When GoFundMe gets ugly

When GoFundMe gets ugly

In June 2016, Chauncy Black rode the bus from his home in South Memphis to one of the city’s whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. The 16-year-old helped his grandmother pay the bills by doing odd jobs for neighbors, and on this afternoon he was headed for the rich-person Kroger supermarket to try something new: approaching shoppers who’d just bought hundreds of dollars’ worth of groceries and offering to take their bags to the car for a few bucks. It had seemed like a good idea, but in practice it was dispiriting. People ignored him; they wouldn’t even look him in the eye.

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Sometime after 9 p.m., Chauncy filled a box with a dozen donuts and approached a tall white man in his 30s. In exchange for buying him this “dinner,” Chauncy told the guy, he’d carry his groceries. Matt White bought Chauncy the donuts—and cereal and peanut butter and toothbrushes and frozen vegetables, too. “All the while we talked and he told me how he makes straight A’s in school and is trying to get a job to help his mom pay rent,” Matt posted on Facebook the next day. Matt drove Chauncy (and the sacks of groceries) home. “When we got to his house I was truly humbled. He wasn’t kidding. He and his mom had nothing,” Matt wrote. “I thought I was going to cry. As we unpacked the food into their kitchen, you could see the hope coming back into Chauncy’s eyes. He knew he wasn’t going to be hungry. He looked like a kid again.”

Like Chauncy, Matt was born and raised in Memphis, albeit in a different milieu. He was the son of a successful medical-malpractice attorney and a homemaker. In 2008, when Matt was in his early 20s, his father was diagnosed with cancer; three months later, he died. Matt says he spiraled out of control. “I had no Lord anymore,” he told me. He had a day job in the music industry and dealt party drugs at night. One morning after a bender, Matt said, he nearly ran his car off the road and, believing he’d been saved by divine intervention, decided to offer his life up to God.

In this chance encounter with a teenager, Matt again felt the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. He was certain he was doing God’s will when his Facebook post began racking up shares and likes. Strangers offered Chauncy’s family furniture, food, and an air conditioner. And then someone suggested that Matt start a GoFundMe page for Chauncy. Matt called the campaign “Chauncy’s Chance” and set its goal at $250—enough to buy a lawn mower so Chauncy could start a landscaping business. Within a few hours he’d hit the target. By the end of the night, the fund had doubled, and then it quickly doubled again. Watching the money grow was intoxicating; Matt wondered how long the explosion of charity would last.

© Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. Over the course of three roller-coaster months, 14,076 people contributed $342,106 to Chauncy Black—enough to buy his family a new house. (Akasha Rabut)

Six years before Matt’s fateful shopping trip, GoFundMe was founded by two young viral-marketing specialists named Brad Damphousse and Andy Ballester. At the time, Indiegogo and Kickstarter were already crowdfunding projects for artists and entrepreneurs, but Ballester and Damphousse thought they could push the concept much further. They’d help individuals and small groups raise money for personal passions and needs, such as honeymoon trips and graduation gifts—crowdfunding “for life’s important moments,” as the two called it.

Almost immediately, however, it became apparent that “for life’s desperate moments” would have been an equally appropriate slogan. Although GoFundMe’s 18 preset donation categories today include education, animals, travel, and community, the most popular has always been medical. It currently accounts for one in three campaigns, according to company estimates.

Still, the variety on display in this marketplace of need is vast. People have used GoFundMe to eliminate elementary-school students’ lunch debt, to send the local soccer team to nationals, to replace stolen chickens, to help a stranger attend a bachelor party—and, more and more these days, to get involved with divisive political causes. “When Christine Blasey Ford was accusing Judge [Brett] Kavanaugh of sexual assault, a campaign was raised because she needed security—it raised half a million dollars,” says Robert Solomon, the CEO, who came to GoFundMe from Groupon after Ballester and Damphousse sold their business to an investment team in 2015. “At the same time, somebody on the other side started a fundraiser for Judge Kavanaugh.”

