Sometimes, no matter how well you plan, unforeseen emergencies arise that exceed even the most well-cushioned of emergency funds. Catastrophic events like major medical expenses, the unexpected death of a family member, natural disasters, and ongoing unemployment have the power to devastate even well-off families financially.
According to a survey by the Federal Reserve, in 2018, almost half of Americans weren’t able to cover even a $400 emergency expense. That’s definitely a problem, especially since the report also revealed that 1 in 5 Americans experienced a major unexpected medical expense that year, and 1 in 4 skipped necessary medical care because they couldn’t afford it.
Although many families have traditionally turned to loans and credit cards to help them deal with unexpected financial emergencies, credit can only take one so far. Well beyond the $400 many Americans are lacking, catastrophic emergencies that reach into the tens of thousands of dollars affect families every day, and the inability of many families to manage the costs has resulted in the rising popularity of crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding allows those who are unable to manage an emergency expense otherwise to turn to their communities for help. But despite its rising popularity, the question remains: Is crowdfunding a good solution for handling an emergency?
What Is Crowdfunding?
Crowdfunding is a term that refers to literally raising money from a crowd. Fundraisers set up a landing page through an online crowdfunding platform like GoFundMe. That page describes the problem or project and asks for the community’s support.
If the fundraiser’s story moves visitors, they can donate — typically via debit or credit card or a PayPal account — and the accumulation of small donations from a large number of people can add up to helping the fundraisers reach their overall financial goal.
Usually, crowdfunding platforms allow visitors to help even more by spreading the word through built-in social media sharing buttons, thereby enlarging the reach of the fundraising campaign.
Why Start a Crowdfunding Campaign?
Traditionally, crowdfunding has been the province of small business start-ups. Platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow individuals and small businesses to receive funding for their projects, enabling them to turn their ideas into realities. But the sobering situations many Americans face in dealing with high health care costs, regularly recurring natural disasters, and ongoing unemployment have many turning to crowdfunding as a way to deal with otherwise unmanageable situations. And those are only a few of the reasons Americans turn to crowdfunding.
As many as one-third of GoFundMe’s fundraising campaigns — and half the money raised — are for medical expenses, GoFundMe’s CEO Rob Solomon tells CBS News. And a 2020 survey from nonpartisan and objective research organization NORC at the University of Chicago found that 12 million Americans have started a crowdfunding campaign to help themselves or someone else with medical expenses.
And it’s no wonder. Medical costs are one of the most problematic emergency expenses for most Americans. The U.S. health care system is notoriously the most expensive among developed nations, according to a 2018 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A lack of universal health care coverage only compounds the problem. A 2019 Gallup survey found it left almost 14% of Americans uninsured as of the end of 2018. And that percentage is on the rise.
But health care costs can be problematic even for those who are insured. In the U.S., health care expenses — including premiums and out-of-pocket expenses — have risen dramatically as compared to the average household income, according to a 2018 report from the Commonwealth Fund, which specializes in independent research on health care issues. In 2008, health care costs represented nearly 8% of the average income. A decade later, they took up almost 12%. And using information from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a 2018 Forbes report found that for a family making $59,000 a year, medical expenses can eat up 17% of their income.
Worse, although 86% of Americans have some kind of medical coverage, the Commonwealth Fund found that 45% are underinsured. A combination of high deductibles that require thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses before coverage kicks in, high copays required at the time of service, and the high cost of many prescription drugs is difficult for many Americans to manage.
This situation has many turning to crowdfunding when hit with an unexpected and financially devastating medical expense. One of the more common of these is cancer. Cancer, like many serious illnesses, comes with the added financial impact of needing to travel to specialized treatment centers, lost wages of the cancer patient, and potentially the lost wages of a caretaker who must take time off or quit work altogether. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that 42.2% of the 9.5 million people diagnosed with cancer between the years 2000 and 2012 had completely depleted all their financial resources.
The unexpected death of a family member can also put a strain on many families’ finances. Funerals are an emotional time for all involved. Compounding the problem is that they’re also expensive. Strong emotions often dictate that we do everything possible to help our loved ones rest soundly. But the average cost of a funeral is $7,000. When nearly half of Americans can’t cover even a $400 emergency expense, the unexpected death of a loved one can be an impossible one to manage.
