More than 84,000 people have signed an online petition asking the digital fundraising site GoFundMe to drop its fees for campaigns going toward victims of the North Bay wildfires, and while the San Diego company said Wednesday it would not change its policy, it did contribute $250,000 to local relief efforts.
The fundraising campaigns — ranging from a high-profile effort by former Oakland A’s player and Petaluma native Jonny Gomes to one benefiting workers at Safari West who have lost their homes — have sprung up on the site following the fires that struck the region beginning late Oct. 8.
As of Thursday, campaigns associated with California fire relief had accounted for about $6.6 million raised on the GoFundMe website, according to a tabulation by Eric Kim of Graton, who started a GoFundMe campaign for his son’s elementary school teacher who lost her home to the fires.
The company deducts a 5 percent fee for each donation as well as payment of processing costs of 30 cents per gift, plus a 2.9 percent fee. The recipients are charged the fees.
The online petition asks GoFundMe to “please lift the 8% charge for the victims of the ongoing fires. Our communities truly and deeply appreciate your consideration.”
If GoFundMe changed its policy, the total amount gained for fire relief would be at least $330,000 in pledged funds.
Kim’s GoFundMe campaign for his son’s third-grade teacher, who lost her Coffey Park home, has raised almost $17,000. Kim signed the online petition because he thinks money from those fees could make a big difference in victims’ lives.
“It doesn’t seem right for a company to be profiting from a tragedy like this,” Kim said, noting the Sebastopol Independent Charter School teacher, Antje Bojarsky, could use that extra $850 from the 5 percent deduction as she rebuilds her life.
“That’s money that a lot of these people could really use,” Kim said. He asked his professional contacts in Silicon Valley to personally reach out to GoFundMe CEO Rob Solomon in his plea, but has not heard back.
The fee has attracted criticism in the past with disasters such as drought relief for Somalia earlier this year and the Nepal earthquake in 2015. The company claims to be the largest social fundraising platform, raising more than $4 billion in various campaigns.
In a statement, GoFundMe said the fee remains in place at all times, even during disasters and emergencies.
“We use this fee to provide every customer the best-in-industry experience, including advanced fundraising tools, the first and only crowdfunding guarantee, proprietary trust and safety procedures, and 5-minute customer service.
Behind the scenes, we commit significant resources so organizers and donors alike can trust our platform to deliver help when it’s needed most,” the statement reads.
Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat, has an “SMI Family Fire Assistance” fund on GoFundMe for nine employees who lost homes. The fund had raised $20,455 by late Wednesday.
There are other sites that don’t assess fees the same as GoFundMe, such as YouCaring. For example, there is Plumfund.com, started by former Sebastopol residents Sara and Josh Margulis. The site charges a transaction fee of 2.8 percent plus 30 cents per transaction to the recipient, monies that go to third-party vendors such as PayPal and WePay. The site does ask donors if they want to add an additional 10 percent to go to platform maintenance and disaster relief.
“The perception of a company profiting off a disaster, that’s what I don’t want,” said Sara Margulis, who moved her company to Clearwater, Florida. The couple operates another site, Honeyfund.com, to help people finance their honeymoons, which generates revenue from advertisers and a $39.99 upgrade fee for those who want special features.
About $100,000 has been raised for local fire victims through Plumfund, Margulis said.
On its website, GoFundMe tells donors to be suspicious of sites claiming no hidden fees. “Sites claiming to be ‘100% Free’ will charge your donors up to 15% and you’ll still need to pay 3% for processing. GoFundMe will never charge your donors anything,” it reads.
Kim acknowledged that the notice of the fees does show up on the screen when signing up for GoFundMe accounts, with the company noting that WePay takes the 2.9 percent plus 30 cents per donation.
He was pleased at least with the company’s donation even though there was no policy change.
“It’s definitely positive,” he sad. “I am sure they were aware of some of these things. They want to look good, they don’t want to look bad.”
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.