Related video: GoFundMe for Anonymous Whistleblower Raises More Than $60K (provided by Veuer)

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GoFundMe has become the largest crowdfunding platform in the world— 50 million people gave more than $5 billion on the site through 2017, the last year fundraising totals were released. The company used to take 5 percent of each donation, but two years ago, when Facebook eliminated some charges for fundraisers, GoFundMe announced that it would do the same and just ask donors for tips. (Company officials wouldn’t say whether this model is profitable, though the site does have other sources of revenue, such as selling its online tools to nonprofits; the “grand ambition,” Solomon told me, is to have all internet charity, whether initiated by individuals or large organizations, flow through GoFundMe.)

The spectacularly fruitful GoFundMes are the ones that make the news—$24 million for Time’s Up, Hollywood’s legal-defense fund to fight sexual harassment; $7.8 million for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando—but most efforts fizzle without coming close to their financial goals. Comparing the hits and misses reveals a lot about what matters most to us, our divisions and our connections, our generosity and our pettiness. And even the blockbuster successes, the stories that make the valedictory lap that is GoFundMe’s homepage, are much more complicated than any viral marketer would care to admit.

Matt White had an intuitive grasp of how to attract donors to Chauncy’s Chance. In a world inundated with bad news, people want something that makes them feel hopeful. They also like to become part of an unfolding story that seems to promise a happy ending in the not so distant future. Matt’s depiction of Chauncy—the poor, hardworking teen with a thousand-watt smile—neatly fit these requirements.

Matt, a classically handsome singer-songwriter who usually wears his long brown hair in a bun, offered emotional progress reports about the status of Chauncy’s fund, sometimes more than once a day: “My heart is going to explode. People just keep giving and giving to this family and it is almost too much for me to take in.” He wrote at length about Chauncy and his family’s poverty and work ethic, and the young man’s desire to better himself. When a local dentist donated a set of dentures for his grandmother Barbara Martin, who’d raised him since he was a baby and whom he calls his mother, Matt filmed her getting them fitted. He posted photographs of the spot where Chauncy and Barbara had fashioned beds out of blankets because they couldn’t afford furniture. He uploaded recordings of his phone calls with Chauncy to SoundCloud. (“I’m sorry you have to sleep on the floor again tonight, man. We’re going to take care of that as soon as possible. Mind your manners, be polite, work hard—it’ll pay off.”) Within a week, the campaign collected more than $10,000; after a local reporter covered the story and it got picked up nationally, the take topped $100,000.

a person standing posing for the camera: Matt White posted emotional updates about Chauncy and his grandmother Barbara Martin. “My heart is going to explode,” he wrote in one. “People just keep giving and giving to this family and it is almost too much for me to take in.” (Akasha Rabut)© Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. Matt White posted emotional updates about Chauncy and his grandmother Barbara Martin. “My heart is going to explode,” he wrote in one. “People just keep giving and giving to this family and it is almost too much for me to take in.” (Akasha Rabut)

In the heady first weeks, when the money was pouring in, Matt learned more about Chauncy’s situation from Barbara—namely, how his birth mother had struggled with addiction, leading Barbara to take custody of Chauncy and six of his siblings. Matt glided quickly over that information on GoFundMe, however. He wanted to keep things upbeat.

Chauncy’s family initially was shocked that they’d become a media sensation. “We went to the store and everyone was like, ‘What’s [Chauncy] done?’ We didn’t have a TV—we didn’t know what was going on,” Richard, a close friend who lives with the family, told me. “Then one day it was like, ‘Pack up. Let’s go.’ ” The story had gotten big enough that Matt worried about Chauncy and Barbara’s safety—someone threatened to kidnap Chauncy, he told me—so the family relocated to a hotel, where they camped out for weeks while a real-estate agent helped them find a new home.

Matt and Chauncy were featured in People magazine; a German journalist flew to Memphis to interview them. “We were the No. 1 trending story on Facebook,” Matt said. “The GoFundMe was making $1,000 a minute.” Part of it was an accident of timing, he believed. “Right when the story was peaking was the worst moment of the Black Lives Matter movement. The tension was hot. Here in Memphis, we were having protests on the bridge. It was really bad. And the story was ‘White Helps Black.’ ” Literally. The main characters’ names—Chauncy Black and Matt White—is one of the uncanny aspects of this tale. “It was like God took a sword of hope and stuck it into all that hate,” Matt said.

