About a month ago, Heather Wiley, a new mom, was scrolling through a Facebook group for mothers when she came across a post that made her heart break. A woman needed basic items for her kids—formula, diapers, and the like—but didn’t have the money. In the comment thread below, people began tagging other Facebook groups, known as “blessings groups,” dedicated solely to handling cases of small but pressing monetary needs.
Wiley joined one of these groups, called “give me your money.” Once inside, she was met with a never-ending stream of people begging for help with small emergencies, medical expenses, and unfulfilled needs.
Wiley gave what she could: a few dollars here, a few dollars there. This week, after her company closed down, laying her off, she posted herself, asking for $80. “I have been looking for a little to cover the overdraft fee and gas since I won’t get paid until the end of the month for my new job, which I start on Monday,” she says. So far, she’s received $10. “I was embarrassed to post; it was embarrassing to me. I’ve always taken care of my children, but I just had this bump in the road,” Wiley says.
While larger sites such as GoFundMe have become popular for raising funds for large expenses such as medical bills, there is no one-stop platform to crowdfund just a few dollars. In the past, some have resorted to begging, or asking friends and family to help cover costs. But now thousands of people are turning to Facebook groups to plead for the help they need, from people who are essentially strangers online.
The groups have straightforward names, including “give me your money,” “PayPal Prayers & Blessings,” “App Blessings,” “Give Me Some $$$ (strangers helping strangers and paying it forward),” and dozens more. In them, people ask for small amounts of money; most have caps of $500 a post. In a lot of the groups, women—many of them moms—make most of the requests, looking for money for diapers, formula, or child care. But the groups are also populated by students trying to make ends meet, people with medical debt, and occasionally, people just asking whether anyone would buy their family pizza for the night.
“I have a balance of $53 due on my gas bill. I just got off the phone with the gas company. It is scheduled for disconnect today and they won’t push it back till Friday when I get paid,” one man posted this week.
“I owe $470 to my insurance to pay off my deductible so they’ll send me more diabetes supplies,” a woman wrote.
“My son and I lost our place 3 days ago. We have a new place lined up but can’t move in until next Wednesday … Just looking to get into a hotel tonight and some toiletries for us for a shower,” read another woman’s post, with several cute photos of her child attached.
Posts in all groups follow the same format: People post how much they need, why they need it, and their preferred methods of payment, including their Venmo name or Cash App tag. They also include photos and sometimes “proof” that they’re real people and not scammers. As posters are funded, they update their listing with how much they’ve received. People usually ask questions in the comments below, sometimes trying to suss out how dire the situation really is, and comment with receipts when they donate so that everyone can see how much funding the original posters have received.
People who donate say that they primarily do so because they like helping others. It feels more direct than just donating to a faceless charity. Plus, some figure, if they ever need to ask the group for a few bucks in the future, people might remember them. “This group is all about paying it forward,” Cameron Ellis, a member of “give me your money,” recently posted in the group. “If you have been helped you do the helping when you can whether it’s in the form of money, compassion, or animal pictures. It’s all about helping to make someone’s day a little better than it was before.” Jamie Ice, a fellow member of the group, added, “We’re not just a ‘Facebook crowdfunding group.’ We’re family.”
Most people in blessings groups rely on Venmo, Cash App, or PayPal. But Facebook wants to make it easier to exchange money through the platform itself. At the company’s annual developer conference in May, Mark Zuckerberg announced that “it should be as easy to send money to someone as it is to send a photo.” The company has been working on integrating more payment features into its suite of apps, and you can already send money directly through Facebook Messenger.
All blessings groups are free to join, but some allow those who make suggested donations to collective funds to skip the line to be approved for membership. Admins of the groups then allocate those funds to particularly needy cases. People who kick in a few dollars for someone else know they can return with their own asks when they find money to be tight themselves.
Melinda Keeton, a mom in Ohio, is in seven of the groups and has found them to be a lifeline when she falls on hard times. After she overdrew her bank account, she posted in one of the groups and received money to clear her overdraft fees. “It’s a good resource to have,” she says. “I just funded a mom three hours ago who needed $10 for food. A person said if someone else gave $5 she’d give $5, so I did.”
Unsurprisingly, scammers run rampant in these groups. Keeton ended up conversing with one who managed to obtain her bank information and personal details, subsequently draining her account. Some users have also created Facebook groups specifically to expose scammers. But, Keeton says, “No one vets the stories; it’s just follow your gut. One lady I donated to was in a foreign country and said she needed formula for her child. Today I got online and she had a whole new post in a different group asking for something different.”
