Gannett Should Refund Donors' MoneyOpinion
OPINION — There isn’t a week that goes by without someone asking us to publicize an online fundraiser for some cause that on the surface appears worthy. Such was the case back in January when we were asked by Shannon Carpenter to publicize an online fundraiser concerning a little boy who was mauled by a dog.
Carpenter, you may recall, was the former executive director of the Railway Museum of San Angelo, Inc. who was instrumental in practically destroying the organization. Her involvement, in part, gave the City of San Angelo pause on whether or not the City should renew the lease on the old Santa Fe Depot. She highlighted allegations against former Railway Board member David Wood of sexual harassment purportedly producing secretly-recorded conversations with Wood.
When the request to publicize this particular fundraiser dropped over my transom, I obviously viewed it askance. The description on the GoFundme page never identified the family, as I recall. And the request to publicize it was from Carpenter, who I didn’t trust. I passed on the offer.
But not Gannett. They seized on the story in their San Angelo Standard-Times, spreading the need to raise $10,000 urgently, sending the story into the stratosphere. They initially linked to Carpenter’s GoFundMe effort and interviewed her. Days later, it turned out, the family never authorized the fundraiser and Carpenter admitted to the paper that she didn’t know the family. In fact, the reason Carpenter got involved was because her roommate was the owner of the dog that attacked the boy? The whole story got creepier and creepier the more information was released.
Before Gannett’s dust had settled in a follow-up article stating that, well, they messed up, the fundraiser had attracted $1601 in donations. This is real money from real folks who donated because Gannett decided to publicize the GoFundMe to begin with. Today, the paper admitted that the family, for whom the money was raised, has not received a dime.
The case is instructive of why I don’t automatically post just any online fundraiser. We held our own fundraiser three years ago for the family of the man who fell to his death from the old AT&T 1+ tower downtown. But before I set up the online component, I made sure I contracted a local bank to accept the money as well. If I ask my readers to give money to a cause I deem worthy, I want my readers to be assured that money goes to the cause advertised. You do that by asking a local banker to provide accountability. After collecting donations online and in person, I wrote a check for about $1800 to the family of the tower climber who died, which was more than the amount of money raised.
We were skittish on publicizing the Facebook fundraising campaign for the Clemens family who died in that horrific car crash southeast of Sterling City April 7. It wasn’t until we talked to a spokeswoman from Facebook and verified the woman holding the fundraiser was a member of the family that we gave it our full attention. Previously, we stated the fundraiser existed, but we reported we hadn’t verified it was real.
Anyone can set up a GoFundMe online fundraising campaign for just about anything except if the money is to be used to pay for legal fees for criminal court cases. The trouble is, even convicted felons can set-up a GoFundMe for people they don’t know and then dupe the local newspaper into publicizing it.
Gannett is a huge corporation with hundreds of newspapers. They bought into Shannon Carpenter’s ruse and tricked many of their readers into donating to a fake fundraiser. They should pay the family the $1,601 owed them instead of complaining about others who are as guilty as they are.
What does this teach the rest of us? Always be skeptical of online fundraisers. Always. That is, especially if the Standard-Times is involved.