That’s likely why The New York Times reports that as many as 13% of GoFundMe’s campaigns in 2017 were for memorials.
Starting a Family
Josh Chapman, the former CEO of GiveForward, a crowdfunding platform that was acquired by GoFundMe, tells NPR that requests for assistance with covering the costs of expensive fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF) are one of the fastest-growing crowdfunding categories. That’s not surprising, as a 2018 study conducted by FertilityIQ, an online infertility resource, found that the average cost of IVF treatments exceeds $50,000. Making matters worse, very few insurance policies provide much (if any) coverage for fertility treatments like IVF.
According to Chapman, IVF fundraising campaigns outpace all other categories except adoption. With domestic infant adoption also averaging about $50,000 per child, adoption costs are comparable to IVF. That can make the dream of parenthood prohibitively expensive for many infertile couples who may turn to crowdfunding to help turn their hopes into realities.
Catastrophic Home Repairs
Typically, home experts recommend that you set aside 1% to 3% of your home’s value every year to cover routine maintenance costs. If you save at the high end, that adds up to $7,500 per year for a $250,000 home (around the median cost of a house in the U.S. in 2020, according to Zillow). But if you own a home that’s less expensive (and therefore save less), significant damage can outpace your savings.
For example, in 2020, the average cost to replace a damaged roof is $8,000, according to Home Advisor. And according to 2017 Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates, the cost to repair flood damage, which most homeowners insurance policies don’t cover, can range anywhere from just over $20,000 to over $200,000 depending on the extent of the damage.
Typically, home insurance covers “natural disasters,” including damage caused by lightning, windstorms, and hail. It also generally covers damage caused by fire, including damage to your possessions. What it usually doesn’t cover are the large-scale natural disasters — earthquakes, tornados, mudslides, landslides, and floods. While it’s possible to buy separate coverage for these things (which U.S. law requires if you live in a high-risk area and have a federally backed mortgage) homes outside designated risk areas can also be susceptible to damage.
For example, The Wall Street Journal reports that many Texas and Louisiana homes outside the designated risk area fell victim to flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. And unfortunately, many of those families didn’t have home insurance policies to help with recovery.
And even homes that are nowhere near hurricane or flood areas can be susceptible to flooding damage. For example, the basement in my childhood home regularly acquired water after heavy rain due to being dug lower than the water table, making the home dangerously susceptible to mold damage. Fixing the problem required resloping the backyard to drain water away from the foundation. Estimates for repairs and grading topped $25,000.
And this is just one example of a home catastrophe that could financially devastate a family.
One other reason many turn to crowdfunding for help with financial disasters is ongoing unemployment. Although many financial experts recommend building an emergency savings account in the amount of three to six months’ worth of expenses, with so many American families living paycheck to paycheck, not many can accumulate this much cushion. That leaves many families financially vulnerable if the worst happens.
Moreover, sometimes unemployment can extend beyond even the best-prepared emergency funds. For example, 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the average time for unemployed workers to find a new job was 22.1 weeks — almost six months. But more than 20% of unemployed workers are out of work for longer. The less than $400 the average American has in their emergency savings comes nowhere near the amount required to cover even six months of unemployment. According to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the median American household income is $63,179. After accounting for taxes, a six-month emergency fund should be around $24,000 based on that income (depending on factors like whether you’re single or married filing jointly).
Very few Americans have anything close to that in their reserves. So, unemployment can leave many families facing homelessness when they’re unable to cover their rent or mortgage payments. While not a long-term solution, many have turned to crowdfunding for help in managing necessary expenses.
Other Reasons People Crowdfund
In addition to raising money to start a business or cover unexpected emergencies, many Americans also turn to crowdfunding for help in achieving personal goals. These may include assistance with their education, a competition or creative endeavor, or to support a travel dream.
Advantages of Crowdfunding
When hit with a financially devastating expense, crowdfunding can be a resource for helping one manage the situation.
