🥅 super social safety nets

GoFundMe as a policy agenda

The pandemic has brought scores of new users to platforms like OnlyFans, Etsy, and GoFundMe that offer novel sources of income and assistance. Shopify has demonstrated explosive growth as merchants migrate online and new businesses are founded. Secondary market sites like eBay, Kijii, and Craigslist let people sell goods for side cash. All of these platforms are proving themselves to be super social safety nets, augmenting and functioning in parallel with unemployment benefits and “stimmy” (stimulus) cheques from the government.

A recent New York Times article asked if you can “Really Turn Your Hobby Into a Career,” citing Yelp data that recorded business closures and Etsy data that showed a spike in new sellers. Reddit users coach each other on how to access unemployment benefits.

While some people may experiment with selling their crafts online, monetizing a newsletter on Substack, starting a Patreon, opening a Kofi account, or selling nudes on OnlyFans, the most straightforward platform for digital mutual aid is the crowdsourcing site GoFundMe

It’s sort of a live digital graveyard of policy failures captured through calls for micro-giving. The campaigns tend to be somewhat sorrowful, where an individual or family’s urgent need outweighs the potential embarrassment of posting. Here are some current campaigns that the algorithm served me: 

GoFundMe occasionally publishes reports pointing to annual trends.  In 2020, babies with rare diseases, protest movements, and COVID-19 were among the top campaigns. That CTV News article noted that “in lieu of sufficient government aid, average people ask other average people to help.” 

Share regs to riches

In August, GoFundMe created a campaign specifically around Coronavirus relief, mirroring government mobilization. But GoFundMe is not a government, it’s a for-profit company (!). It charges a 2.9% payment processing fee on each donation, along with 30 cents for every donation. In the past, it also charged a “platform fee,” which was discontinued in November 2017. Instead, the company now asks donors to leave a “tip” after making a donation. 

The company also has an advocacy and charitable arm, GoFundMe.Org

GoFundMe’s Small Business Relief Fund has raised $2.7M to date. It’s a grant program for small businesses that asks them to raise $500 in order to become eligible for a $500 grant. In Canada, the Federal government is providing over $1.5B through the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund (RRRF). 

Scrolling around GoFundMe.com, some other popular campaign categories are: 

  • Veterinarian bills; 

  • Gender-affirming surgery;

  • Dental bills; 

  • Rent;

  • Funeral; 

  • Lawyers.

The top fundraisers of 2020—America’s food fund, Official George Floyd Memorial Fund, Frontline Responders Fund, Justice for Breonna Taylor and the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund—point to massive policy failures in food security, racism and policing, and PPE provision. These campaigns should reinforce the urgency of the United States investing in these issues. 

There’s a related question here, which is whether our reliance on peers as the “real” safety net could be subconsciously shifting the role of the state in our lives. 

Rather than pressuring policymakers for support, we turn to each other. If the tax system is the original “peer”  platform, then strangers directly supporting each other with modest donations allow funds to flow faster and fill specific gaps.  

Often, GoFundMe campaigns can be paired with Change.org petitions. Currently trending there: 

People without paid sick days are even more vulnerable to financial pressures if they need to take time off work. One can similarly imagine a Change.Org petition alongside individualized campaigns to support people that have had to take time off work. 

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While it’s meaningful when these campaigns work out, and the kindness of others provides a just-in-time lifeline, people should not have to pay out of pocket for all of these things. 

Political policy platforms are an agenda for solutions and sites like GoFundMe provide indicators of policy gaps and opportunities.

It’s a question of what people have trouble paying out of pocket for, and what the role of the state is. They should be part of a reality check when decision-makers set their agendas and draft their policies, and treated with just as much import as public opinion polling on what people THINK they want. Like, if the Canadian government truly gets serious about pharmacare, a key indicator of the success of such a policy expansion would be a subsequent decline in the number of fundraisers related to drugs. 

Vass Bednar is the Executive Director of McMaster University’s new Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program.