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Unsolicited Funds and Missed Opportunities

Why engaging digital communities like GoFundMe will help us rebuild faster and smarter.

For many of us, news about the latest disaster comes to us through social media. We check in on friends and family in an affected area. We check the latest storm track or fire map. We see pictures and we click boxes to give.

We want to help those affected as the event unfolds. But the digital community that has been built around disasters is more than that. It is a tool that can help us build back faster and meet needs that governments simply cannot accommodate.

I was the first FEMA administrator to have a Twitter handle, and I did that because I believed that social media was creating a community that we could activate. Disasters affect all of us from coast to coast, and simply aren’t local anymore. At FEMA, I set our social media team with the task to build an app that would allow people to get assistance quicker and to notify people about how they could get help. But I knew that wasn’t enough.

As we have seen with Maria, Harvey, and other disasters, it truly takes the entire community to make the survivors of a disaster whole. It might be a mattress store in Houston or a world class chef flying his team to Puerto Rico to feed thousands, but the message is the same: It takes all of us to help people get on their feet and take control of their lives.

But we underestimate the power of the digital community to help with this. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the way of giving evolve toward one that is more online-based, more socially conscious, and one that creates a sense of community and value among those giving.

The largest social giving platform, GoFundMe, has raised more than $4 billion since its inception more than seven years ago. They’ve tapped into something we all feel: we want to help people we can see. We want to get to know them. But I believe we’re missing an opportunity as an emergency management community. We need to turn GoFundMe into a partner, not just a like-minded feel-good tool for people to help each other.

When I served as the emergency manager for Florida, I remember the times when checks would come to the state from well-meaning people who wanted to help. We didn’t know what to do with them. Government bureaucracy got in the way. When money comes their way, states have the onerous task of setting up systems to deal with these funds, determine where they go, verify needs, and ensure that the funds are given to the individuals and organizations that need them. State and local governments’ capacity is always stretched in times of emergency, so this work becomes an extra challenge.

This is where GoFundMe comes in. First the facts: Hundreds of millions have been raised for campaigns that have been started on the site in the wake of an emergency or a disaster. They have a team that prevents fraud, and they'll refund donors if campaigns are misused.

The Trust and Safety team inside GoFundMe works with key stakeholders, including government officials, to ensure that funds raised on the platform are verified and that they go to the cause for which the money is being raised. It’s also important to remember this isn’t just for the headline-grabbing moments. Some of the most successful campaigns have been around local events and ones where our volunteer organization partners simply don’t have a large presence, like a shooting or a fire.

Right now, all of this is happening outside of any coordination with city or state government. Money is being raised — and the rates are only growing. The GoFundMe team securely gets money to the people they help faster than many of our existing systems can accomplish.

They are meeting needs that federal and state funds simply cannot accommodate: that may be money to pay the staff of a local coffee shop the tip wages they would have made or making sure that a community event happens as scheduled. These are critical elements to recovery, but often fall outside of government control.

What if the emergency management community looked to GoFundMe and other companies as a partner? What if we took the time to tap into those tools — get money directly to survivors…and fast… — that we can’t always accomplish? And why not take advantage of a company whose reputation is based on a proven trust that money is getting where it needs to go? Why wouldn’t emergency managers want to connect with that and give them our insights of how best they can help?

We have to change the way we deal with crowdfunding companies, but changing our approach also allows emergency managers to evolve how we address unsolicited funds. The old model is too slow. It doesn’t necessarily meet the immediate needs of survivors in local communities. It doesn’t meet the needs of a mayor or governor who wants to get that coffee shop open.

We have to acknowledge a reality that online giving in the wake of a disaster is here to stay. Right now, it happens outside of our recovery plans and on a timeline that is far faster than the systems we have in place. We work best when we embrace what each member of the community brings to the table. If GoFundMe can get it there fast and can verify the need, why not enlist them as a partner and help them best direct those funds to the campaigns that will help a community be a community again?

As emergency managers, we spend months preparing for the moments we don’t see coming, but when it comes to some of our most powerful tools — and the tools that will resonate most with the public — we don’t know where to turn. It’s time to change that and enlist GoFundMe to help us build back our communities.