Everything We’ve Learned About GoFundMe in the Past 20 Days

What is this guide?  

This guide focuses on the mechanics of creating a bail fund specifically to support people arrested while protesting. It is not a guide to providing bail or legal support, though we strongly recommend reading up on those topics as well. Furthermore, this guide does not cover creating a revolving or permanent bail fund. 

Information in this guide is based on our experience creating and using a Portland, Oregon-based bail fund during protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd. While the information included is accurate to the best of our knowledge at this time, please note that we are not lawyers, accountants, or other professionals. Getting professional help familiar with your specific situation and locality is strongly encouraged. 

Please note that bail funds, along with providing bail for people you don’t know personally, are legal. 

 

Things We Wish We’d Done Before Setting Up the Bail Fund

 

Risk Assessments

While you might expect bailing people out of jail during a pandemic that’s racing through detention facilities to be an easy sell, a surprising number of people consider this sort of work to be somehow offensive. 

A number of right-wing groups are doxxing and harassing folks running bail funds for protestors. This fact shouldn’t stop you from fundraising to cover protestors’ bail, but it does mean you should assess what risks you’re taking so that you can mitigate them.

We’re ‘lucky’ in that one of our fund organizers has been harassed online in the past and had already reduced the amount of private information they had online. When we realized that harassment was happening, we were able to remove and protect private information of other organizers before any major problems occurred.

As you’re deciding who to work with on putting together a bail fund, consider how much risk they may face from online harassment. Folks who may not be a good fit for the ‘official’ organizer of a campaign include those who:

  • have jobs that do not support political choices or that could be terminated for publicly sharing political views,
  • have younger children who are hard to adequately protect from online harassment, OR
  • have a high likelihood of getting arrested at a protest.

Anyone considering creating a bail fundraiser should take the time to secure personal information online before promoting such a fundraiser online. Equality Labs offers an in-depth guide for activists concerned about online harassment: https://medium.com/@EqualityLabs/anti-doxing-guide-for-activists-facing-attacks-from-the-alt-right-ec6c290f543c. We strongly recommend reading through the full guide.

Self-Care

Running a bail fund can be emotionally draining work. You’ll almost certainly need to call on your support system to help you through this process. Identifying people ahead of time who can help support you personally, as well as volunteer time towards the fundraiser, will make the process smoother. You may not be able to pull together a full team right away. Adding other people as you go, though, will help make space for everyone to take time away from working on raising and posting bail.

Making space for additional self-care during this work is also a good idea. We’re not talking about going and getting mani-pedis, mind you: we’re talking about setting aside time for processing, scheduling extra therapy appointments, and other strategies for dealing with the second-hand trauma you’re going to encounter during this process.

Prepare This Information

During the setup and verification processes used by most payment processors and fundraising platforms, you’ll need to provide standard financial information. You’ll also need to be able to answer questions about your campaign. Pull all this information together in advance in one place. Being able to copy and paste everything from one centralized secure location makes everything easier. 

Here’s what information you’ll want to have on hand:

  • Organizational information from the legal entity that will handle funds
    • Legal name
    • Tax ID number
    • Type of organization
    • Contact information
      • Mailing address
      • Phone number
    • Ownership records for anyone with a stake of 25% or more in the organization
    • Record of registration, such as articles of incorporation
  • Banking
    • Bank name
    • Routing information
    • Account number
    • PDF of a bank statement (which includes the banks logo)
  • Primary Point of Contact
    • Legal name
    • Social Security number
    • Identity record, such as a driver’s license or passport
  • Fundraiser details
    • Target amount to raise
    • Bail priorities
    • Plan for excess funds

 

Organization

Prioritize finding an organization to work with if you aren’t already working with an organization that will handle funds for your bail fundraiser. Ideally you’ll be able to work with an existing non-profit structure to handle money. While legally you can use business structures such as LLCs, doing so means dealing with a level of taxes and administrative details  you may not have capacity for. You may also face heavier scrutiny if you’re running funds through a business and you appear to make a profit. 

Your best bet is working with a local organization that is already focusing on issues around incarceration. If there aren’t any such organizations available, the next best option is to check for local non-profits that act as fiscal sponsors. Fiscal sponsors essentially let other organizations borrow their non-profit status in exchange for a percentage of all funds raised. Here’s an explainer on how fiscal sponsors operate: https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/the-pros-cons-fiscal-sponsor-nonprofits.html.

If you’re having difficulty finding an organization to work with, consider reaching out the nearest National Lawyers Guild chapter (https://www.nlg.org/chapters/). While the NLG does not handle bail operations due to legal constraints on lawyers, they usually have a good sense of other organizations working on similar issues in the area.