Over the course of three roller-coaster months, 14,076 people contributed $342,106 to Chauncy’s Chance. With about $104,000 of the proceeds, the family was able to buy a three-bedroom house in a safer neighborhood, where nobody would have to “hit the floor,” as Barbara put it, to avoid stray gunfire. “I had really given up on people,” she told me. “You know when you get a door slammed in your face? But people really do care.” Chauncy’s Chance became a frequent talking point for Robert Solomon, an example of “how ordinary people who start GoFundMe campaigns can change someone’s world.”

That December, Matt was invited to a celebration for campaign organizers hosted by GoFundMe. He mingled with a man who’d raised $384,285 for an elderly paleta seller in Chicago, as well as a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting. Matt was inspired by the roomful of people extolling empathy and connection and the power of a single good deed. He’d always wanted to be of service to his community but had never quite known how. With GoFundMe, he thought he might have found his calling.

GoFundMe campaigns that go viral tend to follow a template similar to Chauncy’s Chance: A relatively well-off person stumbles upon a downtrodden but deserving “other” and shares his or her story; good-hearted strangers are moved to donate a few dollars, and thus, in the relentlessly optimistic language of GoFundMe, “transform a life.” The call-and-response between the have-nots and the haves poignantly testifies to the holes in our safety net—and to the ways people have jerry-rigged community to fill them. In an era when membership in churches, labor unions, and other civic organizations has flatlined, GoFundMe offers a way to help and be helped by your figurative neighbor.

What doesn’t fit neatly into GoFundMe’s salvation narratives are the limits of private efforts like Matt White’s. GoFundMe campaigns blend the well-intentioned with the cringeworthy, and not infrequently bring to mind the “White Savior Industrial Complex”—the writer Teju Cole’s phrase for the way sentimental stories of uplift can hide underlying structural problems. “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” Cole wrote in 2012. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

After Chauncy, Matt kept creating GoFundMes. He likened his work to a ministry: “God has given me so much revelation—I can look at a GoFundMe campaign and tell whether it’s going to activate within someone the key to unlock the gift of giving. I have a sixth sense for it.” He collected more than $36,000 for a blind Vietnam War veteran, “The Can Man,” who turned out to not be a veteran after all. (Matt blamed the falsehood on a genetic disorder that left the Can Man with “traumatic hallucinations … so severe that they would appear no different from reality”; he told me that he offered to return donations, but no one asked for a refund.) Next, he took on a single mom and her two kids who were living out of their car in Arizona; that campaign raised $6,335, a sixth as much as the Can Man fundraiser had. When the money wasn’t enough to get the family back on their feet, Matt launched a second campaign for them; that one raised half as much as the first. He said he’s fallen out of touch with the family but hopes they’re doing well.

Matt’s relationship with the Blacks grew strained over time. He worried that Chauncy was getting too puffed up from all the attention, and he was disappointed that he hadn’t transformed the teenager’s life as much as he’d hoped to. Chauncy dropped out of high school midway through his junior year, blaming an injury that damaged his eyesight. By then, Matt knew that the straight A’s he had touted in his first Facebook post were something of a mirage. The school principal pressed teachers to inflate grades, Chauncy told me, and Barbara said her grandson was too busy hustling to put food on the table to be more than a middling student. Not long after his 18th birthday, Chauncy had news for Matt: His girlfriend was pregnant. He was thrilled, but Matt didn’t share his excitement. “I tried to influence their lives, but that culture, it’s just something else,” he told me. “It’s hard to come up against that influence—not finishing school, having children out of wedlock.”

Meanwhile, Matt said, it seemed as though the Blacks called him every time they needed help with any little thing—when the toilet broke, when someone needed a ride to work. “It was fun, but it got to be too much,” Matt said. So last December, he decided he had to establish better boundaries. He deactivated the Chauncy’s Chance Facebook page and threw himself into a new career as a cancer coach. (Matt has developed methods involving “diet, holistic healing … lifestyle support, stress and inner healing coaching,” he said, to “support the body’s natural ability to heal itself of cancer.”)

