In the early morning of May 27, Vinson Pierce had a heart attack and died in his sleep, leaving behind a wife, three children and more than 300 students in Comanche, Tex., where he was the principal at the local high school. The news traveled quickly in this Texas Hill Country town, which holds a yearly barbecue cook-off and antique car and tractor festival.
After getting word of Mr. Pierce’s death, a co-worker set up a campaign on GoFundMe.com to raise money to help his widow pay for the funeral and other costs. Mr. Pierce, 35, did not have life insurance, explained Gary Speegle, the superintendent of the Comanche Independent School District. “We are a small, rural community, and when everyone heard what happened, they wanted to help,” he said.
More than 1,000 people shared the GoFundMe campaign on Facebook, and it was featured by a local news station. In all, 276 people donated more than $25,000, a considerable sum. “Now they won’t have to worry about funeral expenses,” Mr. Speegle said. “It gives the family some space.”
Crowdfunding campaigns are designed for just about everything these days: making video games; filming movies; paying for trips to Disney World; and, in a reflection of today’s astronomical health care costs, covering medical bills. In recent years, too, campaigns have become popular among families and friends seeking emergency funds to cover burial and funeral costs for a loved one who has died.
GoFundMe, one of the largest fund-raising sites, says that 13 percent of its campaigns created in 2017 were described as memorials, which include funerals and are one of the company’s fastest growing categories. That follows on a 2015 study by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council, which reported that 17 percent of adults aged 20 to 39 had used the internet to solicit or donate money for funeral-related arrangements.
There is little doubt consumers are interested in online funeral fund-raising. In April, GoFundMe acquired YouCaring.com, another popular charitable fund-raising site, which caters to the bereaved. “For many people, who have no other place to turn, we become the most important company to them,” said Rob Solomon, the chief executive of GoFundMe.
Some funeral home directors, though, have begun asking relatives and friends to sign documents that relieve businesses of fault if a campaign goes awry, or funds are misrepresented or misused. Others, still, want to ensure they get paid.
“Our position is to suggest to people who are making choices to keep within their means,” said R. Bryant Hightower Jr., a funeral director in Carrollton, Ga., and a board member of the National Funeral Directors Association. “We don’t want people putting a number out there to profit.”
And that has some critics wondering: Is crowdfunding the best way to pay for a funeral?
Joshua Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, an advocacy group based in Burlington, Vt., said that crowdfunding might encourage funeral homes to upsell services to match the donation. He worries, too, that consumers are unprepared for the inevitable (we are talking about death here), lulled into thinking family and friends will be able to scrape together enough cash through donations after they are gone.
“This is an indication of where we are as a society,” Mr. Slocum said. “We are seeing the modern equivalent of the carwash and bake sales.”
Loved ones have always pitched in during a time of crisis; Mr. Speegle said residents of Comanche would have helped the Pierce family whether there was GoFundMe or not. The average cost of a traditional funeral and cremation is $6,260, according to the funeral association. A funeral and a burial can cost about $10,000.
What is different today, though, is that the number of people available to participate has expanded globally with social media. And that means successful campaigns — those that are shared widely on Facebook and Twitter — must have a compelling story to attract donors.
Mr. Solomon said his staff coaches funeral organizers on what angles to pursue to make a campaign go viral. “If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a video is worth 10,000 words,” he said.
The bereaved, too, are advised to contact reporters and refresh pages with comments to maintain interest. “Local media matters to our campaigns,” Mr. Solomon said. That’s because if it doesn’t resonate close to home, word is unlikely to spread. Indeed, many campaigns do not reach their target. Mr. Hightower said that about a third of the campaigns he had seen failed to reach their goals.
Some funeral home directors noted that consumers occasionally defy the rules. Jonathan Fisher, a funeral director at Fisher Funeral Chapel and Cremation Services in Lafayette, Ind., said he created his own crowdfunding site, FundTheFuneral.com, after clients did not pay for services with donations they solicited elsewhere online. “Families would lie about the amounts raised,” he said. “Two different times people fooled me.”
One family “physically showed me the money from a campaign that would be enough to cover the service,” Mr. Fisher said. “Then they disappeared.” Another time, he said, a couple solicited donations for the funeral of an infant, even though he performed the service at no cost, as he often does when a baby dies.
That happened to Mr. Hightower, too. “We didn’t know about it until someone called and they asked where to send the money,” he said. “We called the family and said, ‘We don’t want to be a party to that.’”
Mr. Solomon maintained that there is rarely fraud on GoFundMe and said that if there is, the company will contact law enforcement.
But a funeral director starting his own crowdfunding website is not the answer, either, said Mr. Slocum of the Funeral Consumer Alliance. For one, FundTheFuneral collects a 5 percent fee based on donations raised, along with a standard 2.9 percent credit transaction. FundTheFuneral, too, does not disclose Mr. Fisher’s ownership stake on its website. “There is clearly potential for a conflict of interest,” Mr. Slocum said.
Jeremy Spiering, Mr. Fisher’s business partner, said they charged the fee solely to cover costs. “He’s not pushing it for profit on the side,” he said of his business partner.
GoFundMe, by contrast, dropped its 5 percent fee for personal fund-raising, including funerals, last year after being criticized in the wake of the California wildfires. Mr. Solomon of GoFundMe acknowledged that consumers had been displeased. “People wanted access to all their money,” he said.
FuneralFundMe.com is the newest entrant in the funeral crowdfunding industry. It was founded in April by Kate MacDonald, 26, a former personal trainer who lives in Tulsa, Okla. She said her father was in the funeral home business. “If you go into a funeral home, people are dressed nice,” she said. “I felt like there wasn’t a fund-raising platform that could parallel that.”
Ms. MacDonald is aiming her business mostly at funeral home directors who want to offer crowdfunding to their clients. She has highlighted six campaigns on FuneralFundMe, including one that said it had raised $21,379 for Kelsey Evans, a marathon runner from Tyler, Tex., who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and died of breast cancer, leaving her family with $100,000 in medical bills. Ms. Evans is photographed hugging her dog.
There is one problem: The campaigns are fake.
Ms. MacDonald acknowledged that she created mock-ups to attract funeral home directors, but does not disclose that on her website. “We haven’t had any real ones yet,” she said. “I’m trying to teach directors what is an effective campaign.”
When asked about it, Mr. Slocum sighed. “We’ve gotten to the point where the funeral home is the client,” he said. “It’s not the family.”
Kip Zarse, a project manager at a construction company in Westpoint, Ind., said he was grateful for the $2,615 raised to help his family pay for his stepdaughter’s funeral in January. Mr. Zarse worked with Mr. Fisher at FundTheFuneral. “Things were a little tight,” he said. “We would have gotten by. But it was a nice gesture from the community.”
“There were a few unknowns and anonymous folks,” he said. “We did have one person who said, ‘You don’t know us, but someone helped us in our time of loss.’”
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