1. It Allows You to Do Things Are Otherwise Impossible
For the 1 in 4 Americans who skipped necessary medical treatment in 2018 because they couldn’t afford it, crowdfunding could potentially allow them to get the help they need.
And that doesn’t just apply to medical treatment. If my parents hadn’t been able to fix our leaky basement, my family’s home would have been susceptible to dangerous mold, which could have made us all very sick.
It’s also challenging to manage the high costs of infertility or to afford adoption if fertility treatments don’t work. And although many couples are financially able to manage the costs of raising a child, which occur over time, very few have a spare $50,000 lying around to shell out upfront.
2. It Can Help You Avoid Bankruptcy
Excessive medical bills are the No. 1 reason Americans declare bankruptcy. CNBC reports that as many as two-thirds of those who file for bankruptcy do so because of the inability to pay for necessary medical treatments.
If you end up dealing with your emergency expense by turning to credit cards and loans, while they may help bail you out temporarily, those bills eventually come due. If you weren’t able to deal with the emergency expense, it’s possible you can’t deal with the loan payments either. That could have you filing for bankruptcy as the only way out.
3. It Can Help You Access Cash Fast
Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, which allow you to raise funds for a business project or idea, don’t release funds until you hit your fundraising goal. But sites that allow crowdfunding for emergency expenses, such as GoFundMe, allow you to access funds as soon as they’re donated — whether you hit your fundraising target or not. That can be extremely helpful when you need cash fast, such as for medical treatment or a catastrophic home repair.
That’s an advantage crowdfunding has over government and nonprofit assistance programs, which often have long wait times as well as a capped amount of money they can offer. Although it may feel more desirable to receive assistance from a nonprofit than to reach for money from family and friends through crowdfunding, the long wait times can make it extremely difficult to manage an emergency, which by definition means needing cash now.
On the other hand, online fundraising can be one of the quickest ways to get emergency help. GoFundMe, for example, allows you to set up a fundraising page right away and begin receiving donations within a few days.
4. Donors Can Feel Good About Helping Others
Although it’s possible to receive negative reactions in response to your fundraising campaign, in general, people genuinely enjoy helping others. It feels good to help a friend, relative, or acquaintance get the help they need or achieve a dream like starting a family, especially when there’s a relatively small amount of money, such as $10 or $20 involved.
In fact, Rob Gleasure, a professor at the Cork University Business School and fellow professor Joseph Feller’s co-author on a report on donor behavior in crowdfunding, tells The Outline that giving to individuals through crowdfunding is all about the good feelings that come from the personal interaction. Similarly, Consumer Reports notes that one of the reasons crowdfunding has become so popular — over and above giving to charities — is because people love being able to give directly, as it gives them a greater sense of who their money is benefitting.
5. It Can Help Spread Awareness About Certain Conditions
One of the reasons I write about infertility is to spread awareness about a once-taboo topic. Not many understand how common it is or what kinds there are. A successful crowdfunding campaign requires telling your story — to your family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. Making yourself vulnerable in this way can be scary, but it’s necessary to raise funds for your cause. But it can also come with an added benefit: increasing awareness of whatever emergency you’re facing, whether that’s awareness of how broken the U.S. health care system is, awareness of a rare disorder, or even awareness of how prevalent certain medical conditions are.
Disadvantages of Crowdfunding
Despite its appeal as a way to raise much-needed funds quickly, crowdfunding comes with multiple drawbacks. Some of these drawbacks may be significant enough to make you think twice about using crowdfunding to deal with emergency expenses.
1. You’re Very Unlikely to Raise All the Money You Need
Crowdfunding is unlikely to be the answer to all your financial woes. There’s simply no guarantee you can raise anywhere near what you need.
In fact, very few crowdfunding campaigns ever reach their funding goal. In 2017, researchers from the University of Washington (UW) who studied randomized GoFundMe campaigns discovered that 90% of campaigns don’t reach their target. Worse, they didn’t just miss their mark by a small fraction. The study found that 90% of the campaigns raised 40% or less of their target, and about 10% of campaigns raised less than $100.
2. Successful Campaigns Require a Lot of Social Connections
To be successful at crowdfunding, which involves raising a large amount of money by soliciting small donations from a vast number of people, you have to have that vast number of people in your social network already.
