Crowdfunding Sites Can Be A 'Mixed Blessing' For Refugees

If more people choose to help individuals they see on social media, will they contribute less to traditional humanitarian aid organizations?

As millions of Syrians seek refuge in neighboring Middle Eastern countries and Europe, money is flowing over the Internet to help them. Crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe and Indiegogo, which let people to donate online, have joined institutions like the Red Cross and United Nations as a source of aid.

Frustration with traditional nonprofits means that more people are trying to use crowdfunding to support displaced people around the world. But not everyone is convinced that crowdfunding is uniformly positive or transformative for society. 

"These sites, as with so many things, are a mixed blessing," Ken Berger -- former CEO of Charity Navigator, which evaluates charitable organizations -- told The Huffington Post. 
A Syrian family arrive with other migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turk
A Syrian family arrive with other migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on Nov. 14, 2015. European Union leaders on Nov. 12 struck an aid-for-cooperation deal with Africa and proposed a summit this year with Turkey in a two-front push with wary partners to tackle an unprecedented migrant crisis.

Gissur Simonarson, a web developer in Norway who launched a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign over the summer to help a family of Syrian refugees, didn't immediately realize the challenges he'd face raising money this way.

"I think that an individual case is probably not the best way to go," he told HuffPost. 

In August, Simonarson saw a picture on Twitter of a man selling pens on the street in Beirut, Lebanon, while a young girl slept in his arms. He tracked them down and identified them -- single dad Abdul Halim and Reem, one of his two daughters -- then set up an Indiegogo page where people could send money to help the family. The fund raised nearly $190,000 in less than a month, and the Halims used the money to buy a bakery.

But it wasn't particularly easy getting the funds to them, and not all of it wound up in their hands. For one, Indiegogo takes a 5 percent cut of the total raised from campaigns on its site, and payment services like PayPal have their own fees. As Simonarson discovered, that adds up. "Around $20,000 have gone to Indiegogo and Paypal," he said. (If you're considering a campaign to help someone, consider Indiegogo's new charity platform, which doesn't charge fees.)

"There's a lot of complications," Simonarson added. "You can't set up a bank account. It becomes a security situation, when people find out."

The CEO of Indiegogo, Slava Rubin, acknowledged to HuffPost that public campaigns raising tens of thousands of dollars for refugees can indeed put people in danger and create the need for ways to not only deliver funds to the person but also to keep him or her safe.

Simonarson also raised the issue of equitably distributing crowdfunded aid, since such platforms can have biases that reflect the societies that use them.

"It only works for the refugees who can game the system, who have a nice photo and can get the help," Simonarson noted. 

Globally, tens of millions of people have been displaced from their homes by war or other types of instability. The UN Refugee Agency says 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced by years of conflict, and that another 4 million have fled to neighboring countries as refugees. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have arrived in European countries and applied for asylum.

The UN Refugee Agency estimates that it will need $236 million to help 2.5 million Syrians and 700,000 Iraqis this winter -- and it's struggling to meet that funding goal.

Migrants and refugees walk at nightfall after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border near Gevgelija on Nov. 13, 2015.
Migrants and refugees walk at nightfall after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border near Gevgelija on Nov. 13, 2015.

After the White House asked tech companies and the public to help refugees on Oct. 6Kickstarter made an exception to its rules and hosted a charitable campaign that raised $1.7 million from almost 30,000 backers for the UN Refugee Agency. The United States asking its citizens to crowdfund humanitarian aid has not been able to close the funding gap.

We know that devastating photos from wars drive donations to charities that respond to them. Once attention wanes, however, so does giving. 

Berger suggested that crowdfunding might even make this dynamic worse, because it leans toward short-term, specific situations.

"The technologies that are affording us to have crowdfunding sites and text donations make it even easier to be an impulse giver rather than a thoughtful giver," he told HuffPost.

The worst outcome from well-intentioned efforts to crowdfund aid in the refugee crisis could go beyond a failed individual campaign. If more people choose to help individuals in campaigns they see on social media, they might contribute less to humanitarian organizations.

That outcome is more likely if public faith in traditional institutions like the Red Cross is shaken, if evidence of mismanagement of donor funds and failures in relief efforts emerge, as they have in the past. 

The trouble is that the UN, government agencies and the military remain the only institutions that have the capacity to respond to large-scale disasters, whether they're created by humans or Mother Nature. If the public doesn't put pressure on these institutions to reform, there could be long-term consequences for people around the world.

"Individual storytelling about individuals is heart-wrenching, but if we focus on micro we may not get to the bigger problems a disaster poses," said Berger. "Crowdfunding and many little efforts are important and valuable, but if we abandon the Red Crosses of the world, even with all of their problems, where will we be?"

Correction: This post originally stated that Kickstarter had changed its policy to include hosting charitable campaigns. A company spokesman said that its campaign to aid refugees was an exception, not a permanent change.