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REPORTERS SHOP TALK Episode 15: The GoFundMe conundrum

'Anyway, I will wish you a good day and thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts the way you did. Many people just call me an idiot and swear a lot.'
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Welcome to Reporters Shop Talk, this is Episode 15. My name is Stu Campaigne, I’m a reporter with BayToday.ca with my colleague Dave Dale. Today, we're going over something that we've discussed through the week and today it's top of mind for Dave because you've been covering a story that deals with Go Fund Me pages. Can you fill us in a bit? What's going on?

Dave: Well, the GoFundMe phenomenon obviously is borne out of the social media platforms that evolved so people can collect money easily and launch fundraising campaigns without actually going through the traditional avenues.

So there's a plethora of them which actually allow a whole bunch of different people to do them, some of which are, you know, higher quality fundraising goals than others, and some of them are fraudulent. Some of them are basically frivolous in other people's minds. And so they're just a vast quantity of them. So as a news platform, it's easy to do a story on these things.

See related: Jeff's Jots, Why we're very careful about GoFundMe stories

I think we all started out doing stories on these fundraisers and kind of cherry picking the low hanging fruit for a quick story. Some of them are actually really worthwhile and very popular with our readers, but it's like most things, too much of a good thing. And, the possibility of some of them being tainted by fraudsters gives us pause before we even enter into the area.

Stu: You know, in my much shorter career than yours, I've had quite a bit of experience dealing with them. But for the most part, these are people who legitimately need help, will not be able to afford whatever surgery or piece of equipment or whatever the case may be. They will likely not be able to access that without help. And you know, these things, we're all human. They pull the heartstrings, but there's a heck of a lot of them out there. But like you said, some are fraudulent, frivolous.

And I think, to me, I've kind of done a bit of a 180 on GoFundMe. I'm very hesitant to put my employer's name or my name behind them, unless I'm absolutely 100 per cent sure it's legitimate. And, I mean, obviously, the people might think, well, that's something you should have done from the beginning.

But, you know, some of these people are professional fraudsters who are, you know, appealing to our readers and we're enabling them to do it.

What do you feel about that?

Dave: Well, definitely from the start, we should have weeded out the fraudsters. And then once you do that, it becomes, “What is the definition of frivolous?” It is depending on your perspective. Right. Like, I could do a GoFundMe for a project that is dear to my heart and is doesn't have, you know, broad news appeal. So it's up to the posters and the platforms to decide whether it's actually a news story.

Like there's nothing wrong with me putting up a GoFundMe, for example, if I wanted to build an outhouse. Right, whatever venture, whose business is it other than mine? And if somebody wants to help me out, this just provides an easy platform for the people to pay and for you to collect. So no biggie. But it comes down to: “Should a news platform be promoting one story over another?” Right.

Stu: Yup, and I agree, and I gather the other side of this to me, in my experiences, is, you know, GoFundMe itself is for profit, right?

So this company, without doing their homework on the, let's call them cases that they're providing, they're making money. They get a percentage of all the money raised, GoFundMe, gets money from that. They're making money off it, but they're not checking to make sure all the stories are legitimate. So in a way, they're promoting something they don't know for sure is real and profiting from it.

Dave: Well, they're providing a service. And that's the way I look at it. Yes, they take a percentage and so does every Visa card. Right? And perhaps 100 percent of the money doesn't go to the campaign. But, you know, that's to provide a service and a reach. Right. So I don't mind the system. It's like ‘user beware.’

It's a consumer type service, which is fine. A lot of people wouldn't be able to set up accounts and other ways of collecting money without something like that. So it just costs to do that kind of business. I'm OK with that.

Stu: I wrote an article in the last year about a little girl in the hospital in Toronto, this is a real life example. So I checked as best I can every angle to the story. Everything seems legitimate. A bunch of money pours in for this girl. And, you know, there's a whole bunch of other stuff that goes on with it beyond that, but not really important to this part of the story. But then I started getting emails from GoFundMe to my work account.

So now that I've been recognized as kind to a GoFundMe, now they're pushing other campaigns on me to write about. It's a really savvy operation they have there, it's very slick, you know, they must have algorithms or whatever or people that have contributed to campaigns that have raised the most money. I don't know, maybe I'm a cynic, but all of a sudden, you know, in a way I helped raise money for this little girl and now GoFundMe was looking for to me to help raise money for other people.

Dave: Yes. And then you're going to get the ads on your Facebook account.

Stu: Yeah, exactly. So it kind of feels like, you know, you've done a good thing. You hope, like, the whole thing to me is very tainted. Even if it's for the best case in the world, I still don't feel right about it until it's, you know, a month down the road and I know everything was legit, I just have a hard time. I want to help people. Don't get me wrong.

