The practice of crowdfunding for charitable causes has grown immensely in recent years, with fundraising platforms like GoFundMe and companies like Facebook adding charitable giving to their services. These appeals enable friends, family and complete strangers to provide financial support for housing, education, medical treatments and recovery from natural disasters.
Simon Fraser University (SFU) health sciences professor and bioethicist Jeremy Snyder has observed how crowdfunding campaigns have grown in popularity and in cultural influence. He argues that although its benefits should not be ignored, crowdfunding does raise ethical concerns. For example, crowdfunding success is highly unequal, with winners and losers often influenced by existing social inequities. Moreover, campaigners can face significant pressure to publicly share intimate details of their personal lives, their finances and health vulnerabilities.
Snyder has published widely on themes such as medical tourism, public health ethics and the phenomenon of crowdfunding. His most recent book, Appealing to the Crowd: The Ethical, Political, and Practical Dimensions of Donation-Based Crowdfunding, discusses crowdfunding in the wider historical and ethical context of giving practices. It is available now from Oxford University Press, and as an open access download.
We spoke with professor Snyder about his research and his new book.
How did crowdfunding become such a huge cultural phenomenon?
Crowdfunding has grown up alongside increased internet access and social media use. Asking friends, family and community members for financial help is not new of course—but online crowdfunding means that you can connect with these people through online platforms and potentially reach a much wider audience.
Based on your research, who is most likely to be funded, and for which causes?
Crowdfunding success reflects existing inequalities within our society. People who live in relatively wealthy communities and have networks of well-to-do and influential friends and family can draw on these connections through crowdfunding. Conversely, people who live at the margins of society and experience racism and other forms of discrimination typically have less success. Education is another factor as campaigners must develop a compelling written narrative about why they are deserving of help. Stigmatized needs such as mental health and addictions support can be at a disadvantage compared to more appealing campaigns for young children with life-threatening diseases.
What type of privacy threats exist with regards to crowdfunding and why is this a concern?
To succeed in crowdfunding you must convince potential donors that you are deserving of help and that your story is legitimate. This means providing a great deal of information, including about one’s financial history, medical diagnoses and family dynamics. These stories are typically accompanied by photos, videos and regular updates, often including other family members. The biggest problem with this is that it is not really voluntary if the choice is between making this information public or not being able to afford your basic needs.
Do you think crowdfunding masks or exacerbates the need for better social supports like healthcare, education and housing?
Crowdfunding is often presented as a solution to people’s needs. However, it tends to address immediate needs rather than their deeper causes like inadequate social supports. To take the example of recent wildfires in central British Columbia and Maui, crowdfunding campaigns have helped many people whose lives were uprooted by these fires. However, local community and national organizations may be better suited to rebuilding community housing, providing equitable economic opportunities and addressing climate change.
Is there anything else you would like to mention about crowdfunding?
Crowdfunding can be an important source of help for people and has been a literal lifesaver for many. It is a useful way to reduce barriers to giving among friends, family and close connections—people you would have helped with or without a crowdfunding campaign. Ethical issues tend to arise most prominently when crowdfunding is used to help strangers and replaces more sustainable and equitable community-based institutions.
For more: Check out Jeremy Snyder’s recent book, Appealing to the Crowd: The Ethical, Political, and Practical Dimensions of Donation-Based Crowdfunding, and read his opinion piece, Do Post-Disaster Crowdfunding Campaigns Exacerbate Inequities? in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.