We strongly recommend against starting an entirely new non-profit (or any other) at the same time as starting a new bail fund. Starting a new bail fund is a lot of work and starting a new organization at the same time is like trying to build an airplane and fly it all at once.

Fundraiser details

Setting a fundraising goal based on a clear budget while in the middle of an on-going series of protests is imposisible. There are just too many variables in play. Instead, our strategy was to set our first fundraising goal based on what we were confident that we could raise over the course of 48 hours, which was $6,000. We then slowly increased goals as we met them, building momentum relatively quickly. 

Our bail priorities (which we encourage other organizations to adopt) are:

  1. individuals at high risk for COVID-19, such as those with suppressed immune systems,
  2. Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), and queer and trans people 
  3. members of other marginalized communities.

 

We’ve found that these guidelines have been sufficient for helping us decide an order in which to bail protestors who have been arrested. The reality is that prioritization is rarely that clear: factors like bail size make the decision harder, as do dealing with multiple protests spread out over time. But it’s often pretty clear which case you should work on next — whoever is currently experiencing the most harm.

We also encourage you to adopt our plans for excess funds we may raise: in the event we raise more funds than are needed by Portland protestors to cover bail and legal expenses, we’ll disburse the excess to bail funds in other cities and local Black-led organizations. While it may take a while for all cases to make it through the judicial system, being as transparent as possible about these questions can ensure donors trust your fund enough to contribute.

Research Local Bail Regulations

Being able to describe the process for spending the money you raise on bail will make fundraising easier even if you aren’t directly responsible for administering the fund. People tend to have lots of questions and may not understand the constraints bail funds face. 

Bail procedures vary dramatically by state. For instance, in Oregon, anyone posting bail can post 10% of the total amount set instead of the entire amount, eliminating the need for commercial bail bonds agencies. In some areas, support from bail and legal funds can impact defendants’ access to other services, like public defenders. 

The nearest chapter of the National Lawyers Guild will likely also be able to help you access information about local bail procedures (https://www.nlg.org/chapters/).

 

Setting Up a GoFundMe Campaign

Prior to the current protests, the PDX GDC already had a policy in place on using GoFundMe and Cash App as our main fundraising platforms. (We’ll discuss Cash App more below.)

While we considered a variety of platforms, we ultimately chose GoFundMe because of two factors. First, we wanted a crowdfunding platform donors would already trust and know how to use. Second, GoFundMe’s fees are lower than most fundraising platforms with similar capabilities: 2.9% of donations, plus 30 cents per transaction. Those fees are actually the standard credit card processing fee charged by GoFundMe’s payment processor — GoFundMe does not charge a platform fee. In comparison, most other crowdfunding platforms charge that standard payment processing fee as well as take an additional platform fee that can go as high as an additional 8%. Instead, GoFundMe’s money comes from asking every donor to tack on an additional percentage to their donation as a sort of pay-what-you-want platform fee.

Most of the advice in this guide applies to all crowdfunding sites, but be aware that some details (such as verification processes) can vary.

Teams

One GoFundMe section to carefully consider is your ‘team’. GoFundMe requires a designated ‘organizer’ for the campaign. This person is the main point of contact; changing this organizer is non-trivial. The organizer has access to features like controlling withdrawals. All messages will go to the email account associated with this individual.

You can also add ‘team members,’ who can post updates but who can’t modify the campaign otherwise. Anyone on a team is visible and should assume bad actors may try doxing or harassment. Despite this risk, having at least one team member listed is a good idea. At the very least, if the ‘organizer’ needs to take a day off, a ‘team member’ can step in to write updates.

Of course, you should recruit co-organizers and team members beyond what you may list on your fundraising campaign. Find folks with as wide a variety of experience as possible. In particular, gather folks who have subject matter expertise to catch potential issues, like high health risks, or identify defendants who have a particularly hard time accessing bail funds.

Stories

The most important part of your crowdfunding campaign is the ‘story’, as GoFundMe titles it: your explanation of what’s going on and why you need funds. This is where you establish that your cause is worthy and that you will handle funds correctly.

Start with a straightforward explanation of who is in jail, why they’re there, and what you’re going to do about the situation once you have money in hand.