And it's very cynical, but I think in this day and age, with the Internet age, cynicism, kind of you know, if you're not cynical about a whole bunch of stuff that's going on online, then you're missing the truth as far as I'm concerned.

Getting back to our example, this week you wrote an article about a military vet, and I'll let you take it from there. 

Dave: Ok, so I saw the GoFundMe campaign posted to the East Ferris Post It Facebook page.

The wife of a military vet was seeking help to so they can get a service dog (for his PTSD).

And I kind of take a look at it, it might be a potential story on a slow news day. Also, I'm, you know, soft on military guys in particular. I'm very soft on anything to do with dogs, my favourite type of pet.

So I asked the editor, Jeff Turl, whether or not this is a possible fundraiser that we would write a story on. Of course, he, like everybody else, has experience on GoFundMe stories and has a little bit of a red flag on them, not our ‘go-to’ thing. But he said with a military guy looking for help for a service dog, yeah, sure. Go for it.

But what I did was just, you know, the whole campaign notice was written by the wife. I noticed it wasn’t by the vet himself. So as part of my due diligence, I asked to speak to the vet and they were very quick to say, ‘Here's his number, here's his email, go for it.’ And so, I called him up. I had an exploratory talk with them to just sort of gauge the genuineness of the campaign.

And all the right boxes were ticking off. As far as I was concerned, he sounded like a decent guy. I talked about how long they lived in the area, you know, I looked into it. I thought it was my due diligence. Everything worked out. So I did the story and I used his quotes instead of what she wrote up. And you know, probably I thought it was a decent story. How could you lose? They weren't looking for a lot of money.

Originally, she posted a goal of three thousand and change. She moved it to four thousand. So I inquired about why, she's very forthcoming as far as the additional expenses they discovered, promising that she would provide receipts and it seemed very above board.

So I was pretty good with it, a human interest thing. I'm good with it. 

But, funny enough, I got an email response by one person that questioned whether or not this should have been a news story that we put on our platform. She comes from a military family. She said they get enough support and pension and disability and there's groups out there to help people. She said she’s just sick and tired of GoFundMe campaigns for people putting their hat out and asking for help.

So we had a fairly lengthy exchange of emails just talking about the issue, why I did it. I'm going to include that in the transcript just to use as an example of what these trigger and why some reporters may or may not continue doing GoFundMe stories.

His dog, I think was 11, showing old age, requiring a lot of vet bills. He's already spent three grand, he said, plus a thousand dollars on medicines. And going forward, they were able to access help from the Veteran Affairs. But there was a big waiting list and they were dealing with the time element that seemed genuine to me. They wanted to get a young puppy that could be trained as a service dog while their existing dog was still alive. They had already lost their other pet last fall.

You know, it was tugging at my heartstrings anyways, and it all made logical sense. Right. So I went through all that with the reader that was responding. And she was having none of that.

Email exchange:

Reader:

I am contacting you re the article requesting funds for the retired service member, to assist in purchasing another trained dog to help him with his PTSD.  Now I really do sympathize with those soldiers who ended up with PTSD due to past service engagements.  What I am sick of seeing is these Go Fund Me requests that keep cropping up for all sorts of reasons.  If he has been documented by the military as having PTSD, he should be receiving a pension for this as well as his military pension.  So if this is the case, I do not believe he is in dire financial straights, as the military are very well paid today.  I am saying this as I have friend whose son was in the service and he is receiving an enormous amount per month due to his PTSD condition.  Maybe you should do a bit more research before you print these articles.  I believe in donating where a valid and proven reason exists. 

Dave's response:

Thanks for your feedback, I appreciate it.
I don't do GoFundMe's very often, especially when they appear to be milking people's good nature for extreme amounts of cash for dubious causes.
But yes, I have a soft spot for vets and dogs, so I thought it was worth looking into. I spoke to Eric before going ahead to get a feel for the situation, not relying just on Caroline's post alone.
All the boxes checked off. They have a tight time-frame for the purchase and training while also preparing to buy a better-suited home in the area at a time there are not many on the market and those that are being sold above asking price due to the low supply and competition. I saw Caroline post something about their home search on the East Ferris Post It site prior to this asking if anybody had a home to sell.
I'm curious, though, how much pension and PTSD support you feel is an enormous amount of disability support? My cousin is retiring from the military after about the same amount of years and he figures he'll have to find part-time work. My uncle is retired from the military and while he's comfortable they don't live the high life.
I believe I will do a bit of research to find out exactly how much they are receiving though for future reference. It seems to me a lot of veterans have not had an easy time receiving the supports they deserve. 
But at the end of the day, you and everyone else have every right to be selective in who you support. I respect that as I'm choosey who I support as well.
Anyway, I will wish you a good day and thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts the way you did. Many people just call me an idiot and swear a lot.

