GoFundMe out of poverty: the rise of cost of living fundraising
As low income households struggle to pay for the essentials, online fundraising platforms like GoFundMe and JustGiving are seeing a significant spike in pages dedicated to household bills instead of charity bike rides.
On Wednesday 24 August, Rebecca created a GoFundMe page. It was something she never thought she’d have to do, but after being made redundant in the middle of a cost of living crisis, she had nowhere else to turn. “I was already struggling financially, and then to be told my job wouldn’t exist in a week’s time and there would be very limited financial compensation – it was just sudden panic”, says the 30-year-old journalist based in Cardiff, Wales. “Would I lose my flat?”
Rebecca is one of the many people fundraising themselves out of the cost of living crisis. An unprecedented rise in energy and food costs is driving up inflation and creating secondary crises’ such as real-term wage cuts and a worsening renting market. On websites like JustGiving and GoFundMe, hundreds of people are asking others for help with avoiding poverty. Normally associated with collecting money for charitable causes, marathon sponsorships and international emergency relief, these fundraising platforms are increasingly being used to help out with individual energy payments, medical bills or rent. A GoFundMe spokesperson told THE FACE that over the past year, the organisation has seen a 300 per cent increase in fundraisers related to energy bills in the UK. Meanwhile, a JustGiving spokesperson said that 4,000 fundraisers have been launched since January 2022 to help struggling households, a 20 per cent rise in such pages.
Rebecca’s financial situation was insecure even when she was employed. “I was struggling for quite a while, and I had already been looking at what stuff of mine I could sell to bolster my income,” she says. In her spare time, she had been doing online surveys for “spectacularly low sums of money”. The journalist also considered side-hustling her hobbies to help her get by. “I paint quite a lot, and I thought about finishing some paintings and selling them for 50 quid or something”. Alongside this, she explored starting an OnlyFans account, but found that even setting yourself up on sex-work sites requires an investment in time and money. Plus, the income wasn’t guaranteed, nor would it be stable. Ultimately, none of these ideas were a viable option.
“I’ve never taken issue with anyone fundraising to avoid poverty, but I felt uncomfortable asking for a significant amount of money because I was worried people would think I’m grifting or being greedy,” says Rebecca. However, the response to her fundraiser has been overwhelming. She raised over £4,000, almost double her original target and enough to see her through for the next few months as she desperately looks for a new job. “I felt like I didn’t deserve it and should give all the money back, but it has completely taken the pressure off. I went from having a week to try and figure something out and potentially losing my flat, to suddenly having a couple of months to apply for new jobs or set up as a freelancer.”
Many people like Rebecca have been able to raise money in the short term. Alistair from London raised £140 for his dad who could no longer put the heating on. While Shona Duncan from St Andrews collected £3,595 for Scottish families in need.
Others, however, have not been so lucky. Andy from London began raising money as a surprise to help his mum pay off her energy bill debt at the beginning of August. She is “a single mum who has recently lost half her hours at work, and now daily living is a struggle for our family,” he writes on his fundraising page. Andy is trying to raise £417, but out of the total, he has only been able to raise £35.
Kelly from Gosport began raising £2,000 to pay for her family’s mounting debts in April 2022. Parents of four children, Kelly and her partner struggled with the rising prices of pretty much everything. They couldn’t afford to pay the council tax and were being threatened by bailiffs. “I have depression and anxiety, which is being affected by all of this, and I feel like I’m letting my children down all the time when they ask for things or school trips”, she wrote candidly. Five months later, she’d only raised a quarter of the money.
Clearly, fundraising is not a feasible solution for everyone, nor does it guarantee help. And for some people, it’s simply not accessible. “The thing is, with fundraising, it requires you to have access to a computer. For those who don’t have a stable [internet] connection or a smartphone, or know how to use devices that connect you to the internet, it’s going to be a lot harder,” Rebecca adds. In 2018, 5.3 million adults in the UK – or 10 per cent of the adult UK population – had either never used the internet or had not used it in the last three months.
Digital exclusion was another deep inequality highlighted during the Covid-19 lockdowns in the UK. The Office for National Statistics has found that the likelihood of having access to the internet from home increases along with income, with only 51 per cent of households earning between £6000 – 10,000 having home internet access compared with 99 per cent of households with an income of over £40,001. The trend is clear: the poorer you are, the less chance you have of being online which, of course, is detrimental to being able to raise emergency funds on the internet.
Still, with such a dramatic surge in the cost of living fundraisers, how are fundraising platforms like GoFundMe reacting to the unfolding situation?
“There’s much uncertainty which reminds me quite a lot of when Covid-19 first started to emerge”, says John Coventry, GoFundMe’s Vice President of International. “We didn’t know what would happen, and how bad it could be, but we knew that we could become a central platform for those in need and those wanting to help.” Coventry adds that the organisation will deal with a similar scenario if the winter goes as some analysts predict. The Bank of England said that it expects another contractionary quarter for the economy, meaning the country is now in a recession and inflation is forecast to keep rising.
“It’s hard to see the stories of people facing such hardship this winter, but it is inspiring to see people coming together to support friends, family, neighbours and even complete strangers.”
However, Coventry is adamant that fundraisers alone are insufficient to help struggling people this winter. “The tension between structural support delivered by governments and the urgent, short-term relief has always existed. In the end, both are crucial.” Fundraising out of the cost of living crisis is not a sustainable solution, especially as at least a million more people are set to plunge into poverty in the UK, and poorer households will be disproportionately affected, lengthening the crisis for the most vulnerable. Pascale Harvie, President and General Manager of JustGiving, agrees. “The work of charities should always be in addition to institutional support and shouldn’t be seen as a means to replace it,” she says.
To make matters worse, charities themselves are being hit by the cost of living crisis. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, increased demand, cost pressures driven by inflation, falling donations and burnt-out reserves following the Covid-19 pandemic may devastate the sector. Charity Aid Foundation has found that four in five charity leaders (82 per cent) are concerned about the increased cost of utilities, including energy bills, rent and fuel, and managing demands for higher wages (80 per cent). At the same time, nearly two-thirds of charity chief executives (65 per cent) are worried about the higher cost of stock, equipment, and supplies.
“Many more people are relying on charities, including food banks, mental health and disability support, and organisations offering financial guidance,” says Alison Taylor, CEO of Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) Bank and
Services at CAF. “With tightening household budgets impacting donations, there is a perfect storm facing the sector, and sadly, there are likely to be some charities unable to survive this year.”
So what will happen to struggling individuals and families when the government only seems interested in helping the rich and the charity sector is overwhelmed? To put it plainly: people will die. This is nothing new in Tory Britain, where a decade of austerity has been linked to 50,000 excess deaths in the past five years.
Though encouraging, individual help through fundraisers only scratches the surface of British inequality, where disabled people, Black and minority ethnic communities and migrants are disproportionately affected. A real redistribution of wealth not only requires radical national policy, but also support for it. Political resistance to the cost of living crisis has never been more crucial, and unions, community groups and campaigners all over the country are tirelessly building it.
In the meantime, many will feel a sharp decline in living standards. “As much as we are aware of the cost of living crisis and are talking about it all the time. I don’t think for many people it’s sinking in quite how severe things are about to get,” Rebecca says, reflecting on her own situation. “There will be people who consider themselves comfortable now suddenly having to make choices they’ve never had to make before. It’s going to be an alien experience.”