The appetite for these groups has reached such a level that John Ford, an activist who made a name for himself during the Occupy Boston movement, has even managed to build a business off one group through merchandise sales. He and his wife run “give me your money,” a group with more than 20,000 members that has spawned countless spin-offs and copycats. Their group, unlike many others, is built on a unique fee structure. People are asked to include a 10 percent tip on top of all donations, which goes toward paying moderators for their work in keeping the group organized. Ford also set up a separate website where users can pay $5 to pin their post, $5 to mute someone or reveal who muted you, and $10 to ban or reinstate a fellow member of the group.
This payment structure can sometimes lead to disagreements. Most people pay to ban spammers and trolls, but occasionally people will simply pay to kick out members of the community whom they don’t like. That person must then pay $10 to be re-added. A few former members I spoke with left the group over these policies. Meital Salerno, a woman in New York who has joined several blessings groups, said that she stopped being active in “give me your money” after one woman was banned for expressing ideological differences with other members. “She could have used that $10 [someone spent on banning her] to help pay her bills,” Salerno said.
Though charging for bans and reinstatements does bring in a little bit of cash, Ford and his wife primarily monetize the group by selling pins and other items under their merchandise brand, Roving House. Roving House creates custom pins for “give me your money” fundraisers and members. These pins are highly prized by members of the community. People can also pay to become a “luxury member” of “give me your money” to receive special perks and to access a separate Facebook group mostly composed of people who donate, rather than ask for money. Six months ago, Ford also created “give me your money Gold,” a group for fans of Roving House pins. For $10 a month, you get a sneak peek of new pins coming out, and you can join the Gold Facebook group. No one asks for money in that group.
Ford uses money from Roving House merchandise sales to cover living expenses for him and his wife. He also takes a portion of the money made off selling bans, reinstatements, and luxury-group memberships. But a large portion of that money, he says, goes toward paying the group’s moderators. “A lot of other groups are very scam-heavy,” Ford says. “We conduct background checks, follow-ups with abortion clinics, etc. There are actual administrative hoops that we go through so that our members feel like they know where their money is going. We are a registered business in the state of Massachusetts.” Ford is also in the process of launching an app that enables peer-to-peer funding. “We are not rich. We are having a little bit of success, but I don’t want people to think we’re tycoons at all,” he says.
“Give me your money” is one of several groups that began as a tag group, but morphed into a blessings group. (Tag groups are Facebook groups that act like mini-forums and mostly function as replies in the comments of posts.) Ford says he sees the evolution of his group, which was the first major blessings group, as filling a real need. “After Occupy fizzled out, a lot of people were left with, Well, what do we do? My path was to take the principles of mutual aid and try to popularize it a little bit. Let’s take an old anarchist concept and try to make it accessible to the Facebook crowd, regular folks,” he says.
The need is there: An increasing number of Americans live every day without a safety net. Getting sick or in an accident can lead to skyrocketing medical bills, a job layoff can mean the loss of a stable housing situation, and 78 percent of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck, according to a study by CareerBuilder. Wages have remained stagnant compared with inflation, while living expenses, education, and health-care costs have all risen significantly over past decades. Once, the only option for those in need might have been aid from churches or other local organizations, but these peer-to-peer groups provide a wider, more open network of support.
Ford initially got the idea to create “give me your money” after seeing the success of reparations groups on Facebook, in which white donors were supporting black people in need. Supporting peers directly through small amounts of money sent via Cash App, PayPal, and Venmo was also popularized by the LGBTQ and sex-worker communities. “Being in queer communities, there’s a very big emphasis on helping people out in these situations,” says Bianca Perez, a content creator on Instagram as @yung_nihilist who has supported herself through direct donations before. “I’ve done it periodically on and off throughout my time on Instagram. It’s really precarious to be out on your own. I don’t receive any money from my family members and so literally the internet is my parents.”
But sometimes the internet doesn’t come through. One issue with crowdfunding is that only the neediest cases or most compelling stories receive help. Dick Rueckert, a former paramedic in Utah, posted in a blessings group last week asking for $50 for new boots. He was in a car accident, and his boots were shredded. He woke up in the hospital without shoes. He can’t go back to work after the accident, and so money is short. So far only two people have responded, neither of whom donated.
Salerno said that another downside is how political the groups can get. One woman in “give me your money” was chastised after asking for money for utilities, when she had previously used her Facebook page to criticize those who kneeled during the national anthem. After she defended her stance a commenter replied, “You won’t get funded if you double down like that instead of listening and understanding.” Other people have not received funding for child care after making anti-abortion comments, and one white woman was denied funding after she used a meme including the N word.
Despite the drama, most people in blessings groups say that they don’t know where they’d turn without them. Traci Kendrick, an armed-services member in Texas, has seen firsthand how the groups can save people from financial ruin. After a friend’s father got into a car accident, the family was able to help pay his medical bills with money from blessings groups. “No one really has the money to save up in bank accounts,” Kendrick says. “When there’s an emergency, there is no backup plan. These groups are it.”