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?