Barbara was confused and hurt when Matt suddenly vanished, she told me. After doctors found blood clots in her legs, she says, she texted Matt to tell him she was in the hospital awaiting surgery. “He just didn’t reply,” she said. Matt told me he never received the texts, and that he’d taken Barbara to the hospital for this condition at least three times before the surgery.

a truck is parked in front of a house: Chauncy has started a landscaping business, but he feels stuck in Memphis, unsure how to reach for something more. (Akasha Rabut)© Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. Chauncy has started a landscaping business, but he feels stuck in Memphis, unsure how to reach for something more. (Akasha Rabut)

Laila and Richard Roy married in 2016, drawn together in part by their shared experiences of ill health. Richard had had a heart attack in 2015 and, after three weeks in a coma, struggled to get back to normal. As a child, Laila had been diagnosed with hereditary pancreatitis, and in 2003, when she was 23, she’d had to have her pancreas, spleen, and parts of her stomach and small intestine removed.

Last year, Laila finally got on the list for a pancreas transplant. It should have been good news, but the couple, who had primary custody of three 9-year-olds from previous marriages—her twins and his son—worried that the much-needed surgery would disrupt their already precarious financial situation. Laila received only a small monthly disability check, and Richard’s digital-marketing business was unpredictable. They had health insurance, like most people who file for bankruptcy because of medical expenses in the U.S. The problem was the high out-of-pocket costs of Laila’s recovery, especially because Richard would have to take some time off to care for her.

On the GoFundMe page Richard created, he described his wife’s situation as urgently and succinctly as he could: “Memphis Dying Mother’s Life Saving Transplant.” Richard knew he had to make his family seem wholesome and relatable, so he included photos of the kids grinning on their first day of school and of him and Laila embracing. He also recorded his wife speaking frankly about her diagnosis—“I’m very private, so doing that video was really difficult,” Laila told me—and encouraged her to start a blog to chronicle the emotional highs and lows of awaiting a transplant.

The couple set a goal of $72,000—the amount they’d calculated, with the help of a social worker, that they would need to sustain themselves for a year or two after the transplant. It sounded like a lot, but then, GoFundMe’s homepage was full of campaigns raising six-figure sums. Other people had done it, Richard figured. Why not them?

His high hopes were promptly crushed. For days after the campaign went live, not a single person contributed. After about a week, the first donation came in, then a few more, but, Richard said, “the momentum was short-lived. And that was it.” Laila wrote a few more blog posts—about cardiac stress tests and the “phlebotomist vampires” who took vials of her blood—before running out of steam. As she put it: “What do you want me to say? ‘It’s horrible’? Nobody wants to hear that. Better to not say anything.”

Search the GoFundMe site for cancer or bills or tuition or accident or operation and you’ll find pages of campaigns with a couple thousand, or a couple hundred, or zero dollars in contributions. While the platform can be a stopgap solution for families on the financial brink—one study estimated that it prevented about 500 bankruptcies from medical-related debt a year, the most common reason for bankruptcy in the U.S.—the average campaign earns less than $2,000 from a couple dozen donors; the majority don’t meet their stated goal.

When I met the Roys at a Starbucks in the Memphis suburbs, not far from Chauncy Black’s new house, they told me that they were grateful for the $1,645 donated by 23 people—and yet the experience had left them deflated. They’d essentially created a marketing plan for their pain, revealing intimate details of their life for a chance at having strangers pay their bills, and hardly anyone had bought in. Had they framed Laila’s illness in an unappealing way? Should they have been more confessional, or less? “I was weeping [in the video], and I’m not a weepy person,” Laila said. “It could come off as contrived. I don’t know.”