Topics worth covering:
  • Priorities — You’ll almost certainly get questions about who you’re bailing out and in what order. Sharing your priorities (which we discussed earlier) will cut down on (but not eliminate) those questions.
  • Coverage — Describe what expenses you’ll cover for protestors. We describe what we cover as “bail and legal fees,” since we use these funds for expenses including but not limited to bail, lawyers’ fees, fines, and court clothes. You’ll also want to be clear about what any potential excess funds may be used for. Options include:
    • Support other bail funds in areas with less access to capital
    • Support Black-led organizations in your area
    • Bail out additional folks who are incarcerated in your area
  • Contact Information — Tell people how to get in touch with you to access bail funds. While bail support isn’t covered in this document, you’ll want to have a plan in place for using your funds that you can publicly discuss.
  • Transparency — Given that you’re working with community funds, providing transparency about how those funds are spent is important. We’re keeping a running ledger (just a spreadsheet with a fancy name) that anyone can check at https://pdxgdc.com/bail-and-fees-fund-transparency/. It doesn’t include personal details but is otherwise as transparent as we can make it.
  • Anonymity — Because some bad actors are scraping GoFundMe contributors and using that information maliciously, encourage donors not to list their real name when donating.

While you can update your campaign in the future, remember that people are giving to your campaign based on whatever is posted when they make their donation. If you promise all funds will be used for a specific purpose, you likely have a legal obligation to carry through — even if you change the campaign in the future.

Verification

Speaking of verification, the hardest part of creating a crowdfunding campaign is often the verification processes. You’ll go through two separate verification processes when running a crowdfunding campaign: the GoFundMe verification and the payment processor verification. Each theoretically takes 24 hours if everything goes perfectly, though I have yet to hear of anyone having a perfect experience with these verifications. Our process, all told, took about two weeks, during which we could not withdraw funds from the campaign. We’ve talked with folks whose verification process has taken closer to four weeks.

Our timeline:
  • May 29 — Protestors gathered in Portland to protest police brutality. Portland police officers declared the protest was a riot and arrested 13 protestors.
  • May 30 — The GDC, in addition to providing jail support services, started a GoFundMe campaign to cover expected bail and legal costs. We immediately began bailing protestors, using our existing funds and funds provided directly by community members, with the understanding that we’d be able to access funds raised through GoFundMe as soon as we completed their verification process. We attempted to start the verification process with GoFundMe and were unable to complete it. GoFundMe’s system asked for additional information, which we provided immediately.
  • May 31 — We attempted to start the withdrawal process with GoFundMe and were again unable to complete the verification process. The automated system asked for documentation, which we provided, and which was kicked back to us with a request for different documentation. We messaged GoFundMe’s support to ask for help in the process. At the same time, right-wing social media users started a concerted effort to report the campaign as fraudulent in an attempt to get it shut down. We also messaged GoFundMe to notify them of the harassment our campaign was receiving.
  • June 1 — The GDC continued to use locally available funds, experience harassment, and message GoFundMe’s support. (Please note that May 31 and June 1 were a Saturday and Sunday, respectively, and therefore not ‘business days’.)
  • June 2 — A GoFundMe representative responded to our messages and asked to have our documentation forwarded to them. We complied and were directed back into the automated verification system, which then kicked up an error message, which we messaged GoFundMe’s support team about.
  • June 3 — A different GoFundMe representative responded to our message, saying that they would review our verification documentation and update the system.
  • June 4 — GoFundMe reached out to ask for more information to complete the verification process. 
  • June 8 — Because we had not heard an update from GoFundMe after three days (including on whether or not our verification had been completed), we again reached out to GoFundMe’s support team. We were informed that the secondary verification process at GoFundMe’s payment processor had not been completed. At the end of the day, a GoFundMe support representative told us that the verification process had been cleared and that funds had been released to our bank.
  • June 9 — A message appeared on our GoFundMe dashboard stating that our verification had failed. We again contacted GoFundMe’s support team, who reported that the message was in error and we should expect funds to arrive in our bank at any time.
  • June 11 — We woke up to find our first GoFundMe withdrawal in our bank account.

 

Changing any of your financial information during the verification process will kick you back to the beginning of the process. Don’t change anything after verification starts if you can avoid it. Posting updates is fine, but treat the rest of the system gingerly. 

Be prepared to advocate for your campaign to customer service representatives. Follow up on a daily basis (or even more often, if you have capacity) and ask questions. In our experience, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Withdrawals

Once your account is verified by both the crowdfunding platform and the payment processor, you’ll be able to make your first withdrawal. Depending on how the support process goes, the first withdrawal may be automatically started without you needing to take any action. 

GoFundMe uses the ACH system to directly deposit funds into your bank account. ACH transfers typically take two to five days. It’s an older system and does not make instantaneous transfers.

If you’re making a first withdrawal over $5,000, let your bank know to expect the transfer once the withdrawal starts. Depending on your typical transactions at the bank, this may be a good time to raise spending limits to help you pay for larger bails.

