Crowdfunding VS Charity – where do we draw the line?
I debated on and off whether it was a good idea to write (or to publish) this article. I handed it to a few people, all of whom were wary to touch it due to the fact that it names and shames a particular individual who is quite popular in hip young publishing circles. I second guessed myself a lot. I wondered whether I was just bitter, or resentful – if that was what had spurned me to write such a searing critique of one dude’s attempt to raise money for his mental health treatment. After all, getting help/treatment is good. Charity is good. Why was I being such a jerk about it?
Then I read this, and the statements of Kat Dixon, and I realized: it is okay for me to feel angry about this shit from a personal perspective. It is okay for me to be extra critical of Gregory Sherl’s fundraiser because I know what Gregory Sherl is like. And as far as I am concerned, there is absolutely no doubt that Kat Dixon’s claims are true.
In the spirit of that (as a kind of disclaimer, I guess, before I post the original article I wrote almost a month ago), yes: I was involved with Gregory Sherl. We were long-distance, and never wound up meeting (though that didn’t stop him from trying to cajole me into a threesome with his now ex-girlfriend only a few short months ago, despite the fact that I repeatedly told him I was in a happy relationship with my fiance). However, the psychological abuse was intense. It was very real. I exited that relationship very hurt, very broken. He completely demoralized me, ground me down, and submitted me to what I can only describe as severe psychological torture. The specifics are not important, in my view, but I felt it was important to add my voice to Kat Dixon’s. If Gregory Sherl could make me attempt to slit my wrists in a bath tub from thousands of miles away, I can only imagine what he would have been like to live with.
Perhaps this sounds like petty jilted ex talk. If people want to believe that’s the case, fine. All I can say is I think there are some very serious considerations people should make before choosing to support Gregory Sherl’s fundraiser, many of which I outline in the (hopefully somewhat impartial) essay below, but more particularly because Kat Dixon is right: Gregory Sherl is a misogynist, and he is abusive to women.
I couldn’t let her stand up there alone and say it – not when (I’m sure) there are many of us with similar experiences, who feel the same way.
There’s been a lot of buzz (and in turn, a lot of critique) for crowd funding in recent years. What started as a grass roots platform to grow and support niche business ventures and cool (but possibly unmarketable) ideas has exploded in popularity, and now crowd funding is so in that everyone is doing it: even celebrities. While epic crowd funding fails like that of Melissa Joan Hart’s would-be romantic comedy, or the ill-conceived come-back of metal band Orgy are hilarious (almost as hilarious as these two Australian mermaids who just want money for tails, so they can keep living their whimsical lives), individuals are beginning to approach crowd funding from a different angle. These days, it’s not even necessary to have a project in mind, or a dream to fulfil, before you stick out your hand and demand other people’s money. It’s as simple as marketing yourself as a charitable cause, then waiting for “donations” to roll in.
Charity is defined as “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need”. “In need” used to mean people who had exhausted all other resources, or never had those resources to begin with. “In need” was for the marginalized, the poor and the downtrodden. Now, “in need” means anyone with a problem who can figure out a way to effectively monetize it.
If it sounds like I’m cynical, I am. But it’s not that I’m against charity. I’d have to be an absolute jerkwad to actively oppose helping other people, but I feel I must point out the difference between “in need” and “in want of”.
Currently, I am in need of nothing. I have a roof over my head, food to eat, enough money to pay my bills (even if it’s a scrape some months). There are many, many things I want: to fix the roof on the house before hurricane season. To pay off my hospital bills from that wicked awesome kidney infection I had last year. To have enough money to put my fiancé on my health insurance. But these are not needs. Or at least, they are not abnormal needs, over and above those of my friends, family and colleagues. They are desires that I could, if I chose to, save for and work at until I had enough money to satisfy them. It will take a long time, very likely. But it’s not impossible. I am not in need of help or assistance to eventually take care of these desires.
Many of the people pursuing funding on charity crowd funding site Giveforward.com are genuinely in need. There are children suffering from Leukemia, whose parents do not have and cannot afford insurance. There are elderly people, the un or under employed, the homeless. While they may not all be destitute and living on the streets, they clearly do have substantial needs that have little chance of being met through ordinary means. These are people who lack privilege: they cannot get a bank loan, or a credit card, or a second job. In many cases, they have no regular support network to bail them out.