Christine Moll et al. sitting on a bench: Richard and Laila Roy essentially created a marketing plan for their pain, revealing intimate details of their lives. But hardly anyone bought in. (Akasha Rabut)© Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. Richard and Laila Roy essentially created a marketing plan for their pain, revealing intimate details of their lives. But hardly anyone bought in. (Akasha Rabut)

Part of the allure of GoFundMe is that it’s a meritocratic way to allocate resources—the wisdom of the crowd can identify and reward those who most need help. But researchers analyzing medical crowdfunding have concluded that one of the major factors in a campaign’s success is who you are—and who you know. Which sounds a lot like getting into Yale. Most donor pools are made up of friends, family, and acquaintances, giving an advantage to relatively affluent people with large, well-resourced networks. A recent Canadian study found that people crowdfunding for health reasons tend to live in high-income, high-education, and high-homeownership zip codes, as opposed to areas with greater need. As a result, the authors wrote, medical crowdfunding can “entrench or exacerbate socioeconomic inequality.” Solomon calls this “hogwash.” The researchers made assumptions based on “limited data sets,” he said, adding that GoFundMe could not give them better information, because of privacy concerns.

The Roys did not have a robust social-media network, or real-life one, for that matter. A native of England, Richard has no family nearby, and his wife’s only relatives are her aging mother and a sister. Laila had deleted her Facebook account not long after her twins’ premature birth, a tense, precarious time when vague well wishes and “likes” from acquaintances only made her feel more alone. Richard worked from home and had only a couple hundred Facebook friends. “Maybe if he worked for a large local company and I worked for a large local company, maybe if we were churchgoers—that’s another network. But I don’t go to church, and he doesn’t either,” Laila said. “I have been told explicitly by social workers that you should go to church just to network. But I try not to be a hypocrite.”

What’s wrong with you also influences whether you score big with medical crowdfunding, according to the University of Washington at Bothell medical anthropologist Nora Kenworthy and the media scholar Lauren Berliner, who have been studying the subject since 2013. Successful campaigns tend to focus on onetime fixes (a new prosthetic, say) rather than chronic, complicated diagnoses like Laila’s. Terminal cases and geriatric care are also tough to fundraise for, as are stigmatized conditions such as HIV and addiction- or obesity-related problems.

“It’s not difficult to imagine that people who are traditionally portrayed as more deserving, who benefit from the legacies of racial and social hierarchies in the U.S., are going to be seen as more legitimate and have better success,” Kenworthy told me. At the same time, the ubiquity of medical crowdfunding “normalizes” the idea that not everyone deserves health care just because they’re sick, she said. “It undermines the sense of a right to health care in the U.S. and replaces it with people competing for what are essentially scraps.”

As Laila’s GoFundMe sputtered out, Richard grew to resent the people raising tens of thousands for sick pets. At his lowest moments, he wondered whether the campaign would have been more successful if Laila had been a cat.

Richard’s bitter feelings reminded me of something Berliner had observed when we spoke: “There’s a lot of secrecy and shame around the ones that don’t receive funding. If it’s a way to perform need, how must it feel to put yourself out there and not receive anything in return?”

Laila is still waiting for a new pancreas. “I don’t like to show weakness,” she told me. “Unfortunately, with GoFundMe, you have to. I suppose if I’d been one of those people who found an abandoned hedgehog and created a backyard sanctuary for hedgehogs and asked for $50 and got $100,000, I’d be super happy with GoFundMe. But all I’ve done is expose myself.”

In late July, a few miles outside El Paso, Texas, a couple hundred people gathered under a white tent that was barely cooled by feeble portable air conditioners. They were there for a symposium on border issues hosted by the man behind GoFundMe’s biggest-ever fundraiser, an Iraq War veteran and triple amputee named Brian Kolfage. The event had the feel of a smaller, sweatier Trump rally; a man in a sea-foam-green Trump Golf Club polo mingled with a woman in a pale-pink MAGA hat. The atmosphere was gleefully triumphant. “Welcome to the wall,” a grinning man boomed every time a new group entered the tent.

The star of the day was a fence made of steel slats sunk into a concrete foundation that climbed up a 30-degree slope, dead-ending into the side of the mountain. On the other side of it was Mexico. Millions of dollars raised on GoFundMe had been spent to build this border barrier on private land in Sunland Park, New Mexico.

The gathering had drawn donors and right-wing celebrities. At a buffet lunch, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach spoke with a Border Patrol agent about a child who had died in custody, and the former Trump strategist Steve Bannon posed for selfies with fans. The next day, Donald Trump Jr. would show up in a limo to speak about his father’s reelection campaign.

