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Crowdfunding for Cancer Care: A Virtual Safety Net

As the costs of cancer care rise, crowdfunding is helping some patients avoid a financial crash.
BY JEANNETTE MONINGER
PUBLISHED March 06, 2017
AS SOON AS 37-YEAR-OLD Lauren Carman Evans got over the initial shock of learning that she had an aggressive form of breast cancer that had already spread to her lymph nodes, she and her husband Daniel began to assess the reality of their new world.

Evans, the primary breadwinner, would need to quit her teaching job in Eureka, California, so that her family could move 300 miles closer to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center, where she’d be treated. This meant Daniel would have to put his college dreams on hold to care for Evans and their 5-month-old twins.

“Without my job, I didn’t see any way for us to pay for it all: the move, medical bills, feeding and diapering the twins,” says Evans. That’s when a family friend stepped in and offered to raise money for the couple using an online crowdfunding website called YouCaring.

Since the campaign launched in late August 2016, more than 250 donors — family members, friends and even strangers — have given $31,000 to the Evans family. Donations keep coming. “It’s a relief to be able to focus on the things that matter the most — my family and my survival — instead of worrying about money,” says Evans. For people like Evans, who face steep medical bills and restricted incomes, a number of crowdfunding sites such as GiveForward, YouCaring and GoFundMe have emerged as online safety nets.

The costs of new cancer drugs have increased dramatically over the past 15 years, some coming with price tags of up to $150,000 per year — and many of the patients who take them also need additional drugs and treatments.

Even with insurance, most people are on the hook for 20 to 30 percent of their medical expenses. And then there’s other unwanted, costly baggage such as hotel stays, travel, reduced work hours, job loss and caregiving. It’s not surprising, then, that the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that people with cancer are more than twice as likely to file for bankruptcy as people who don’t have cancer.

This bit of depressing news makes perfect sense to Gena Felker, who, since 2012, has been undergoing treatment for a rare and aggressive form of thyroid cancer. If not for the $34,000 she’s managed to raise on her GiveForward crowdfunding site, Felker swears she’d be homeless.

“It’s astonishing how quickly a major medical disaster can bring you to financial ruin,” says the Denton, Texas resident. “My husband and I wiped out our savings paying for my first surgery almost five years ago. We’ve been living hand-to-mouth ever since.”

THE PROS AND CONS OF CROWDFUNDING

The idea behind crowdfunding is simple: If you have cancer, or care about someone who does, you can tap into the power of an established online company that will do the heavy lifting involved in the fundraising process for you. The goal is to solicit monetary donations to support an ill person by drawing awareness to his or her plight.

In short, crowdfunding takes the charitable idea of passing the hat in church and kicks it up several notches, allowing those in need to do a far-reaching monetary ask of family, friends, coworkers and even strangers. With a click of a mouse or tap of a phone screen, the request has the potential to reach a worldwide audience via social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

GoFundMe is one of the most well-known crowdfunding companies.

Since its creation nearly seven years ago, more than 25 million donors worldwide have given in excess of $3 billion to causes near and dear to their hearts. Americans are a generous bunch. In 2015, donations to all U.S.-based crowdfunding companies grew by more than 50 percent.

“In the past, the only people who might have known that you’re sick and need help were your family and close friends. You’d get cards, flowers or a casserole,” says Jesse Boland, online marketing director for YouCaring. While these sentiments are lovely, they won’t keep the lights on.

“People intrinsically want to help when someone they care about is hurting. The trick is figuring out how,” says Boland. “Crowdfunding gives loved ones a simple, nonintrusive way to make a difference.”

Of course, it isn’t easy to ask for aid, especially when it feels a little like begging. “Acknowledging that you’re sick and struggling to make ends meet is a very big deal,” says Josh Chapman, chief executive officer of GiveForward.

“Before you can start asking for donations, the person in need must come to terms with the fact that private, personal information, such as one’s health status and finances, may very well be shared with a far-reaching public.” This potential downside — people knowing your business — is offset by the fact that donations increase as your story spreads.

Patients may also experience some emotional ups and downs as they watch donations come in, having strong feelings whether numbers exceed, meet or fall short of expectations.v “We receive a lot of feedback that recipients are very appreciative of the support, not only because of the impact of the financial help, but the realization that so many people wanted to help,” Chapman says. “The emotional aspect of the support is often as important, if not more important, than the financial help.”

Evans, for one, is amazed that her crowdfunding campaign has been shared more than 1,700 times.

“We were surprised at how many people shared our story, and also how many people we don’t even know donated to our cause, left messages of encouragement or otherwise offered to help,” she says. “People shared their stories with us, and we made new friends.

I have reconnected with old friends, as well, people I haven’t spoken to for 20 years or more. People leave comments of love and friendship, and these little notes remind us of just how much hope we have in the goodness of people. This has been one of the silver linings we’ve experienced throughout this whole ordeal.”

