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When it comes to GoFundMe giving, Alaskans are king

  • Author: Ben Anderson
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 19, 2015

Browse the crowdfunded charity site GoFundMe on any given day and you'll find causes ranging from the heartbreaking to the mundane -- people hoping to raise money for medical treatments, for trips to singing competition auditions and even, occasionally, for a simple lunch.

Some ask for tens of thousands of dollars, others for hundreds, still others for just $20. Regardless of the amount, Alaskans love to give to their fellow residents. According to recently released data from GoFundMe, Alaska leads the nation in per-capita giving on the platform.

The dollar amount isn't huge: between Nov. 1, 2014 and Oct. 31, 2015, Alaskans donated $390,008 to campaigns on the site, or about 53 cents per resident. The runner-up, Washington, D.C., had a giving rate of about 47 cents a resident.

The campaigns at GoFundMe aren't the multimillion-dollar endeavors common on Kickstarter, another major crowdfunding platform that allows users to back entrepreneurial efforts and rewards donors with a variety of incentives. In contrast to Kickstarter's model, GoFundMe -- and other, similar sites like YouCaring and Indiegogo -- allow people to create campaigns when they need help. Donors give without expecting anything in return.

"It's part of the social fabric now," said Rob Solomon, CEO of GoFundMe. "When social safety nets fail in communities, people come together."

There's no clear explanation for why Alaska ranks No. 1, but Solomon suggests that Alaska's sense of community is what drives the state's high rate of giving. Campaigns at the site, he said, typically circulate among limited social circles: family, friends, acquaintances. The campaigns are shared through social media, and make the rounds by word of mouth and in email chains.

"They get a little viral," he said.

That's not to say some campaigns don't reach beyond those immediate social circles. The highest-grossing GoFundMe campaign in Alaska was a fundraiser for Angelica Haakenson, an Anchor Point girl who lost her legs when she was pinned between a van and a truck on a Christmas Day accident on the Sterling Highway last year.

That campaign raised more than $69,000 -- still several thousand dollars short of its goal -- thanks in part to media coverage of the accident.

Laurie Wolf, president and CEO of The Foraker Group, which offers support, assistance and training to Alaska nonprofits, said she presented the GoFundMe data recently to a philanthropy class she was leading in which they discussed why Alaska rose to the top.

One participant suggested a theory similar to Solomon's, in which Alaska's sense of community contributed to residents' willingness to give to other Alaskans.

"In Alaska, we're so connected to each other, but our distance is so great from one another," Wolf said. "That notion of connection ... that might be why our geography suddenly becomes an advantage, where often in these other studies our geography is never an advantage."

Wolf said that although the recent GoFundMe data isn't comprehensive, there are things local nonprofits can learn from the information. Many GoFundMe campaigns are driven by the personal stories behind them, which can convince people to give more readily. It also shows that Alaskans are giving online.

"If you could really analyze this data, maybe as a nonprofit leader you could understand what the unmet needs are in a community," she said.

Wolf emphasized that GoFundMe does a lot of good, but said it's important that people know where their donation is going and be well-informed about their giving. Is it tax-deductible? Is the organization a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, an IRS designation that would allow the donation to be tax-deductible?

GoFundMe, as a for-profit site, generates its revenue by deducting 5 percent from every donation made on the platform. Contributions made at the site typically aren't tax-deductible, either.

Asked whether platforms like GoFundMe threaten more traditional forms of giving, Wolf said that ultimately, any kind of giving is good giving. If people are learning to be charitable one way, she said, "the chances are really good that they'll exercise that in other ways as well."

And though crowdfunding sites have grown in recent years, that doesn't mean traditional giving is dead, especially in Alaska -- the Pick. Click. Give. program, which allows Alaskans to donate a portion of their Permanent Fund dividends to the charity of their choice, generated about $3.4 million this year, a new record.