Outside the tent was a lemonade stand manned by another GoFundMe entrepreneur, a gap-toothed 7-year-old who wore a silver necklace that read “Build the Wall” in Hebrew. The boy, Benton Stevens, had briefly become famous in February when his pro-Trump hot-chocolate stand made the national news; his mom, Jenn, channeled the attention into a GoFundMe benefiting Kolfage’s border wall that raked in more than $20,000. This afternoon, Jenn told me that she suspected that Kolfage had been discriminated against by GoFundMe. “I think he had a harder time than the #MeToo movement, if you know what I mean,” she said darkly. Kolfage, however, was in high spirits. Posing for photographs next to the wall, he had nothing but praise for GoFundMe. “They were very good to us,” he said.

Later, during presentations, speakers called immigration an “invasion” and an “infection.” On one panel, the project’s construction manager, “Foreman Mike,” compared the building of the wall to a “mini D-Day.” Immigrants, he said, “are coming here to do damage. They’re coming here to steal your money. It’s gotta stop. You people, the American patriots, are the ones that are leading this charge. This is the firing of the first shot.”

One week later, a man who would tell police he was targeting Mexicans gunned down 22 people with an assault rifle at the Cielo Vista Walmart in El Paso—a 25-minute drive from the wall built with GoFundMe dollars.

Kolfage’s record-breaking campaign began with frustration. It was mid-December 2018, and the U.S. government was teetering on the edge of what would become the longest shutdown in the country’s history, the main point of contention being the $5 billion President Trump insisted was necessary to construct a “big, beautiful wall” along the southern border.

At the time, Kolfage was a motivational speaker, conservative media entrepreneur, and coffee salesman who was not particularly well known outside conspiratorial right-wing circles. His personal brand leaned on his history of heroism: During a tour in Iraq, a mortar had exploded three feet away from him. Both of his legs and his right hand had to be amputated, but Kolfage made a tenacious, remarkable recovery. He received a Purple Heart and went on to study architecture at the University of Arizona.

a man standing next to a fence: Brian Kolfage, an Iraq War veteran who sought funding for a border wall, told me: “We got $50,000 that first day, and we were like, ‘Whoa, that was fast.’ ” (Will Seberger / Zuma Press / Alamy)© Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. Brian Kolfage, an Iraq War veteran who sought funding for a border wall, told me: “We got $50,000 that first day, and we were like, ‘Whoa, that was fast.’ ” (Will Seberger / Zuma Press / Alamy)

In the run-up to the 2016 election, Kolfage had become part of the chaotic online-media ecosystem centering on the Trump campaign. He operated Freedom Daily, a site that posted articles under inflammatory, if not outright false, headlines: “Obama-Led U.N. Has Just Made It Official, U.S. to Immediately Pay Blacks ‘Reparations’ ”; “breaking: Civil War About to Erupt in Texas After What Rabid Mob of Migrants Did at Capitol.” (Kolfage points out that these stories appeared only after he sold Freedom Daily, in December 2015.)

In February 2018, he took over the Facebook page for Right Wing News, which attracted more than 3 million followers and tens of millions of monthly pageviews. But eight months later, Facebook removed it, along with the pages of hundreds of other sites, including another affiliated with Kolfage called Military Grade Coffee. In a statement, Facebook contended that the pages had been taken down because they’d “consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Some of the pages had used fake accounts to build traffic, the company asserted, while “others were ad farms using Facebook to mislead people into thinking that they were forums for legitimate political debate.”

In interviews after the purge, several of Kolfage’s former employees at Right Wing News and Freedom Daily echoed Facebook, saying that their boss had asked them to sensationalize and fabricate content, including by Photoshopping President Barack Obama’s head onto other people’s bodies to create the illusion that he was having an affair. Kolfage denies the claims; on Twitter, he described his exile as censorship of conservative ideas and a violation of his First Amendment rights. He asked people to sign a petition championing his protest against Facebook: “We need 1 Million signatures to take to the White House!” He also set up a GoFundMe, to collect money to sue the company: “I gave 3 limbs, what are you willing to give?” The campaign raised $73,866. Two months later came the border-wall brainstorm: Kolfage named the page “We the People Will Build the Wall” and set the donation target at $1 billion.

