Kiwis give millions of dollars to causes on the fundraising website Givealittle. But money handed back by the charity platform from one controversial appeal has raised concerns over whether the online model is open to abuse. Phil Taylor reports.

"Like most people who donate, I hope the money actually goes to the cause or recipient," said Satish. Could the Herald find out whether it did?

Satish donated to bring Down syndrome baby Leo Forrest to New Zealand after his Armenian mother was said to have disowned him, and was perturbed by news the family flew business class and by a co-trustee questioning how the money was being spent.

"The money raised was quite substantial," Satish's email said, "so the Dad probably thought he had won Lotto."

Internet crowdsourcing is changing the face of philanthropy. Platforms such as US-based GoFundMe and New Zealand's Givealittle super-charge the amount that can be raised, no more so than for causes that pull heartstrings. If mainstream media picks up a cause, a zero or so might be added.


The Bring Leo Home appeal, which sought $60,000 to help Kiwi father Samuel Forrest raise the baby as a solo dad here, is an example.

The target figure of his GoFundMe appeal was to allow him to dedicate a year to his child without having to worry about working. And then actor Ashton Kutcher commented on social media and mainstream latched on, and 17,869 donors gave $660,000 (according to the site).

Leo's parents reconciled and settled in West Auckland with their baby, Forrest fell out with the co-trustee and has been charged with assaulting her, and news leaks included that he had asked to be paid $90,000 from his son's trust fund in the first year.

"This is precisely why I do not give money to tear-jerking causes," emailed Rick. "Might as well put [it] in a tree chipper for all the accountability you will get ... ".

Rick's advice? "Make sure the charity is real, honest and most of the money does not go on admin costs or business-class fares."

Forrest, it must be noted, has pleaded not guilty to the assault charge and strongly asserts that donated money is being spent responsibly in his son's best interests.

Givealittle has had one fraud case go through the courts in its seven years. The case of the woman given $15,000 to fight her cancer fell at the first hurdle of Rick's checklist - she didn't have cancer.

Another example: Givealittle is to refund $4600 raised last month for the funeral of autistic 5-year-old Leon Jayet-Cole after it was found ACC had paid. The page was set up by "a family member wanting to help". The step-father has been charged with the child's murder, his mother with failing to seek medical treatment for the injuries he succumbed to.

Cases are rarely criminal but are sometimes messy. For instance, 84 generous souls raised nearly $7000 for a father to take his cancer-stricken young son on a family holiday to Queensland. A marriage break-up wasn't disclosed, the mother wasn't informed about the fundraiser and isn't happy about what she sees as a jaunt for a former spouse- who in her view hadn't shared the burden of the boy's illness- and for the ex's new partner.

At the other end of the ambiguity spectrum is the story of good Samaritan, mother-of-six Lucy Knight. She suffered a brain injury when she stepped in to help an elderly bag-snatch victim outside a North Shore mall. The teenage assailant hit Knight, causing her to fall.

Because of her condition she was unaware a friend had started a Givealittle page until Knight's husband, Peter, closed it after two weeks by which time 5220 people had given $269,934, second only to the Nepal earthquake in dollars raised on the platform.

"She was so humbled by the generosity, for doing what we hope a good person would," said Lynne Le Gros, general manager of Givealittle owner and operator the Spark Foundation.

"From the names of those gifting, everyone could see there was a lot of support from the Asian community, because they appreciated that a white woman helped out an Asian person."

Causes that top the lists for dollars donated and number of donors are all from the past 12 months and reflect the sector's exponential growth worldwide. More than half of the $32 million given to Givealittle causes in its lifetime was donated in the past year. When teleco giant Spark bought it in late 2012, it was doing about $55,000 a month. Last month it did $2 million.

The impressive trajectory is small beer compared to world leader GoFundMe, the platform that carried the baby Leo story. Set up by two American entrepreneurs, it collects US$4 million a day and has to date raised US$1.25 billion from 13 million donors. It grew 268 per cent last year and operates in many countries.

GoFundMe is big business as well as big charity. It clips the ticket by 8 per cent, whereas all money donated via Givealittle is passed on as Spark picks up the operating costs, its brand benefiting for its good citizenship.

Communicating with GoFundMe felt like entering the unreal world of 1998 movie The Truman Show. They don't do telephones but I was encouraged to email my top five questions to the "Customer Happiness" department (they also have an "Office Happiness" executive).

