe can be one tool used in the spirit of mutual aid, if it is verified by the community and by organizations that were already there putting in the work, such as a fundraiser for Black trans unhoused women in Atlanta or a viral campaign initiated by Hopi and Navajo tribal members. This is different from brands, institutions, or businesses raising funds on behalf of others, or campaigns that ask for money without advocating for broader social justice.

The distinction between these two models is crucial, particularly at a time when sending resources and organizing through digital means is one of the only routes available. In their best iterations, crowdfunding campaigns are a means of showing care. As I have argued elsewhere, rather than passing the collection hat at a place of worship or offering other in-person material assistance like food, flowers, or hugs as part of collective mourning, crowdfunded funeral campaigns provide another way for kin members to bury their dead with dignity. For people who can’t join mass protests because of their own vulnerabilities or caretaking responsibilities, online acts of mutual aid provide a way to contribute to collective care movements.

Crowdfunding is one resource among many, and within a mutual aid model, reaching a financial goal is not the end game. Amid the uprisings in every American city, bail funds are an important aspect of crowdfunding mutual aid. In the same way that hashtag activism works in tandem with on-the-ground organizing, digital crowdfunding interfaces with other shows of mutual aid, including providing food, water, and medical supplies to protestors who are risking police violence to stay in the streets. PayPal, Venmo, and other payment apps are also used to distribute money to people on the ground, in a radical repurposing of commercial infrastructures.

Crowdfunding platforms, while useful, are themselves imperfect. As with the rest of the sharing economy, corporate platforms that skim money off the top of donations or charge processing fees and rely on other corporate social media platforms to circulate sad stories do not embody a true digital commons. Kickstarter and Patreon have laid off their own workers even as their companies surge in popularity. In addition, the temporality of crowdfunding platforms does not allow for immediate emergency relief. It takes days for campaigns to be finalized and platforms don’t disperse money right away. Activists from People’s City Council, an organization in Los Angeles, used Twitter to call out GoFundMe and get them to release the funds early to provide legal, bail, and medical support to protestors and to donate to Black Lives Matter Los Angeles directly. Recognizing the flaws of corporate crowdfunding platforms, new kinds of platform cooperativism are emerging. There are also open source crowdfunding platforms, used by branches of Extinction Rebellion and Women Who Code, that aren’t charging fees during the pandemic.

The pandemic exposes the shallowness of a system predicated on philanthropy. Too many people are at the mercy of the rich. The current crisis has witnessed communities helping themselves, redistributing resources and supplies according to need through digital channels. At a time when many people are physically isolated, perhaps even the most capitalist platforms can provide the scaffolding for radical work.

Tamara Kneese is an assistant professor of media studies and director of gender and sexualities studies at the University of San Francisco.