Solomon told me that he wants GoFundMe to be “the take-action button for the internet.” When major news events—a hurricane in Puerto Rico, wildfires in California—preoccupy the nation, or the world, GoFundMe has positioned itself as the venue through which people can provide tangible help. But with the polarization of politics, GoFundMe is being used in ways that nobody ever envisioned. While that may add to the bottom line, it puts the platform’s good-vibes, “spread empathy” brand to the test.

In 2014, after the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, a pseudonymous user created a campaign to support Wilson. It reaped in excess of $200,000—more than a GoFundMe for a Michael Brown memorial fund—and donors used the comment section to spew racist bile: “I support officer Wilson and he did a great job removing an unnecessary thug from the public!” GoFundMe deleted comments that it deemed to be in violation of its terms of service, but otherwise said its policy was to not get involved: “Much like Facebook and Twitter, GoFundMe is an open technology platform that allows for the exchange of ideas and opinions.”

Yet what it means to be an “open technology platform” is evolving for GoFundMe, along with the other prominent social-media players. A few months after the Brown and Wilson fundraisers made the news, the company changed its terms of service to forbid “campaigns in defense of formal charges or claims of heinous crimes, violent, hateful, sexual or discriminatory acts”; later that year, when a GoFundMe was set up for Michael Slager, a South Carolina police officer who shot an unarmed black man in the back, the company eliminated it within a day. Other polarizing, high-profile fundraisers—for border-militia groups, for an Australian rugby player fired for making homophobic comments—have been permitted for a few days, before being deleted amid an outcry. Campaigns funding abortions were briefly banned but now are allowed. Earlier this year, the company ousted anti-vaccination fundraisers for violating its policy against spreading misinformation, but campaigns on behalf of other questionable medical treatments—from stem-cell injections for spinal-cord injuries to homeopathic cancer care—remain active.

As for the GoFundMe wall campaign, it reportedly caused strife within the company. In private online chats, employees vented to one another, and tried to build a case that the fundraiser violated the terms of service. But ultimately GoFundMe decided that “We the People Will Build the Wall” was in compliance with its rules.

The wall campaign eventually amassed $25 million from more than 200,000 donors. As it was gaining traction, Kolfage flew to Washington, D.C., right before Christmas 2018 to meet with Bannon and members of the House Freedom Caucus. At the townhouse that serves as Bannon’s personal headquarters, Bannon explained to Kolfage that donations to the government couldn’t be earmarked for a specific purpose, like, say, the wall. “I said, ‘Are you sure your folks just want to write a check to the general fund?’ ” Bannon told me. Kolfage toyed with the idea of giving the money he’d collected so far to someone else—a charity that helped kids? the Shriners?—but Bannon had a different notion: What if Kolfage put together a team to build the wall himself, on nongovernment land? Doing so would sidestep the legal issues; it would also be a way to emphasize private enterprise’s superiority over “wasteful” public programs. “It was an off-the-cuff idea,” Kolfage told me. “And everyone was like … yeah.” He registered a nonprofit called We Build the Wall, with Bannon as the advisory-board chair.

GoFundMe allowed Kolfage to change the terms of his campaign, although he’d have to contact the 200,000 contributors individually and ask them to opt in to the new mission. After the opt-in period was over, the account dipped to $14 million. (Not because a large number of donors rejected the revised plan, Kolfage said, but because people couldn’t be reached.) Meanwhile, Bannon helped recruit other notable Trump-adjacent figures to the cause. Soon the board of We Build the Wall included Kobach, who’d just lost the election for governor in Kansas; Tom Tancredo, the immigration hard-liner who had dropped out of the gubernatorial race in Colorado; and the swaggering, cowboy-hatted David Clarke, who’d recently resigned as the sheriff of Milwaukee.

Critics of the crowdfunded wall continued to dismiss it as a joke or a scam—“Shocker! The GoFundMe Campaign to Build the Wall Is a Bust,” ran a Daily Beast headline—until, on Memorial Day, Kobach went on Fox News to announce that the first section of the wall was “almost done.” On social media, Kolfage announced “a massive wall party for our donors,” as well as “live cameras … so you can watch the illegals try to scale it and fail.”

