The Politics of Crowdfunding a Hobby—or a Honeymoon

People are divided over whether personal fundraising is intrusive and vain, or a vital sharing of responsibility.

Tim Wimborne / Reuters

It was not that long ago that people were squeamish about asking each other for money. Bringing up the subject of personal finances at all used to be considered tawdry and low-class, since the wealth of the rich was visibly obvious. In some quarters this philosophy still holds: The podcast Death, Sex, & Money groups finances with American culture’s two other great taboos as something “we think about a lot and ought to talk about more,” and the actress Kate Winslet recently told the BBC, “I don’t like talking about money. It’s a bit vulgar, isn’t it?”

In general, though, it seems that money as a topic has lost much of its stigma—perhaps because it has turned out that talking about money has practical uses. “Awkward pay talk” among coworkers is increasingly necessary when so many women are still paid less than men for the same work, argues Emily Peck at The Huffington Post. In an interview with More, Elizabeth Weingarten, a deputy director at the New America Foundation, said that related conversations should be taking place among friends. Similarly, only discussions of deeply entrenched inequalities can help Americans fully appreciate the way the racial wealth gap perpetuates a chasm between white Millennials and Millennials of color, as pointed out by Mel Jones in The Atlantic.

Transparency helps, but recently people have started taking a more direct route to getting what they want and need. Websites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and GoFundMe have been instrumental in normalizing the way Americans both talk about money and ask other people for it. Nowadays, for instance, Patreon, Sellaband, and Pledgemusic all enable fans to support their favorite  musicians, and allow artists to communicate their needs to their fans. And there are a number of websites that allow people to start online campaigns to cover their own medical bills.

Weddings, which for all of their romantic fanfare do have a central fundraising aspect, are a good example of how norms have shifted. The official Emily Post position has long been that couples may reply honestly that they would prefer cash to wedding gifts if asked, and may spread the word among family and friends, but that it is not tasteful for them to volunteer their preference. Today, sites such as Honeyfund empower couples to skip the circumlocution and ask for cash outright. That strategy is endorsed by the modern wedding website The Knot, which maintains that “money may be the most useful, thoughtful, and appreciated gift of all.”

Members of my own community have asked for me to help sponsor everything from marathons and long-distance swims to their favorite nonprofits and stints overseas working for international organizations, from budding improv comedy careers to self-released books and albums. If it matters enough to do, it seems, it matters enough to ask for help with. Though I give, I also wonder how many of these friends would still be hitting me up if they had to do it face to face. As the Internet allows frank yet still impersonal requests for money to go mainstream, what boundaries, if any, remain? If it is acceptable to ask for help paying for a hobby as well as a honeymoon, is anything off limits?

Perhaps some things are. Lately, there has been some backlash to the trend of online fundraisers launched by parents hoping to adopt a child. “Crowdfunding campaigns ask donors to endorse parenthood for people they might not even know,” wrote Nicole Chung at The Toast, “and to do so with their money—the very thing that many people think is what makes one a responsible, ‘worthy’ parent in the first place.”

Even asking for help with hospital bills, which seems innocuous enough and is easy to relate to in a country with such high health-care costs, is not without risks. As a recent grumbling letter published in The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist column makes clear, a parent’s campaign for his cancer-stricken child can be perceived as offensive in certain contexts. The dad in question seems quite well-off. So, the letter writer wants to know, “Is asking people for money to pay for your or your child’s medical care ethical if … you could pay for it with little sacrifice?”

The author and personal-finance columnist Ron Lieber has heard numerous versions of this question—enough that he has written a piece in defense of the personal crowdfunding campaign. For example, on GoFundMe, he points out, “the most common category is medical expenses.” Considering that health-care bills are the top cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S., these sites can be godsends. They provide Americans with a straightforward way to support each other. The bottom line, according to Lieber, is that, even if it may offend an opinionated neighbor, asking for help is never wrong.

And he makes a valid point. No one has to participate in their friends’ virtual equivalent of a bake sale, and critics can use the opportunity to raise awareness of important issues. But overall, personal crowdfunding campaigns serve a crucial purpose. They turn money into simply one more fact of life, something to be handled without (too much) stigma or shame. They allow members of a community to confess that they have a need, and they allow communities to come together and meet that need.