September 08, 2014

Latest Episode Highlights Danger and Potential of Reddit Fundraising

Reddit, the freewheeling social-media site powered by clusters of online communities known as subreddits, has inspired no shortage of strong opinions since its founding in 2005. The self-described "front page of the Internet" has been dubbed a bastion of free speech, a repository of smut, a vanguard of crowd-sourced journalism, and a blight upon that same industry.

This week, however, was one for the doubters.

Over Labor Day weekend, the same subreddit that helped disseminate a cache of nude celebrity photographs tried to organize an online fundraiser "in honor of" Jennifer Lawrence, one of the actresses victimized by the leak. One problem: The charity for which the money was raised, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, didn’t want it. Neither did the backup nonprofit,

The Prostate Cancer Foundation returned every cent of the roughly $8,000 raised and released a statement that read, in part, "We would never condone raising funds for cancer research in this manner."

The episode no doubt reaffirmed Reddit’s volatile, fringy reputation to many in the nonprofit world.

"Reddit is truly a wild west on the Internet," wrote Allison Fine, author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, in an email to The Chronicle. "It is a playground for free agents who love stirring the pots for good and bad."

She says Reddit’s seedier side spooks many charities, even those active on other socia-media sites.

"Most nonprofits are traditionally and habitually risk-averse, which makes Reddit generally off-limits to them," Ms. Fine wrote. "Where Reddit is great is raising an issue or concern, gathering some momentum for it that then transfers to Facebook or Twitter, where organizations are more comfortable engaging."

Reddit has undeniable fundraising potential for those willing to harness it. The site’s success stories include more than $600,000 raised for a bullied bus monitor, over $80,000 given to a Kenyan orphanage, and a successful Doctors Without Borders campaign powered by Reddit’s atheist community. As with any-place on the internet where large communities gather, Reddit offers the ever-present promise of raising large sums quickly.

There are small sums available, too. On the subreddit "Random Acts of Pizza," redditors in a bind can plead for a free pie. The "Assistance" and "Food_Pantry" threads have a similar setup, albeit with a more serious bent.

Reddit has made efforts to capture and direct this philanthropic undercurrent. In 2012 it simultaneously announced partnerships with the crowdfunding platform Tilt (then called Crowdtilt) and e-commerce tool Dwolla. Each was an attempt to encourage Reddit-inspired philanthropy and create official channels for giving. This year, Reddit said it would donate 10 percent of its advertising revenue to a charity chosen by users.

It would appear Reddit wants to nudge its sprawling online community toward giving, and perhaps in the process become a valued fundraising tool for nonprofits. The question remains, though: Will organizations dare use it?

Barbara Parsky, senior adviser to the president of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, says her nonprofit has never used Reddit in any formal way. She’s quick to add, however, that she won’t dismiss the social network’s potential because of one bad experience.

"Each individual circumstance is just that—individual," Ms. Parsky says. "We are in no way against social media. It’s a very useful channel for distribution."

Send an e-mail to Avi Wolfman-Arent.