Rachel Gurevich, who writes about infertility, tells NPR that most of the money from typical crowdfunding campaigns comes from friends, family, and acquaintances.
Occasionally, fundraisers pick up donations from a few strangers, especially if you tell a compelling story that gets media attention. But most donations come from friends and family with a few coming from their social connections — friends of friends.
Most donations range from $20 to $100, according to Gurevich. So try taking the amount of money you need to raise and dividing that number by 100 to get an estimate of the minimum number of friends and family you need to reach your goal. For example, if you need to raise $10,000, you need at least 100 people in your social network that you think will donate and share your campaign with others. But remember, that assumes each of them donates $100, which is on the high end of what most people give.
3. You Open Yourself Up to Criticism
If you ask for money to support your cause, you have to tell others — friends, family, co-workers, and strangers — about the issue you’re fundraising for, and that can leave you open and vulnerable to opinions and criticism.
Though genuine negative criticism is rare, you may become the recipient of unwelcome opinions and unsolicited advice about a very personal situation.
Jodi R. R. Smith, author of “The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners,” tells the New York Post that asking for money from others involves “stepping into a minefield.” Everyone will have an opinion, she explains. Depending on what you’re asking for money for, those opinions can range from the merely insensitive, such as, “Why don’t you guys just adopt?” to the outright cruel, such as, “If you can’t afford fertility treatments, you can’t afford to be a parent.”
Anyone seeking to crowdfund needs to be prepared to steel themselves against others’ input and opinions.
4. Concerns About Fraud May Stop Some Donors
Many are wary of donating to crowdfunding campaigns because of media attention on scammers. Because there’s no oversight on how the money is used, other donors fear fundraisers won’t use their money for the purposes they claim.
Although GoFundMe claims misuse is rare and happens in only 0.1% of cases, fraud does happen. Adrienne Gonzalez, owner of the website GoFraudMe and author of hundreds of blog posts citing examples of alleged crowdfunding scams, tells The Outline that there are at least a couple of news stories every week about an alleged scam.
Granted, people have started millions of campaigns on GoFundMe, so even a couple of news stories a week is a minuscule percentage of the total. Yet the media coverage is enough to make donors wary. Even Devin Thorpe, the author of “Crowdfunding for Social Good,” a book that encourages nonprofits and social entrepreneurs to use crowdfunding to raise money for their projects and causes, admits to Consumer Reports that though scams are rare, they do happen.
This reality can make donors reluctant to donate, which can in turn affect your ability to reach your fundraising goal. Gonzalez recommends addressing this reluctance by making sure your story is out before your campaign is. If somebody just contacts you out of the blue with a sob story about an unexpected and serious illness, that’s an immediate red flag to many people, including Gonzalez.
5. Successful Campaigns Require Having Unique Skills
Reaching your fundraising goal means competing with millions of other campaigns. And as competition increases, fundraisers are required to produce increasingly compelling and sophisticated appeals. That means running a successful crowdfunding campaign requires learning how to effectively tell an emotionally evocative story complete with a multimedia presentation of photos and videos.
According to Gleasure and Feller’s report, donors are more likely to give to campaigns that feature lots of pictures and text. And GoFundMe’s website notes that pages with five or more images are the most likely to garner support.
Additionally, the UW study found that successful campaigns require not only mastering media literacies, but also medical ones. The most successful medical fundraisers are those that can tell a compelling story about the patient’s “illness, need, deservingness, hope, and suffering.” The trouble is many medical conditions can be complex, and it isn’t always easy to tell a story about them that emotionally moves a potential donor to give money. Those with the most complicated medical problems, the study found, often have the most difficulty receiving necessary financial help.
Ultimately, crowdfunding isn’t just about charity. It requires savvy marketing, and those who lack the skills to package their stories compellingly often find their campaigns struggling in obscurity. According to Gleasure, as many successful campaigns as there are in charitable crowdfunding, there are many more worthy causes that never get attention.
6. Crowdfunding Can Worsen Social & Health Inequalities
Because crowdfunding requires both an extensive social network as well as unique skills and literacies, the authors of the UW study found that crowdfunding could deepen social and health inequality in the U.S.
