Part of the power of the philanthropic crowdfunding platform GoFundMe is that total strangers can start campaigns for others in need. And some of those campaigns go viral, generating enormous windfalls. But if the stranger didn’t start the campaign–who is the windfall for?
Earlier this year, that happened to 35-year-old Johnny Bobbitt, a man living on the streets of Philadelphia. After a woman named Kate McClure ran out of gas near the corner where Bobbitt was asking for money, Bobbitt gave her $20 to get home safely, and in return, McClure and her boyfriend Mark D’Amico set up a GoFundMe to help get Bobbitt off the streets.
They asked for $10,000 but ended up raising more than $400,000, from more than 14,000 donors. The question now, however, is who controls that huge chunk of cash, how much is left, and just how much the original fundraisers may have spent on themselves.
As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, “The couple promised donors they would set up two trusts for Bobbitt’s benefit and hire a lawyer and a financial advisor for him to help manage the money and invest for his future.”
The GoFundMe campaign additionally stated that Bobbitt would receive a new home and pickup truck. That didn’t happen.
“The promise of a home gave way to a camper that Bobbitt lived in until June on land McClure’s family owns in rural Florence Township, Burlington County, near the small house the couple share,” notes the paper. “He never got his ‘dream’ pickup, a 1999 Ford Ranger, and the used SUV he was given instead broke down.”
Bobbitt seems to have been unable to beat his opiate addiction, which led to him spending some small distributions of the funds in ways that the McClure and D’Amico have judged to be unwise. But the whole point of the page was that it was ostensibly Bobbit’s money no matter what. McClure and D’Amico allegedly never created the trusts, and have been unable to produce a reliable accounting of where the money went while also taking vacations, buying a new car, and gambling.
For GoFundMe, the story represents one way their user-generated charity model can be abused. Despite what appeared to be initial good intentions, the campaign in question never properly addressed who was actually in control of the money, or acknowledged that Bobbit may have needed supportive services to go with his influx of cash. More importantly, it highlights just how easily campaign sponsors can defraud recipients–and the complications that can arise when random people suddenly find themselves in charge of well-funded ad-hoc philanthropic funds.
GoFundMe itself has offered to help, though it’s still working through its options:
“GoFundMe spokesman Bartlett Jackson said the nonprofit “is looking into the claims of misuse regarding this campaign. When there is a dispute, we work with all parties involved to ensure funds go to the right place. We will work to ensure that Johnny receives the help he deserves and that the donors’ intentions are honored.”
GoFundMe, which is a for-profit company, also reportedly collected around $30,000 from the campaign in question. That would appear to have covered their standard fees at the time, which were 5% per transaction and another 2.9% for payment processing. The company has since changed models, waiving transaction fees in favor of a tip-if-you-want model for donors that want to support the service.
For now, Bobbitt’s situation remains a feel-good tale that ended poorly. As the newspaper reports, he’s currently back on the streets panhandling alongside his brother, who reportedly also suffers from addiction.
UPDATE: On Thursday, August 30th, a New Jersey judge ruled that McClure and D’Amico must deliver all remaining funds to Bobbitt effective immediately. The money will reportedly be deposited into a trust with a court-appointed guardian available to assist Bobbitt in how to spend them wisely.