Crowdfunding can’t fill gap left by government cuts
As sites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe become more popular, the trouble with free-market funding of social programs is becoming clear.
Of all the proposals to appear on the online crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, surely the most ambitious on record is “Greek Bailout Fund.” Its aim: to rescue the Greek government from its debts, with a fundraising goal of a cool 1.6 billion euros. Perks to donors included a postcard of Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras for a donation of three euros, Greek salad for six euros, a bottle of ouzo for 10. The gratitude of the people of Greece? Priceless. And/or one million euros, according to the site.
While Thom Feeney, the Greek Bailout Fund campaign’s UK-based organizer, claims that his project is a genuine fundraising effort and not satire or social commentary, his poker face surely conceals a brilliant and cynical distillation of modern economy under austerity.
Like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and other crowdfunding platforms, Indiegogo offers a medium for individuals to put money toward a project in a fairly transparent way. The site holds the money pledged by backers, and if the project meets its fundraising goal, the money is transferred automatically from the backers to the creators. It allows people to give small amounts of money and see big results; it’s also become an important way individuals are asked to close the gap left by the loss of social programs.
When I first encountered Kickstarter, I supported every campaign I was pitched (which was not that many). It was an easy and satisfying complement to other funding models; you could in a sense pre-purchase someone’s art, giving them a little breathing room to create it.
Now campaigns are ubiquitous, and range from book tours to pet surgeries to basic subsistence for marginalized people in crisis. But with crowdfunding increasingly called on to plug the holes left by funding cuts (consider that in 2014 Canadians pledged over $27 million to Kickstarter alone, and that from 2013 to 2014 the amount crowdfunded globally jumped from US$6.1 billion to US$16.2 billion), the stakes are getting higher and the trouble with putting this support to the free market is becoming clear.
Do we back campaigns based on the perceived worthiness or importance of the project? The neediness of the asker? How well we know the asker and how bad we’re likely to feel if their project can’t be realized? Is it OK that we’re being given the right, and the responsibility, to make these kinds of calls? Should the artist with the most Facebook friends win? Should the person to get support for a disability be the one with the best Twitter game? Letting the invisible hand guide these decisions seems not only flawed but dangerous.
Closer to home than Greece, a campaign has been created to aid the residents of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, on the site fundrazr.com. The community, which sits on the border of Ontario and Manitoba, has been providing the city of Winnipeg with drinking water since the early 20th century, but has itself been under a boil-water advisory for 17 years. The campaign is attempting to raise $10 million to build an all-weather access road to connect the community with the mainland, and thus to clean drinking water — that’s $10 million the federal government has refused to commit.
Frustrated citizens who care about the community’s well-being can skip the arduous process of engaging with the federal government and trying to convince it that First Nations communities are worth caring about, and just give directly to the cause. Such a move seems part resourceful community-mindedness and part Band-Aid-over-metastasized-cancer. As Chief Edwin Resky is quoted as saying on the campaign’s page, “While we appreciate your intentions, at the same time we wonder what kind of country Canada is when safe access to essential services, when our right to clean drinking water, when access to basic economic opportunity, must depend on the kindness of strangers?”
As with the ongoing Uber vs. taxi crisis, the combination of social technology and austerity budgets has resulted in a tacit referendum we’re asked on the daily: Do we want a heavily regulated, taxed, slow-moving and accountable system? Or do we want a fast, cheap, mobile, individualized one where you get to put your money exactly where you want it, and hope for the best? The answer the people are resoundingly giving is Yes! No! We’re not sure! But the second model is certainly gaining traction. Whether you call it community solidarity or techno-neoliberalism, the Kickstarterization of livelihood is, if nothing else, a call to examine our priorities as a nation.
Anna Leventhal lives in Montreal. She is the author, most recently, of the short-story collection Sweet Affliction.