Running a successful crowdfunding campaign requires proving one’s worth and deservingness — not through the realities of one’s story, but rather one’s ability to tell it compellingly. Donors connect with an individual’s story and feel moved to donate, with good feelings resulting from the belief that their money can help that particular individual.
That’s a large part of the appeal for donors who contribute to crowdfunding campaigns. It allows donors to weigh the “worthiness” of recipients by connecting with them in a way that feels personal, which contributing to charities and nonprofits often doesn’t.
According to Gleasure and Feller, that’s why fundraisers for individuals generally attract more donors than those for established nonprofits and charities, even though established charities can distribute money more equitably based on actual rather than perceived need.
7. It’s Not a Fix for Long-Term Problems
The authors of the UW study found that donors are more likely to give to causes with a singular need that seems to have an endpoint. Just as every good story has a beginning, middle, and end, donors want to know their money went to what they feel is an effective end.
In their study, the authors contrasted two GoFundMe campaigns. The first, by Team SuperVan, raised more than $13,000 for Van, a 6-year-old boy with a rare cancer. The second, titled “Family in Need,” managed to raise only $550 for a family that had been struggling to pay their bills. The authors concluded that the “failure” of the second campaign was likely the result of donors’ perceptions. “Family in Need” seemed to have needs without end, and a donor might question whether their donation would actually make a difference.
Moreover, even if donors are moved to contribute to help with an ongoing issue — like they did for Craig Lindsey, an out-of-work writer who was struggling to pay his rent — crowdfunding is a Band-Aid solution at best. Even after receiving a surprising amount of donations, Lindsey continued to search for a steady job. He recognized that while the donations gave him a bit of temporary breathing room, only a job would fix the problem over the long-term.
8. It May Exacerbate Significant Social Problems
According to the authors of the UW study, crowd fundraisers — whether for medical expenses, scholarship funds, or rent payments — are always framed as individual stories rather than the result of structural conditions and social policies. That shifts the blame for an underfunded campaign away from the institutions that are failing to support people in need to individuals who were unable to market themselves effectively.
Yet the stark reality is that medical fundraisers in particular have become commonplace precisely because the U.S. health care system has failed so many in need. In fact, Time magazine notes that those with excessive medical bills use crowdfunding so extensively that it’s become one of the main ways families seek to pay medical expenses.
Time cites one of the possible causes behind the reliance on crowdfunding to be the lack of medical coverage for nearly 14% of Americans as of 2019. That’s the highest percentage of uninsured since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was put into effect in 2014 and has been rising since 2016.
The UW study found that more than half of medical campaigns took place in states that opted out of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, and the authors concluded this to be a much more significant problem than underfunded campaigns. They found that crowdfunding efforts that are hyper-focused on individual stories, where campaigns’ failures are blamed on inadequate self-promotion, were a distraction from the real issue: “gaping holes in the social safety net.”
The problem is that when donors give to individuals believing they’ve helped out and done their part, the actual cause of the problem — lack of access to adequate health care — goes untouched. Worse, not only is crowdfunding an inadequate substitute for social services, it doesn’t actually help most people, as only 10% of medical campaigns ever reach their fundraising targets.
Thus, the most pressing need is to fix the American health care system, which a 2019 study in the American Journal of Medicine called unquestionably broken and in need of repair.
Alternatives to Crowdfunding
While it’s true that examples of successful crowdfunding do exist, for every success story, there are hundreds of failures. If you’re facing an emergency that exceeds your financial ability, it may be best to exhaust all other resources before turning to crowdfunding.
Seek Assistance From Government Agencies & Nonprofits
Whatever your need, there’s likely an organization that can potentially provide you with emergency financial assistance. Although qualifications can sometimes be rigid and waiting periods can be long, it is worth investigating one of the options available for your particular financial emergency before using crowdfunding.
Negotiate Medical Bills
If your financial emergency is a medical one, there are a few ways to save on health care costs insurance won’t cover. Though it’s not always the case, often, you can negotiate medical bills, and if not, almost all health care providers and hospitals will work with you to establish a payment plan. You need only contact the establishment and ask.