STRATEGIES FOR FUNDRAISING SUCCESS

If you think crowdfunding might be right for you or a loved one, there are several steps to take to ensure a successful fundraising campaign.

STEP 1: TALK TO A TAX EXPERT. For the most part, the IRS considers crowdfund donations to be personal gifts, which means you shouldn’t have to pay income taxes.

However, if you receive certain types of federal aid, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for disabled, lowincome individuals, the donations could be considered a source of income and affect eligibility. To make sure you’re in the clear, talk to a tax adviser before starting a crowdfund campaign. Also, keep in mind that your donors can’t write off their contributions because you’re not a nonprofit organization.

STEP 2: CHOOSE A CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER. Crowdfunding requires time and energy. While you can certainly spearhead your own campaign (as Felker did), Chapman says family members and friends initiate more than 70 percent of campaigns hosted by the company.

“There’s no known correlation between the success of a fundraiser and the person organizing it,” says Chapman. “But having someone else in charge allows the recipient to focus on healing instead of fretting over money.”

STEP 3: RESEARCH CROWDFUNDING OPTIONS. Crowdfunding companies operate the same way, with slight differences in fees and extras.

FEES: While there’s no fee to start a campaign, most companies have a platform fee that’s typically 5 percent of each donation. That means for every $1,000 raised, the company takes $50. YouCaring is one of the few companies that doesn’t charge a platform fee.

All companies collect fees for processing credit card payments (usually 2.9 percent of the donated amount, plus a per-transaction fee of about 30 cents). Some crowdfund companies such as CrowdRise offer donors the option of giving a little more to cover the costs of these fees, thereby ensuring that you receive 100 percent of the donated funds.

EXTRAS: GiveForward also offers nonmonetary ways for people to help. Registered donors can click a “support” button to let recipients know someone is thinking of them. A wish list provides links to online retailers for items such as blankets, slippers or books. A needs section solicits help with tasks like grocery shopping, yard work, house cleaning or child care. In addition, donors can work with the account organizer to give airline miles or hotel points or to arrange meals.

STEP 4: SET YOUR FUNDRAISING GOAL. Most crowdfund campaigns have no minimum or maximum goal requirements. It’s up to you to choose an amount, both when it comes to individual donations and the total you’re hoping to collect.

“You want to encourage people to give any amount, even if it’s $5,” says Boland. “If you aim too high, donors might feel as if their small contribution won’t make a difference and decide not to give.”

Even if you think you need upwards of $30,000 or more, it’s often better to stair-step your fundraising goals, adds Boland. For instance, ask for $10,000 in your initial launch, then do two more campaign pushes of $10,000 each to get you to your final goal. If you take this approach, it helps to explain how the recipient will use the funds. For instance, the first fund round might pay for surgery while the second round covers drug therapies and the third round pays for living expenses such as rent, food and gasoline.

STEP 5: PERSONALIZE YOUR CAMPAIGN. Once you’ve chosen a platform and set your goal, it’s time to personalize your site with lots of pictures, videos and stories. “Anything that humanizes your story is helpful, including photos or videos of earlier, healthier, more carefree days,” says Boland. For people who don’t know you, such as friends of friends, photos and videos can help build an emotional bond. Evans’ fundraising page, for instance, is peppered with family photos of herself, her husband and their infant twins. It’s a visual reminder of how much is at stake for the new mom and her family.

STEP 6: SPREAD THE WORD. Social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus and Instagram, are great tools for reaching family and friends near and far. Post a link to your fundraiser on your CaringBridge account. Create a hashtag such as #joebeatscancer to use every time you promote your campaign. Ask family and friends to share your crowdfund efforts on their social media pages. YouCaring estimates that every share brings in at least one donation, making each share worth about $37. Emails are also an effective way to reach people, especially those who aren’t fans of social media.

Send information about your campaign efforts to your local media, your high school and college alma maters, your sorority or fraternity and other organizations to which you belong. The Evans family saw an uptick in donations after the UCSF Medical Center featured the couple’s crowdfund campaign on its Facebook page.

STEP 7: KEEP UP THE MOMENTUM. Chapman estimates that 95 percent of donations come in during a campaign’s first week. “As time goes by, you need to remind people that you’re still getting treatments and need financial help,” he says. Posting regular updates about how you’re doing, your treatment process or even nonmedical posts about a family celebration can stir up donations. “We find that seven times more people return to the campaign site, either to make additional donations or to share the fundraiser, when they get updates,” says Chapman.

STEP 8: THANK YOUR DONORS. Besides being good manners, a “thank you” also serves as a reminder of your ongoing fundraising efforts. Some companies like YouCaring offer the option to personalize a thank-you message for each donor. Of course, campaign organizers can always send thank-you messages via email or the postal service.
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