GoFundMe: Do We Actually Know Where Our Money Is Going?

Australians are a giving bunch, with more than two million of us donating over $200 million to various GoFundMe causes alone -- but how do we know the cash is going to the right place?

While it's far from the only online crowdfunding website, GoFundMe is the largest in the world.

Since its launch in 2010, campaigns have raised millions of dollars for a huge variety of inspiring and worthy causes, many of which are medical or pet-related.

The largest campaigns tend to target wider causes such as the Time's Up Legal Defence Fund, the largest campaign so far, raising a huge $24,206,200, largely thanks to extensive media coverage.

In Australia, the MATW (Muslims Around The World) Africa Project with Ali Banat has raised $1.7 million, followed by A Fiver For A Farmer, set up by school student Jack Berne to help those on the land struggling through drought.

Photo: GoFundMe

But it's the smaller campaigns which many Australians are sceptical about.

Without the associated media coverage, how can they be sure the cause is legitimate?

It's a question that popped into Kim Napier's mind when she set up a campaign for her friend, Jennifer, when the platform launched in 2016.

It had been a tough year for Jennifer and her family, based in Tasmania.

She was battling breast cancer and was forced to undergo a double mastectomy, while two of her children were also seeking medical treatment for serious illnesses.

At the same time, their family home needed renovations to make it wheelchair-accessible for one of Jennifer's daughters, Josie, who has a disability.

"We worked hard, we paid for private health insurance but with most cancer treatments and hospital visits there are huge out of pocket costs," Jennifer told 10 daily.

The family of six was forced to live on a single income and struggled to put food on the table while paying their medical bills.

Kim (second from the left), Josie (middle), and Jennifer (right). Photo: Supplied

Napier, a close family friend, wasn't in a position to help the family with a lump sum of cash herself, so she decided to set up a GoFundMe page to help them financially.

"The truth was going to be in the pudding -- is the money that people are donating going into her account?" she said, admitting she was a bit sceptical, more so for those handing over their money.

"And yep, within 24 hours the money started hitting her account and just like that, we raised $5000."

Jennifer had no idea about the campaign until it was in full swing and admitted she was "a little bit embarrassed" -- but "relieved" when the money started rolling in.

She received every cent, minus a small fee taken by the website. She said she didn't have to hand over any documentation, like medical certificates, to prove her story was legitimate.

Jennifer received just enough money to help her family through a difficult period. Photo: Facebook

With no documents, no fact checks, how can donors be sure they are giving to a legitimate cause?

GoFundMe has a team of experts working around the clock, interacting with campaign organisers, beneficiaries and donors to review and vet every single campaign.

"The people on this team have diverse and experienced backgrounds; coming from military, banking, government and even a philosopher to make sure the funds reach the intended place," Australian manager of GoFundMe Nicola Britton told 10 daily.

With 50 million GoFundMe users globally, Britton said they also get tips from members of the public when a campaign looks dodgy.

The method is effective, the site says. A couple is facing jail time for their role in scamming more than $400,000 from GoFundMe donors by claiming to be collecting money for a homeless man in Philadelphia.

According to their story, Bobbit, a homeless man, gave his final $20 to help Katelyn McClure, a stranded New Jersey woman, buy petrol.

It was a lie and the trio were caught out pretty quickly.

Johnny Bobbitt, from left, Katelyn McClure and Mark D'Amico were caught conning donors, Photo: AP

Britton confirmed that this kind of misuse was very rare.

Can people get their money back?

It depends. If the cause is legitimate and the money is going exactly where the campaign said it would, then no.

But in the case of 'misuse', donors can apply for a refund.

If the funds aren't delivered to the intended beneficiary, the campaign's content was inaccurate or the campaign organiser or beneficiary was formally charged with a crime that is linked to the campaign, you will get a refund.

Donors will also get a refund if campaigns are closed down by the site, such as that hosted by football star Israel Folau.

READ MORE: Israel Folau's GoFundMe Has Been Taken Down

The crowdfunding site drew both criticism and applause in June when it pulled down Folau's page launched to fund legal action against Rugby Australia. He had raised close to $800,000 in just a few days.

While Folau's representatives claimed GoFundMe "buckled to demands against the freedoms of Australia", the platform said the page was removed after it was found to have violated the company's terms of service.

While Britton wouldn't comment on Folau's case individually, she explained generally that any campaign "associated with hate, violence, harassment, bullying, discrimination, terrorism or intolerance of any kind" will be taken down.

Photo: Getty.

What to look for before handing over your hard-earned cash.

Britton outlined several 'social proof' factors to look out for before pressing that final donate button:

  1. How did you hear about the campaign?
  2. Was it on a Facebook page or social channel of someone that you trust?
  3. Have you read about it in the media - you can always do a quick search.
  4. Has the campaign organiser made it clear how the funds are going to be getting to the beneficiary?
  5. Has the person noted the beneficiary’s names, or their connection to them?
  6. If the GoFundMe is fundraising for a charity, look out for the green tick. This means that the donation will go directly to the charity through the PayPal Giving Fund.

A word of warning for your own a GoFundMe campaign.

"If you are going to set up a GoFundMePage, make sure that the person, the recipient is happy with it," Napier advised.

"Obviously [Jennifer] came around to it but not everybody is comfortable with it so always check if you're doing it for a family member or a friend because the story could potentially go viral and go everywhere."