Why not cap donations when specific targets are reached?

"GoFundMe's focus is on helping campaign organisers run the best campaigns possible, rather than reaching a set goal amount. There is no limit to what organisers can raise."

In response to Satish's concerns, it was up to the campaign organiser (Leo's father) to decide how the money was spent, the Happiness Department said, but they would "investigate immediately" any complaints of "fraudulent or untrustworthy behaviour".

A question about the salary packages of the two founders was deemed "private information".

The platform started as CreateAFund in 2008 and was renamed two years later by founders Brad Damphousse and Andrew Ballester. Both had previously founded Paygr, a website dedicated to allowing members to sell their services to the public.

Damphousse says on the San Diego company's website that he got the idea when saving for a holiday.

"Frustrated that savings accounts were so difficult to open online, he decided that a web-based 'social' savings account - one that allowed others to make deposits - would be more fun," the website says.

Givealittle's Nathalie Whitaker. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Givealittle's Nathalie Whitaker. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Nathalie Whitaker's vision for Givealittle in 2007 came from looking to better link tech generation Gen Y, which some had labelled selfish, with charitable causes.

When Whitaker started, the use of technology in the charities sector was low. She was 22, and the world was turning to the web. It was the missing link in connecting the young and youngish to a cause. The appeal was gratification from contributing to an immediate, usually personalised cause.

The site roared after it hitched up to Spark's philanthropic arm in 2012 and relaunched as a zero-fees platform (previously 5 per cent was charged) drawing on the telco's marketing muscle to help spread the Givealittle gospel.

She is adamant the risk of abuse is lower with such platforms. "[Donors] haven't been stopped in the street. No one has knocked on their door interrupting their dinner. They can walk away from their computer or put down the mobile phone and take their time.

"A lot of other methods rely on propositioning you. They need to capture you in the moment and appeal to you with all sorts of tactics."

There is clarity, she said, in so much as the amount raised to date, who is raising it, who benefits and how many other people have trusted the page are displayed.

"When you drop some money in a bucket you don't know how many other people have done that. Or if you are asked to sign up in the street, you don't know who that person is. And if someone calls on the phone at night and asks for your credit card details, how can you be sure they are calling from the organisation?"

Personal causes, particularly medical, were the heart and soul of Givealittle and while there were a few examples internationally of people abusing it, they have had to abuse people in real life as well.

They haven't just gone on a website and told a lie. They have actually had to tell a lie in real life. So from my perspective the web just reflects people's real lives. The public play an important role in helping us regulate it. It is just a website ... get in contact and give us more background information, [then] we can do lots of things. We can require more information [of the organiser], we can hold funds where we feel the use of funds isn't clear or where the beneficiary may have different influences.

Potential donors have power too, said Whitaker.

"Share your views on social media. Ask a question on the Givealittle page and make it an awkward question. Page owners are required to respond."

Or step away from the screen. "Every one of those [baby Leo] donors who gave that $600,000 sat down and consciously made a decision to donate and donate beyond that $60,000."

Ideas including introducing an outside agency to manage funds are being tossed about. The site operators have suggested setting up a trust fund with an independent trustee, including for the appeal for former All Black Jerry Collins' baby, Ayla.

A verification mark could be added to the page in such cases. Caps were being discussed too, said Le Gros.

If $50,000 is sought, should a cap of $100,000 be put on? "We are asking ourselves a lot of questions. We haven't arrived on any decisions but we are really provoked by the discussion in the public arena."

The site is neutral on cause worthiness. It is up to you to value a tummy tuck, a heart operation for a child, a sportsperson seeking funding for an overseas event. Givealittle will host any cause that is legal, fairly and truthfully represented and clear about how the funds will be used, its spokeswoman said.

Instances such as the cancer fraud hadn't dented the Givealittle public's keenness to chip in. Nor should it, said the woman's lawyer, Alex Steedman.

Ongoing mental health treatment had delayed his client's sentencing till October. Charity shouldn't take a hit, Steedman said, because of one bad apple, "especially if that apple was already sick".

"How can you be sure," he said, "when you give to any charity? I just think there is a sensationalist bent to it."

To give or not to give is a personal choice but charities are necessary, Steedman said. "Otherwise no one would give money to anybody and the world would be a worse place."