GoFundMe can show what we get wrong about charity

By Editorial Board

Does a Chicago Police Department officer with a history of harming civilians deserve your donation?

Officer Robert Rialmo and his attorney think so. Attorney Joel Brodsky posted a GoFundMe campaign Jan. 23 to cover his client’s legal fees as Rialmo faces misdemeanor charges for an alleged Dec. 17 bar fight. The city refused to cover the cost of Rialmo’s legal representation after he fired the law firm provided to him by the city and chose to appoint Brodsky instead. 

In the GoFundMe campaign’s description, Brodsky writes that Rialmo is being unjustly targeted by the city and claims his client is innocent of all charges—including the December 2015 fatal shooting of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones that the Civilian Office of Police Accountability ruled unjustified, which is another controversy in which Rialmo has been embroiled.

This GoFundMe campaign symbolizes many of the problems acknowledged in our national dialogue in which the public remains divided. But it also brings into question our modern sense of charity.

This campaign is emblematic of the exploitation of generosity. Within a week of Brodsky posting the campaign on the crowdfunding platform, more than $8,000 of the $50,000 goal had already been raised. For misdemeanor charges, $50,000 seems like an excessive sum to ask of people, but Brodsky claims the money is needed for a “full-blown defense.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Those intent on taking advantage of others’ generosity have existed as long as charity itself. However, social media and the internet have created new ways to continue that exploitation.

Platforms like GoFundMe are vital for people who have no other options for funding needed services or care. The campaigns include cancer patients asking for funds to pay for life-saving treatment or families urgently trying to raise money after losing their homes to hurricanes or fires. However, as easy as it is to create a campaign, these pleas often go underfunded and we bear witness to this selective generosity.

The controversy involving a figure like Rialmo can lead those in his favor to vigorously show their support—even if that support is not needed. Since charity is mostly a popularity contest, anyone with the status to get people’s attention can expect vigorous donations.

It is common to see donation campaigns sprout up when situations go viral online, such as the case of Keaton Jones in a Dec. 8 video. The Tennessee boy appeared on camera visibly distraught because of bullying and his video gained thousands of views. A third party created a GoFundMe campaign for Jones that quickly raised more than $56,000.

The image of a teary-eyed boy denouncing bullying was used to raise thousands of dollars, yet it is still unclear what the donations would go toward, leading some to become wary about the intent behind some campaigns.

We have unprecedented accessibility to the world around us thanks to an era of technological advancement, and this means we have a clear view of all of society’s faults through our monitors. A problem such as capitalizing on others’ kindness or ignoring people’s calls for aid doesn’t stem from the digital age. Instead, the internet and social media gives us a stark image of how we have not advanced at the same pace as technology. We must take advantage of this technology in order to show us how we can improve with it.