The power of viral crowdfunding campaigns in a year of bad news

By Rebecca Ruiz

When James Shaw Jr. decided to launch a GoFundMe in honor of victims of a deadly shooting at a Waffle House in Nashville earlier this year, he set a modest goal of $15,000.

Shaw, however, had just become famous as the “Waffle House hero” after tackling and disarming the alleged gunman. The GoFundMe he launched with a few of his friends quickly went viral, and it ultimately raised $241,000.

“I was doing it just to help out, ’cause I know losing a child in that kind of way, and you have to plan that funeral, as young as they were, they probably didn’t have insurance,” says Shaw. “It was just my way of trying to ease the pain.”

“There’s kind people still out there. Honest people still out there.”
As he watched money pour in from donors around the world, Shaw suddenly became the recipient of a separate viral GoFundMe campaign launched on his behalf by a journalist in New York. It was entitled “Help The Waffle House Hero.”

That fund brought in $225,000, a staggering amount for a 29-year-old father who worked as a wire technician for a cell phone company.

With the help of a financial planner, Shaw invested $180,000 and has plans to buy a house. The funds raised for victims have been given to them and their families, save $15,000 that Shaw used to launch the James Shaw Jr. Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about mental health issues and to stopping violence.

“There’s kind people still out there. Honest people still out there,” says Shaw. “There are people that want to help; not everybody’s a crook, not everybody’s trying to get over on you.”

Shaw’s hard-won optimism reflects what most people seem to want out of viral crowdfunding: their faith in humanity restored. Internet platforms have long made it possible to reward a stranger’s act of kindness, or help them in a time of need. But crowdfunding in 2018, amidst the daily onslaught of no-good, terrible news, presented countless opportunities for collective redemption.

“Rather than being overwhelmed by the news, people instead started taking action with every event by sharing, donating, or even starting a GoFundMe to make an immediate impact,” Rob Solomon, GoFundMe CEO, said to Mashable in a statement.

We could help teens who’d just survived a horrific mass shooting recover from their injuries — and build a political movement. We could seed a legal defense fund with $22 million to aid people who’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted at work. We could help strangers pay for insulin, organ transplants, school supplies, and maternity leave.

“When [people] get a chance to give to others, it’s reinforcing that basically, people are good, and because we’re good we want to help others in a less positive position we might be in,” says Tim Seiler, clinical professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “In a gloomy time, maybe we’re looking a little harder and …. searching for ways to do good things.”

Some criticized feel-good crowdfunding campaigns as a distraction from bigger problems: the gun lobby’s influence over politicians; a broken, expensive health care system; nonexistent or anemic family leave policies; low wages that make it impossible to get ahead. You could rightfully look at altruistic crowdfunding and argue that such generosity papers over all that’s rotten in America. Yet people on the receiving end of these campaigns see it differently. The generosity becomes a chance to put themselves on a path they’ve always imagined for themselves, and to give back to others.

When Walter Carr’s life was transformed by viral altruism this summer, he was a 20-year-old college student who regularly walked miles to work in Birmingham, Alabama, because his 2003 Nissan Altima constantly broke down. On the evening before his first day at a moving company in July, Carr realized he’d have to walk 20 miles overnight to reach his job by daybreak. So he set out on foot for a 7-hour long journey. When the woman who hired him as a mover learned about what he’d gone through to show up on time, she launched a GoFundMe campaign entitled “Thank You Walter” on his behalf.

The campaign page featured a video of Bellhops CEO, Luke Marklin, presenting a shocked Carr with his own Ford Escape as a gift. He later wrote in a Medium post that “[p]roviding Walter with a reliable form of transportation … felt like the right thing to do.”

“When people’s sense of empathy is aroused, their tendency I believe is to rally to the cause,” says Seiler. “They start from a premise of, ‘I trust these people are doing the right thing, and I’m going to do the right thing.'”

“I didn’t think my 20-mile journey meant anything to anybody.”

Overnight, Carr became an extraordinarily lucky man simply because his story moved strangers who sensed they could make a meaningful difference in his life — they only had to click “donate now.” Even if countless people make unfair sacrifices every day to reach work, Carr’s circumstances presented the public with an opportunity to symbolically ease one person’s burden — to the tune of nearly $92,000.

The randomness of his changed fortune was not lost on Carr.

“For my story to touch so many people, it’s a dream come true, but I want to do more,” Carr recently told Mashable. “I didn’t think my 20-mile journey meant anything to anybody.”

Carr still has trouble believing the Ford Escape parked outside his house belongs to him, but he’s been driving it to school and to his job at Bellhops. Carr worked with a financial planner to set the GoFundMe money aside to pay for college, where he’s studying physical and occupational therapy. Once the campaign reached $66,000, he decided to give whatever donations came next to the Birmingham Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that prepares students for “college, career, and life readiness.” Carr participated in the foundation’s program as a high school student and wanted to give back.

“I just love helping people and giving them the opportunity to know there’s still good people out there,” says Carr. Read more at Mashable.com

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