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Crowd-funding site helps locals raise cash in wake of recession

An ailing spouse loses his job and struggles to find work. An aging vehicle falls into disrepair. Heating bills pile up. A child with special needs demands constant care. The nation is awash with post-recession tales of personal and financial misfortune. What makes Joanne Murray-Bowne’s story of recent adversity so affecting is its depth.

By her own account, the 43-year-old mother from Henniker, who works from home part time doing bank analysis and other online tasks, has had trouble lately securing consistent work. Her husband has been unemployed for nearly a year and deals with constant pain from chronic knee and back injuries. His federal unemployment ran out recently and the couple has fallen behind on several routine payments. Their 10-year-old daughter has autism and requires nonstop supervision. And on top of that, heating bills and food costs are mounting, and Murray-Bowne’s car now needs $1,500 in engine repairs.

“Honestly, we’ve been so depressed lately that everything just kind of swirls around us as the days go by,” she said earlier this week at a restaurant near her house, which she said she and her husband have rented for the past several years. “I wake up every day wondering when the other shoe is going to drop, if my husband is going to find work. If he doesn’t, his unemployment just ended, so essentially we’re screwed.”

But as grim as that sounds, the last two weeks haven’t been quite so terrible for the Bownes, thanks to a website called GoFundMe, which helps users raise money for anything from medical costs to art supplies to collars for rescued dogs.

Since posting her plea on the site in late January, Murray-Bowne has managed to amass about $2,700 in private donations, all of which she noted has been used for necessities such as gas and groceries, and for paying off lingering bills. Though her goal is to raise at least $5,000 through the site, she said the cash that has poured in so far has “definitely helped.”

“Let me put it this way,” she said, “if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have paid electric this week.”

Made for ‘regular people’

So-called crowd-funding sites have been around for years, but only recently have sites that cater more to the bake-sale persona and less to the start-up crowd grown in popularity. Companies such as GoFundMe, which makes its money by skimming a 5 percent commission from every donation, market themselves specifically to “regular people” – parents, siblings, indebted students, creative professionals – seeking a digital bullhorn for their cause or goal.

GoFundMe’s premise is straightforward: anyone with a picture and a valid Facebook account can register a page. That page is only made public after it has accrued $100 in donations. Donations can be made by anyone, for any amount, and are transferred to the fundraiser in real time.

The simplicity of the process, combined with a series of well documented success stories – a medical fund for one of the survivors of last year’s mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., has raised more than $171,000 – has attracted thousands of new users in recent years.

Catching on around here

And the trend appears to have caught on locally. In Bow, a teenager has raised $475 to pay for food and veterinary check-ups for Siberian sled-racing dogs. In Hooksett, a woman has raked in $940 to fund a Kenyan student’s education abroad. A doctor in Suncook is $160 into a campaign to finance an upcoming volunteer trip to Uganda.

Paulette Jaques, a part-time inventor in Concord, leads an invention club at Rundlett Middle School and is trying to raise $500 through the site to take her kids on an overnight field trip to New York City. Jaques said some of her children are having difficulty paying for the trip and raising money online sounded “better than doing a bake sale.”

“It’s less waste and you don’t have to bring home a cupcake that you end up just tossing in the dump,” she said.

Jaques’s club has so far raised $330. She said the club will probably still end up having to do some sort of physical fundraiser, but that she was “pretty satisfied” with her GoFundMe results.

“I think it’s one of the best donation sites I’ve seen,” she said. “It’s easy to use.”

Maria Wilkinson, a sophomore at Concord High School, started an anti-bullying club last fall, and has raised $145 through GoFundMe to finance an assembly and other awareness-raising events that will take place this week at her school.

Wilkinson said she was thrilled with her page’s results, though they didn’t materialize without work. “I really had to become a saleswoman,” she said. “People say they’ll donate, but you really have to follow up.”

Wilkinson said most of the cash she has raised has come from people she knows, and she attributed her success so far to the fact that she has been posting about the campaign constantly on her Facebook page.

“You really have to put some legwork into it,” she said. “It’s more about how persuasive you can be.”

Murray-Bowne advised that anyone posting on the site focus more on their plight or personal aspiration, rather than a numerical goal. “It is important to keep your story at the heart of it, and not make it seem like a fundraising thing,” she said. “People aren’t really interested in that aspect of it. All they want to hear about is the story, what’s going on with the story.”

Murray-Bowne also said people are more likely to reach their goal if they have one large obstacle to overcome, as opposed to several small ones. “Would you rather help someone who is struggling to pay their electric bill or somebody who is trying to get rid of their cancer?” she said.

A few concerns

For all the convenience of a site such as GoFundMe, though, there are obvious security concerns. The company insists it weeds out scams and swindlers in part by requiring valid user information and by receiving feedback and monitoring account activity. But beyond those basic safeguards, people wishing to make donations are left to believe what they will, at their own risk.

“It is a little sketchy at first,” Wilkinson said.

Jaques said she received a handful of emails from people questioning the validity of her story, but that in each case she referred them to the company the club plans on visiting in New York.

And some of the site’s local pages are clearly less serious than others. “Is this a frivolous thing to ask people for money so I can drive across the country in a limo?” wrote a woman in Nashua, whose user name is Katerina Buttcake. “Um, sure, but it is also AWESOME. Ask yourself, in your heart of hearts, wouldn’t you jump at the chance to DRIVE A LIMO ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO HANG OUT WITH YOUR BEST FRIENDS ON AN ISLAND IN WASHINGTON STATE WHERE YOU WILL RUN AROUND AND MAKE THINGS AND PLAY AND LAUGH FOR FOUR DAYS?”

In the end, though, the crowd-funding trend doesn’t appear to be leaving New Hampshire anytime soon, and for a number of people that is a godsend.

“I see it as finally having a way to reach out to people who I normally wouldn’t reach out to and say, ‘Look, I really need some attention, I really need some help,’ ” Murray-Bowne said. “I’m not just posting on my Facebook that I’m depressed and that my life sucks. No, it really does suck. I really do need help. How many other ways can you say help. You know? Like . . . help.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or
jblackman@cmonitor.com)

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