Promotion

Promoting a crowdfunding campaign is a matter of contacting everyone you know and asking them to donate, then contacting them again and asking them to share the campaign. Then repeat.

Start with folks you know well. If you can build momentum, you’ll be able to ask for bigger donations from folks who you don’t know as well using what you’ve already raised as a sort-of proof of your trustworthiness.

Update your GoFundMe regularly. The site includes a feature where you can add news without changing the body of the campaign’s story. You can choose to have those updates automatically emailed to campaign supporters as well as pushed out to social media platforms. Especially while protests are ongoing, updating on a daily basis helps remind folks to keep supporting your effort, particularly if you find that you need to raise your goal to meet your community’s needs.

Be as transparent as possible in your updates including when you expect to receive funds from GoFundMe. People have lots of questions about how the bail process works, even more so during a pandemic, and the more information you give them, the more supportive they’ll be.

Media

Many journalists are looking for local stories to provide context to these protests, so don’t be surprised if a journalist reaches out to you with questions. Be choosy about which journalists you work with — some may have agendas other than what you’d assume. When choosing who to respond to, consider prioritizing local media first (especially media that is locally or cooperatively-owned). Their audience has a clear stake in local protests, making them exactly the type of potential donors you want to reach.

Write out talking points in advance and stick to them throughout the interview, no matter what the journalist asks about. Key talking points to have in place include:

  • organization background info
  • what the money will be used for
  • how it will be disbursed

 

Don’t talk about the parts of the work you don’t know — if you’re working with other organizations, refer questions to those organizations. Don’t talk about who is organizing protests, don’t give your opinions on the protests, and don’t go off those talking points. And all this goes double if you’re White. Hand off interviewers to Black organizers and uplift their voices. If you’ve got White privilege, use it to hit up other White folks for money, instead.

Getting Help

GoFundMe only offers support via email (though nudging GoFundMe on social media or through individual contacts may help speed up a support request). Furthermore, customer support representatives don’t work on the weekends. We absolutely support workers taking time off, but our lives would be easier if GoFundMe hired additional weekend staff, at least during crises).

Don’t be afraid to message the support team ‘too often.’ Since support emails are our main method of communication to GoFundMe, there’s really no such thing as ‘too often.’

 

What’s Made Our Campaign Successful

 

Cash On Hand

Our goal is minimizing the time protestors spend in jail. Knowing that GoFundMe would take at least a little while to start transferring funds to us, we used other funds to start the bail process. Those funds included

  • organizational cash on hand
  • loans to the organization from members
  • money from other organizations
  • cash and direct transfers from folks comfortable donating outside of the GoFundMe

 

Not all communities have members with liquid savings — we’re lucky that we were able to draw on members of the local tech community and other folks who capitalism rewards particularly well. 

For direct transfers, we use Cash App. We’d previously committed to using Cash App as an organization and already had an account in place. We use a business account (the main option available to nonprofits) and needed organizational information to set up the account, roughly similar to the information we suggested collecting above.

Personal Cash App accounts may require private information, including deadnames and the last four digits of a user’s Social Security number.

We did need to have our Cash App limit raised in order to transfer more than $7,500 in a set period of time, but that process was relatively simple. In fact, a member of the local Cash App office reached out to us before we even knew we’d need help.

No matter what apps you use for direct transfers (or if you use cash), keep detailed records about these funds and include them in your transparency report. 

Existing Organizational Structure

The Portland GDC is a 501(c)4 nonprofit. The current iteration of our local organization was founded in 2017; the overall GDC is over a century old. Having this existing structure that already did bail and legal support made the fundraising process smoother.

As a 501(c)4, the GDC has more freedom to spend money in ways that might be considered “political.” If you have the option to work with a 501(c)4 in operating your bail fund, you may be able to spend money more easily than at another type of nonprofit, such as a 501(c)3 organization.

Things could have been smoother yet — most people don’t know what a 501(c)4 organization is and neither GoFundMe nor Cash App (nor most other platforms we’ve looked at) have documentation for users at 501(c)4s. (If you’re wondering about the distinction, most nonprofits that accept tax-deductible donations are classified as 501(c)3 organizations under tax law. In comparison, 501(c)4 organizations are nonprofits but donations to them are not tax-deductible. For more on different types of nonprofits, here’s an explainer https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1559.)

We also knew the local bail process and had a clear idea of exactly what we could do with the money we raised and existing relationships with local resources for legal support, such as the National Lawyers’ Guild. We were even able to sit down with organizers of a large local GoFundMe for mutual aid during COVID-19 to get their experiences with the verification process. That let us avoid several potential pitfalls.

 

Additional Resources