Reader:

Hi Dave.  In response to your returned email, you can check salaries by accessing the Cdn Forces website.  As it stands right now, I believe the recruit level pay is $35,820 and once they complete their training their salary goes up to a maximum $62,424 per annum.  Plus all their benefits are included, health dental etc.  Most military members can retire I believe after 25 Years with full pension.  If this revive member retired with a medical pension as well, he would be earning a decent amount every month and if it was deemed he could not work due to the severity of his PTSD then the amount would be increased.  I am sorry if I sound unsympathetic, but it seems that every time you turn around people are asking for a “go fund me”.  What did people do before they started this crap, they found the monies they needed.  I believe in helping those who have lost homes and possessions due to fire, families who have lost their breadwinner due to death and had no insurance coverage, anybody else, no.

Dave's response:

I guess it boils down to every person being able to make their own choices on these matters. 
They chose, for whatever reason, that putting their hand out for help and inviting public judgment was either necessary or worth the risk.
In this time of uncertainty and stress, I thought a soldier that served our country and came back worse for the wear asking for help to buy a dog is OK in my book. It's not my understanding we over-pay our soldiers when they are able and can do a better job supporting them after we're done with them.
Like I said, we look at these fundraisers on a case-by-case basis and try to sniff out the frauds and frivolous requests as best we can.
Thank you for your feedback, it helps us understand our readers better.

Reader:

We are lucky that we live in a Country of free speech, won for us by the armed forces in the last wars, and if you checked further, there are all kinds of agencies that are available to him to enable him the help he requires.  I have nothing but respect for our military, my late husband served in the Canadian Armed Service.  I just feel with all the avenues open to him for assistance, that is the route he should go first.  

Dave's response:

They did. There are waiting lists and I'm getting the feeling you didn't read the story.

They explored getting a rescue dog but many of them have their own issues and groups that help veterans with PTSD get trained service dogs had long waiting lists.
Money is also tight as they prepare to find a better-suited home in the area this summer. Home buyers are facing a seller’s market as residents in southern Ontario cash out of their properties and flee big cities.
A service dog trainer introduced them to a breeder who moved Eric to the top of his list for a puppy that will be ready March 14. But they were scrambling to find the $2,500 plus HST for the purchase, special food, and related expenses while also supporting ongoing Nala’s medical care.
“The training will be paid by the Citadel Canine so I’m only asking enough money to be able to pay for the dog. I will provide all the proof of payments and also show pictures when I have some,” Caroline added. “If I get more than Eric needs, that money will go for Nala’s veterinarian bill, for pain medications for her hips, and also for the puppy booster.”

Reader:

Yes, I read the article.  I am talking about departments in the armed forces and Veterans Affairs.  As long as he has been diagnosed and it is documented within the military, he should qualify for some type of funding to cover these costs, taking the burden off him.  And contrary to your statement that help is not there for these soldiers, is not true.  My friend’s son suffers from PTSD and receives all the help he needs when it is required by him, so maybe he has not been directed to the proper departments.  Tell to keep pushing the Military for help.  Sometimes, perseverance is what is required.

Stu: We'll wrap it up with this. So now you've done the story. You followed up. You've had exchanges with one of our readers about it. Is there anything you would do different for your next one? What have you learned from this one?

Dave: Well, I did learn from this one, because I did get a subsequent request to do a story from a group that was doing a fundraising campaign. And I'm going to treat it with due diligence and look into it just like I normally would. But my strategy going forward on this one is that I'm not going to even mention the GoFundMe until the very last line of the story. And I'm going to list alternate ways people can contribute if they feel like it. So I'm not going to make it a GoFundMe story. I'm going to make it about the issue and what their plans are.

And I'm going to downplay the whole GoFundMe and only list is as one avenue that people can use to contribute if they feel like it.

Stu: I think that's a good way to go about it, you know, we evolve just like anyone else. We've had some hard knocks with some of these, and some of them turned out great. And sometimes it takes months or even years to find out for sure. But it's a tough one for us because it goes beyond our jobs and we are constantly evolving to make more decisions than just as a journalist. And this is a perfect example of things that have kind of been added to our plate as far as making the right calls, as far as these campaigns and, you know, I don't think it's going to go away anytime soon. What do you feel about that?

Dave: Yeah, well, we're constantly adapting and I believe coming up with policies and procedures in our own mind to possibly deal with that.

I think I might even put out an issue paper to Village Media to explain that maybe we can look at GoFundMe a different way. I'm going to try it this next one and to reduce the promotion for GoFundMe and just let people stand on the merit of their story.

Stu: I like that idea. I think we'll leave it there for today. Perfect. Until next time. 
 




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Stu Campaigne

About the Author: Stu Campaigne

Stu Campaigne is a full-time news reporter for BayToday.ca, focusing on local politics and sharing our community's compelling human interest stories.
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