Most people on Giveforward seem to use the site to fundraise through their own social networks. Their campaign might hit their local community, their friends and family, but it’s unlikely to extend very far beyond that. When campaigns like this are publicized widely, to colleagues, acquaintances, friends-of-friends-of-friends, and complete strangers, I start to wonder: what is the difference between this form of fundraising, and actual charity, as we thought of it in the heady days before the internet? When we take out the organizations that act as a middle-man for charitable giving, and give directly to the individual, what must we consider before we reach into our pockets? Few people would donate to a charitable organization they’d never heard of, but on sites like Giveforward, we’re asked to take people’s claims at face value, and open up our hearts and wallets.
In some sense, we’re all in need. Most of us have, or will, face a financial situation we are not equipped to deal with, even if we receive support from our families and closest friends. Many of us are, have been, or will be out of work, or saddled with expensive medical bills we cannot afford. And most of us, short of asking (probably with some degree of embarrassment) for help from those closest to us, will struggle to make it work ourselves. Because we understand that we are not alone: our struggle is not unique to us. To ask for a hand-out, when we are not, strictly speaking, “in need” – not like the kid with leukemia, and certainly not like those who are poverty stricken, homeless, or otherwise at a significant disadvantage – feels disingenuous.
Gregory Sherl is a poet of some notoriety, with a few books under his belt and numerous publications in literary journals. His first novel, co-authored with Julianna Baggott and entitled “The Future For Curious People”, will be published by Algonquin next year. Like many people (I venture to say, particularly, many writers), Sherl suffers from mental illness, notably Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. And now he’s seeking in patient treatment for his illness. The problem is, it’ll cost $10,000. That’s where you, the general public, come in.
Make no mistake: I absolutely believe mental illness is every bit as debilitating and terrible as the other types of diseases and ailments people are seeking treatment for on Giveforward. I absolutely believe those suffering from mental illness should have access to affordable care, medications, therapy and hospitalization. The problem is not, specifically, what is being asked, but rather how it’s being asked for, and by whom.
I suppose I’m saying that, if there were a scale of neediness, the neediness of a mid-twenties white male poet, with a supportive family, friends and fan-base, who has just signed a book deal with a major publishing company and is receiving a top scholarship to a prestigious graduate program, would probably fall substantially below the neediness of this person .
Of course, pain and suffering are not competitive sports. And everyone is entitled to ask for whatever it is they want, or need. This is America. Hoorah! However, there is a difference between “in want” and “in need”. And there should be a difference between crowd funding and charity.
Sherl’s campaign uses charity rhetoric and buzz words like “awareness” to masquerade as something bigger than it is. There is no altruistic end-game here, beyond helping out one guy with his problem. And really, he’s a guy who is pretty well positioned to help himself. While Sherl talks a lot about making the project about more than just him, there is nothing on the campaign website, or on the Facebook page devoted to it, to suggest that Sherl intends to use any of the money, or even any of the publicity generated by the campaign, to help out other people suffering from OCD. No other charities (such as the International OCD Foundation, or other organizations that aid those suffering from mental illness, like ADAA) stand to benefit from Sherl’s fundraiser. Considering Sherl is a writer, he’s not even extending minimal effort to reach out to fellow sufferers, or to those who are supporting him. His girlfriend has written all the blog entries on the website. But you attract a good many more supporters by pretending to represent a community, rather than an individual. And if Sherl becomes the new poster boy for OCD, you can bet he’ll hit his $10,000 target (did we mention he admits that insurance is already covering a percentage of his projected hospital bills? You know, the insurance a lot of people who are legitimately in need are too poor to afford).
It would be easy for Sherl to run this campaign differently, to make it genuinely about raising awareness and reaching out to the people who are touched by his story. It would be easy to offer something back: a download of one of his older books, in pdf form. The promise of blog-posts that may help others who deal with OCD. As a writer he is in the unique position to not only help himself, but help others through his crowdfunding campaign. He could be making connections. Instead, he is setting himself apart from the rest of us. He’s saying “hey, I know you have problems – but mine are kind of more important”. Or that’s what it feels like. It feels icky.
Crowdfunding is great because it feeds off, and feeds into the idea of community building. Of forging links with your fellow humans: helping them with their art, or their dreams, or their health. But when someone is taking advantage of one of these systems selfishly, not to build and create support networks, but to place themselves above others, something feels off: particularly when that person is already in such a position of privilege. While it would be unfair to compare medical bills to entrepreneurial endeavors, there’s been a great deal of criticism regarding crowd funding that seems…well, a bit selfish. Charitable crowd funding is a fantastic resource for the have-nots, but what happens when the haves start cashing in on the trend? As the internet becomes more and more a tool for generating income for the individual, where will we draw the line between “in want” and “in need”?