Skyler Stern wanted to do something for his best friend, Ethan Hawes, who was facing a life-threatening diagnosis.
Tara Cavanagh wants to represent Maine in the Miss America pageant next year.
Sara Devlin wanted to assist a co-worker facing the prospect of raising two children alone after the death of her husband.
They all turned to Gofundme, a crowd-funding website that uses social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to connect with potential donors.
For years, that site and similar ones – Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GiveForward and Donors Choose, to name a few – have been used by artists and entrepreneurs to finance films, record albums and launch businesses. Now, people are turning to it for personal causes as varied as paying for surgery, caring for pets and moving across town.
Gofundme, which has emerged as a go-to site for nonbusiness users, had more than 200 active accounts from Maine as of last week, ranging from Little League teams trying to pay for trips to a transgendered man raising money for surgery.
Not all of the accounts are created equal. Some causes are more altruistic than others. One woman is raising money for an ultrasound for her cat, which may have a heart defect.
Not all accounts are successful, either. Some, including most of the pageant contestants, raise only a few hundred dollars.
Brad Damphousse, CEO of Gofundme, said the accounts that do best are ones that tap into a large social network of giving.
“Only after a person receives support from their personal contacts can the campaign begin to appeal to a wider audience,” he said.
Stern’s Gofundme campaign for his friend is one example.
Hawes, 22, of Eliot, was studying abroad in Spain when he tripped on a curb. Intense pain shot up his entire leg that seemed out of proportion to the fall.
The pain returned a couple of days later while he was training for a marathon. Hawes finished the marathon and returned home from his semester overseas, but the pain wouldn’t go away.
He went to the doctor in late June, thinking the pain was a torn tendon. Doctors found a fist-sized tumor on the bone that connects his femur to his pelvis. The diagnosis was multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer that attacks plasma cells.
“It was such a sinking feeling,” Hawes said over coffee recently in downtown Orono. “I was shocked, numb.”
Hawes was less than two months from starting his senior year at the University of Maine. He wasn’t sure he would even go back to school, but if he did, he didn’t know how to pay for school and treatment. Insurance wouldn’t cover everything associated with a disease like multiple myeloma.
“I didn’t really want to think about the money,” he said.
Stern wanted to help, but couldn’t be there in person because he was due back at college himself, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Stern had heard about Gofundme and talked to Hawes and his parents. Together, they created an online profile for Hawes, explaining the diagnosis and the rarity of the disease, especially for someone as young as he is. They explained the costs associated with treatment, including trips to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and set a goal to raise $13,200.
They hit that amount in five days. The account now has more than $27,000.
“I don’t know what I would have done if this happened five years ago,” Stern said. “It would have been a lot harder.”
Hawes has gotten donations from people he hasn’t talked to in years, from community members who heard his story and from family friends. Twenty-seven of the donations are anonymous, including two separate gifts of $500.
He said he’s not sure how he feels about that.
“It’s definitely one of the more humbling feelings,” he said. “But I’m just grateful.”
HARDSHIP AND ASPIRATIONS
The most successful crowd-funding accounts usually involve some sort of hardship or tragedy, but many are rooted in practicality.
Tara Cavanagh, 20, of Portland is one of more than a dozen Mainers who set up an account to finance her shot at a beauty pageant. Two years ago, she was first runner-up in the Miss Teen Maine pageant. This year, she’s vying to be Miss Maine.
“You always look for sponsors and I’m still doing that. I think it’s important to be face-to-face when you’re asking for money for this type of thing,” she said. “But I heard about (Gofundme) and thought it would be an easy way to supplement what I was already doing.”
She has gotten three donations totaling $320 in about a month. Cavanagh said the entry fee for Miss Maine is $1,100, but there are other costs, too.
“There are things people don’t think about: skin care, exercise. It can be superficial, but it’s a beauty contest, after all,” she said.
Liz Gerber, a professor at Northwestern University who has researched crowd-funding trends, said the phenomenon of asking strangers to pitch in for someone’s benefit has always existed; there was just never a snappy name for it. A church collection plate is crowd-funding, she said, as is a busker with an open guitar case. Even an old-fashioned community barn-raising is crowd-funding – without the exchange of money.
“This is just a new way to ask,” Gerber said.
THE TOP THREE
The top three crowd-funding sites, by Web traffic, are Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Gofundme, according to Alexa, a site that tracks numbers of Web visitors. Kickstarter is the most well-known and has financed a number of high-profile endeavors, including an effort that raised $5 million to produce a movie based on the cult television series “Veronica Mars.”
All crowd-funding sites take a percentage of the donations for their service. Gofundme takes 5 percent and another 3 percent goes to WePay, which processes the donations.
“That small fee has been made up many times over,” Stern said. “I couldn’t have brought in nearly as much money on my own.”
Gerber said people give online to strangers for a variety of reasons.
“There are a bunch of different reasons people give,” she said. “Sometimes there is a small reward and people want that. Sometimes it’s recognition. But in some cases, it’s more a feeling of being a part of something exclusive.”
Sara Devlin of South Portland started an account last year for the family of Kevin Grover, a second-grade teacher in Falmouth who was also Maine’s 2010 Teacher of the Year. Grover collapsed and died after going running on Thanksgiving Day 2012. He was 40 years old and left a wife and two young children.
Devlin works with Kevin Grover’s widow, Rebecca, at the Maine Turnpike Authority.
“I wanted to do something where it would be easy for people to donate,” she said. “You can’t prepare for something like that. This gives them a little stability, a little peace of mind.”
Devlin had heard about Gofundme several months ago through a Facebook friend.
“My first donation like this was to someone I didn’t even know,” Devlin said. “I just think the concept of ‘pay it forward’ is so important.”
Within the first few hours that the Grover Family Fund was established, it raised $5,000. In 11 months, 172 donors have given $23,000 for Rebecca Grover and her children, Eli, 9, and Lily, 12.
Grover had not heard about Gofundme before Devlin set up the account, but said money was one of her first concerns when her husband died.
“He was 70 percent of our income,” she said.
In the last 11 months, Grover said she has been overwhelmed by the response.
The Grovers moved to Falmouth for the school system. Her husband understood the value of good schools, Grover said.
“After Kevin died, my son actually asked at one point, ‘Mom, are we going to be able to keep the house?’” she said.
They kept the house, and the children are still in Falmouth schools.
“So many donations have come from people who I’ve never met but who knew Kevin,” Grover said. “He touched so many lives.”
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @PPHEricRussell