Even better, if your bills are from hospitals, most have programs for reducing your total bill based on financial need. Depending on your income, you may qualify for a percentage-based reduction of your bill or even free health care.
During a period of unemployment, I was billed just over $1,000 for my share of the cost of a surgery. I explained my situation and was granted free health care — zero payment on any service received from the hospital for six months. That retroactively wiped out my bill.
Look Into Other Ways to Raise Fast Cash
Depending on the amount of your need and how quickly you need it, you can raise money by selling stuff you own on Decluttr or taking on a side gig (you could deliver groceries through Instacart or share your car on Getaround). I’ve personally raised thousands of dollars selling things from around the house. And although it can take some time to accumulate much money from a side gig, you may be able to break the cost of your financial emergency into several payments.
While it won’t help you if you’re facing a crisis now, planning for the unexpected can help prevent the need to turn to crowdfunding if an emergency should happen in the future. While you can’t plan for everything — especially catastrophic life events — it’s always nice to know you have a plan in place if things do go wrong. There are several important contingencies to have in place to protect yourself and your family against catastrophic emergency expenses.
- Health Insurance. Health issues often hit unexpectedly. So it’s worth it to examine your coverage. Purchase health insurance if you don’t have it, and if you do, make sure you’re not underinsured. If you opted for a high-deductible plan, consider whether you need more coverage. While it’s true many Americans lack health insurance because it can be so expensive, a catastrophic medical emergency is more so.
- A Health Savings Account (HSA). Find out whether your health plan offers a health savings account. If not, you can purchase one through Lively. An HSA allows you to set aside a certain amount of your income tax-free for health expenses. Even better, you can choose to have your HSA’s custodian invest whatever you don’t spend. So your money can grow for you until you need it — whether that turns out to be now or decades in the future.
- Life Insurance. If you’re already facing unaffordable funeral costs for a loved one, you know firsthand how expensive memorials can be. Make sure your loved ones don’t face similar struggles by planning with adequate life insurance. That not only ensures your family can cover the cost of your funeral but also your lost wages. Life insurance coverage is especially vital if you have children, as the benefit can help pay for the costs associated with caring for them as well as education expenses. Several companies including Ladder and Bestow allow you to apply for coverage online in just minutes.
- Homeowners Insurance. Depending on where you live, it could be smart to plan for natural disasters. Although most homeowners insurance coverage provides for damage from fire, most policies don’t cover natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. You need to purchase these policies separately. Take a few minutes to shop around for a new policy through PolicyGenius. If you’re underinsured you might find a policy that’s a better fit for you and you might even save a few dollars.
- Emergency Savings. Although most financial experts recommend saving enough in an emergency fund to cover three to six months of expenses, in the case of a catastrophic emergency, that may not be enough — although it’s certainly a great first step. In the best-case scenario, even after your savings reaches six months’ worth of income, you never stop saving. If you don’t currently have an emergency fund set up, start today with a high yield savings account.
- Retirement Savings. While crucial, saving for retirement need not only be about your golden years. Although not ideal, if the worst happens, you can dip into your retirement funds before resorting to crowdfunding. Although that isn’t something you want to do regularly, it’s good to at least have the money there if it becomes necessary to draw from it.
Unexpected events can affect even the best of planners. In a mere moment, lives can change forever due to an accident, serious illness, or job loss. But a catastrophic life event is all the worse when it also becomes a financial crisis.
When people face seemingly hopeless situations, it’s unsurprising they turn to community fundraising. But the growth of personal crowdfunding as a financial resource points to deeper systemic problems Americans face — problems a fundraising campaign can’t fix.
It’s difficult not to feel inspired and uplifted by the stories of successful crowdfunding campaigns. But their rising popularity points to the sobering reality that many Americans are just one emergency away from financial devastation.
But until Americans can find solutions to systemic problems like income inequality, the lack of affordable health care, and adequate insurance coverage, crowdfunding is a resource individuals and families can turn to for a bit of hope.
Have you crowdfunded for a catastrophic emergency or other burdensome expense? What worked or didn’t work for you?