The construction of the half-mile, 20-foot-high barrier almost immediately faced legal challenges. The mayor of Sunland Park said that the group initially lacked the necessary permits; the construction also ran into trouble with the International Boundary and Water Commission, the federal agency charged with maintaining the border. The ongoing conflicts didn’t dampen the campaign’s appeal. After the half-mile section of wall was built, Kolfage updated the campaign: “We are about to surpass the liberal #MeToo movement for the largest Gofundme ever,” he wrote. “Theirs was funded by hollywood celebs, ours American patriots. Lets get it done!”

The GoFundMe wall so far covers less than 1 percent of the border, and significantly extending it won’t be easy. Most of the land abutting Mexico is controlled by the federal government, and in states like Texas, where the borderlands are largely in the hands of private entities, landowners—including Republicans—have resisted the intrusion of a wall. But by at least one standard, the wall campaign has been a rousing success. Kolfage has claimed that it netted him 3.5 million email addresses—a treasure trove for political fundraising, and one that’s already been used to solicit donations to Kobach’s 2020 Senate campaign.

a chair sitting in front of a window: Barbara and Chauncy appreciate that their new home is in a safer neighborhood, but they don’t always feel welcome there. (Akasha Rabut)© Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. Barbara and Chauncy appreciate that their new home is in a safer neighborhood, but they don’t always feel welcome there. (Akasha Rabut)

This spring, after I reached out to Matt White, he decided to reconnect with Chauncy and his family. He arranged for us all to meet in July at the Blacks’ new home, where several of Chauncy’s brothers and friends chatted in the living room while Barbara bustled around the kitchen.

Matt manned the grill, and as he flipped burgers in the backyard, he told me he’d been wounded when people insinuated that he’d profited from his “discovery” of Chauncy. Matt had received a trust after his father died, and he’d decided to set up something similar with the GoFundMe donations. Overseen by an attorney, the trust is intended for big-ticket items such as education, vehicles, and work equipment, Matt said, but Chauncy and Barbara occasionally have gotten permission to use it for living expenses. According to Barbara, the family largely subsists on intermittent money from Chauncy’s lawn-care gigs and her $500 monthly Social Security check. Some of the GoFundMe money is invested in a mutual fund, Matt said. “It’ll probably be worth about $1 million by the time [Chauncy’s] 40,” when he’ll have unfettered access to the account.

Chauncy himself, the center of all this swirling attention, wasn’t eager to talk to yet another reporter. He’d grown into a lanky young man, scrupulously polite and diligent with his “Yes, ma’ams,” but quick to slip away to his girlfriend or his PlayStation. Finally, I tracked him down in his room, where he kept his eyes fixed on the basketball players darting across the TV screen while he answered my nosy questions. His life was easier than it had been before, he said, but that didn’t mean it was easy. Lawn work wasn’t exactly lucrative—and he was frustrated that the lawyer who administers the trust wouldn’t more readily give him money just to live. He dreamed of going to New York or Atlanta, but had no idea how he would get there. When I asked if the spotlight had ever felt overwhelming or intrusive, Chauncy dismissed the idea. He hadn’t minded the attention—it was pressure, and pressure makes him work harder. Pressure is good.

While the Blacks appreciate the fact that their new neighborhood is safer and quieter than their old one, they don’t always feel welcome. “We’re the only black boys around here,” Chauncy’s friend Richard told me. “Anytime something’s going on, the sheriff is riding past, stopping by.” In particular, Chauncy would tell me two months later, they’d had problems with a white neighbor, a man whom Chauncy blames for getting him arrested twice this summer: once for misdemeanor assault and once for reckless endangerment, after the police searched the house and found a gun. Formal charges haven’t been filed in either of the cases, which according to Chauncy are based on “lies.” Recently, he said, his family had begun to consider moving.

After visiting Chauncy and Barbara that July afternoon, Matt and I drove back to my hotel. During the ride, he told me that people still ask him to create GoFundMes. “They think I have the Midas touch.” He usually declines, but every once in a while the Holy Spirit falls on him and he agrees, he said, though mostly he just sends a gift card—“because GoFundMe can go viral, and that makes things difficult.”


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