Friday, August 29, 2014

Crowdfunding is what happens when real funding dries up

Crowdfunding is great. Except as a substitute for all the other ways that people used to make or raise money: through jobs, a living wage, a social safety net, or established charities and arts organizations.

A year or two ago, a fiftysomething INRU staff member who used to work in the English department mentioned on Facebook that he'd been laid off by the university after decades of employment. He was a deeply beloved figure, someone who knew every undergraduate and grad student by name; each May, his bulletin board was crowded with thank-you notes and photos of that year's be-gowned, be-capped graduates. When he mentioned his firing, dozens of people wrote on his wall to express outrage and sympathy.

I still see his posts in my feed occasionally, but if he said anything more about his employment situation, I hadn't noticed. Then, earlier this week, he shared a post by his wife. It turns out she was also a long-time university employee who'd been laid off the year before he was. She'd managed to find a part-time minimum-wage job, but he was still looking. She indicated that they'd been struggling but managing--until their landlord announced he was selling their home and they suddenly had to come up with several thousand dollars for a security deposit, first and last month's rent, and a moving van. Evidently embarrassed, she set up a crowd-funded account to see if they could raise the money.

They met their goal in a few days, mostly via lots of small gifts from former students and coworkers who apparently cherished their memories as much as I did mine.

Still, I've been distressed by this ever since. I'm glad to have been able to help, as I'm glad to have been able to donate to various friends and friends-of-friends when they wanted to mount an experimental play, or cover printing costs for a graphic novel, or provide winter-weather supplies for the homeless. I'm pleased to have a small stake in worthwhile projects, and at this point in my financial life it's easy enough to kick in $50 here and there.

But it only works, really, as a one-off: you can't keep tapping your entire social network in the way an established nonprofit can ask donors to commit to annual gifts or automatic monthly deductions. Or I suppose you can, but you'd probably see diminishing returns: the loose and diffuse friendships fostered by social media aren't built for it. There are plenty of people I haven't seen in 15 years whom I feel warmly toward--but not so warmly that I'd appreciate repeated attempts to leverage my affection into a cash donation.

That doesn't mean I don't care; it just means that each of us has limited means, and when push comes to shove it's usually our family members and closest friends who have most claim to our financial and emotional assistance. The awfulness of the crowdfunded emergency bailout is that it reminds us how insufficient both our resources and our goodwill are.

I hope my old friend and his wife will be okay from here on out, but what if they're not? What if there's another emergency--or what if nothing's an "emergency," but they simply can't get by any more? And what about all the other people I don't know, with fewer friends and family to call upon, but equivalent needs?


Historiann said...

Wow. Our awesome "sharing economy" at work! I hope your friends avoid becoming the next Margaret Mary Vojtko.

I'm sorry to have nothing substantial to add, except to say that $hit is f^ck*d up and bull$hit.

Flavia said...


You can swear on this blog, cowgirl! Shit IS fucked up and bullshit.

Bardiac said...

You're absolutely right on the mark with this post, Flavia.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I heard a story within the last few days about a student crowdfunding some of her educational expenses (I think it was ancillary but necessary stuff, such as books, a laptop, and sheets -- presumably the extra-long sort, which might not be strictly necessary, but probably go for a premium price as "dorm supplies," and nobody's academic life is going to be helped by wrestling with too-short sheets every night). Her parents were embarrassed, but she saw it as the best way available to her to meet her needs, and start school with a bit of a financial cushion.

Here it is:

This, too, strikes me as resulting from a breakdown in the social safety net. I'd happily pay a bit more in taxes to fund a state or county-level fund for things like security deposits or basic school equipment. I'll also contribute privately (our church has a fund for things like security deposits and overdue utility bills), but I'd rather live in a society where such help is more widely available (or, better yet, where people who are able and willing to work have no need for such help, because they have jobs and make enough to meet the expenses of normal life on their own).

Susan said...

I had a former student hit me up for crowd funding his law school education... And my (soon to be ex-) daughter-in-law is crow funding the lawyer to pay to go to court (because he would not agree to her terms in mediation). The first strikes me as an example of what you are talking about; the second I am far more ambivalent about.

But really, why was INRU getting rid of 50-something staff members? Isn't there a union?

Flavia said...

Cassandra and Susan:

Yes, exactly. This really does seem to be on the rise. My feelings about crowdfunding arts projects are different--in many cases, they're the kind of thing that couldn't get grant funding, or that really offer a meaningful form of participation to the funders, in a way roughly similar to being a subscriber to a theatre company or a member at a museum--though I'm wary if it starts to *substitute* for the kind of funding that ought to be available through state or national arts organizations.

And to your question, Susan:

I don't know enough to answer that question, though I'm wondering, too. I presume the firings weren't for cause, and I'd presume it would be really hard to fire someone with 15+ years work experience at the university, but I just don't know. At some point in the financial downturn I got a series of emails from the university president about the ways INRU was going to cope, and he made a lot of reassuring noises about absolutely not shrinking the faculty and so on, but I just don't remember what the policies toward staff were. The usual thing is to leave open lines unfilled, but I can't be confident that that's actually what he said (much less that that's what he did). I wish I knew more.

undine said...

Flavia, this is disturbing. If it can happen at a well-funded university--letting people go without any retiremet--what will happen at other universities?

You are right about the crowdfunding. First came the big tax cuts, because charities will pick up the slack (so said one party, naming no names). Now the charities are stretched too thin and there's no work to be had for the over-50s, so crowdsourcing is supposed to fill the void. But crowdsourcing ought to be funding big ideas, not bare necessities; that's the job of the social safety net.