New research this week affirms the grim reality of medical crowdfunding. The study found that few GoFundMe campaigns over a five-year span raised enough money to meet their goals. And those started by people living in areas with higher levels of medical debt, uninsurance, and low income raised less money than others living elsewhere.
Several studies have found that medical crowdfunding campaigns seldom meet their goals. A few have also suggested that people who are already facing disadvantages like poverty are less able to succeed than others. But this new study, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health by researchers from the University of Washington, was able to analyze one of the largest datasets on GoFundMe campaigns compiled so far.
All told, they looked at nearly a half-million campaigns started on GoFundMe between 2016 to 2020. These campaigns collectively raised over $2 billion from 21.7 million donations. But the payout to these campaigns was deeply unequal. Less than 12% of campaigns raised enough money to meet their goal during those years, while 16% raised no money at all, and the median campaign raised less than $2,000. These numbers were even worse in 2020, with a full third of all campaigns going unfunded.
The researchers were also able to cross-reference census and other data on the states and neighborhoods where people who started these campaigns lived. And they found that the same disparities that hamper people’s access to health care often played out on GoFundMe as well.
In 2020, for instance, about 20% of campaigns were started by people living in areas with the lowest income brackets. But these campaigns only raised about 12% of the total money funded that year. Those living in high-income neighborhoods, meanwhile, raised a disproportionate share of the total money. Similarly, though more campaigns were started in states with the highest rates of medical debt and uninsurance, they raised less money than campaigns elsewhere. Mississippi in particular saw the lowest amount of money donated of all 50 states.
“Despite its popularity and portrayals as an ad-hoc safety net, medical crowdfunding is misaligned with key indicators of health financing needs in the United States,” the authors wrote. “It is best positioned to help in populations that need it the least.”
These figures were generally worse in 2020 than in other years. So it’s possible that the covid-19 pandemic may have affected people’s ability or willingness to donate to crowdfunding campaigns that year. But the researchers also speculate that the 2020 data may reflect a more accurate picture of how successful sites like GoFundMe really are. They note that successful campaigns seem to stay up on the website longer, while unfunded campaigns seem to be taken down after a year’s time. The data from previous years, they argue, may then be skewed to make their campaigns look more successful than they were. That’s not only bad for transparency, the authors note, it’s also likely to fool the public.
“Because the campaigns people see on social networks are almost always the small subset that are shared widely, the public may have the impression that crowdfunding is more likely to be successful than it really is,” said study author Mark Igra, a sociology graduate student, in a statement released by the university.
Companies like GoFundMe should provide clearer data to better understand the needs of those who turn to them, the authors say. But as heart-warming as even successful campaigns may be, they’re at best a band-aid to the deep cracks in the health care system that many Americans fall into. And what’s truly needed, they say, are substantial reforms to health coverage and other programs that can actually create an expansive safety net.