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Social Charity Sites May Be Boosting Our Generosity

Crowdfunding sites displaying faces of the seriously ill are fueling millions of dollars a day in donations, nudging Americans to help strangers.
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Websites displaying sweet faces of seriously ill kids or tales of medical-bill horrors are fueling millions of dollars per day in social-site donations, nudging more Americans to help folks they often know only through an Internet glance.

Amid the rise of crowdfunding sites like StartSomeGood, Razoo and Fundly — where sick individuals or their families or friends can ask strangers for contributions — some medical nonprofits such as the American Cancer Society say they’re paying tighter attention to viral nature of certain individual campaigns.

Are heart-tugging efforts — like a GoFundMe push to raise $100,000 for a 3-year-old South Carolina boy recently diagnosed with lymphoma — changing traditional U.S. giving patterns that have long sustained national health charities?

Maybe in a good way, according to philanthropy expert Richard Marker.

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“I haven’t seen any evidence that it’s had an impact on significant giving — on big foundation giving or on big research giving,” said Marker, co-principal of Wise Philanthropy, a firm that seeks to help people, families and foundations make smart decisions about donations.

But social charity sites do seem to be boosting America's collective generosity via a blur of daily of electronic gifts as small as $25, according to watchdogs and some sites' metrics.

“There's actually been a net-plus for (overall) philanthropic giving,” Marker said. Social charity sites “make it possible for people with lesser means to feel that they have a direct access to give to something that matters to them, to get very invested in it.”

Sure, there have been crowd-funding ventures of questionable value, like the kick-starter for potato salad that raised more than $50,000. But experts say such giving isn't taking away from more traditional or meaningful donations. It is, in essence, just a side dish.

"Giving directly to individuals is a tricky thing — you don’t know if they are legitimate or a scam."

Online crusades are vastly different in two key ways from the old-school donation patterns that have long footed the bills at major health nonprofits. One: Charity sites may spark hundreds or even thousands of vastly smaller donations (often under $1,000 per gift) versus the six- or seven-figure grants handed out by medical-friendly foundations and rich folks. Two: Contributions to individuals through to GoFundMe and similar sites are not tax-deductible.

Still, the ascension of sites like GoFundMe have led some big-time medical fundraisers to realize that sort of person-to-person approach “is what more people want — the chance to know what money or project they are giving their money to,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

That sort of philanthropy also comes with fair consumer warning, Palmer added.

“Giving directly to individuals is a tricky thing — you don’t know if they are legitimate or a scam,” Palmer said. “That is true with nonprofits, too. The key in knowing who to trust is to do research.”

GoFundMe, based in San Diego, launched in 2010 and calls itself “the World’s #1 fundraising site for personal causes and life-events.” According to the site, it draws $1 million per day for its various campaigns, and it has generated, in total, more than $340 million from 5 million donors, (meaning contributions average $68). GoFundMe says it deducts a 5 percent fee from each donation to pay for technology, employee benefits and salaries.

“Our stats make it clear that Americans are giving more than ever through GoFundMe,” said a statement emailed to NBC News by Brad Damphousse, the site’s CEO. “Given a choice, the average person would likely choose to give to someone they know personally over a charity. However, only a given charity or nonprofit would have insight into how this behavior impacts their organization.”

Some nonprofits are reluctant to discuss the trend. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital declined, through a spokesman, to comment to NBC News on the rise of social-funding sites

Meanwhile, at the American Cancer Society, which in 2012 reported total revenue of more than $900 million, fundraisers are closely watching this online altruism.

“These types of social campaigns do have a growing presence and provide another viable option for cancer patients and their families,” said Jennifer Brady, American Cancer Society's director of digital platforms. “… We are also working to understand these social-funding campaigns to assess the success and relevance these have on fundraising in the fight against cancer.”

"Given a choice, the average person would likely choose to give to someone they know personally over a charity."

But perhaps one of the warmest charms of GoFundMe and similar sites is that many or most donors don’t know the person receiving their money. They're often simply touched by reaching their stories and seeing their images.

In Columbia, South Carolina, friends of Josh and Joanna Fleming launched a GoFundMe page for the couple’s 3-year-old son, Gabriel, diagnosed May 22 with lymphoma, a form of cancer. At the time, the family was in Cypress, doing humanitarian work. The campaign’s $100,000 goal included the costs to fly the family back to America last week to allow Gabriel to start treatment at a local hospital. That medical care is under way.

As of Wednesday evening, Gabriel’s GoFundMe page was less than $5,000 from reaching its goal.

Many and possibly most of the donors - scores are anonymous - had never met the Fleming family before the boy fell ill. That list includes Columbia lawyer George Cauthen, who contributed $1,000 of his own money. At his firm, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, fellow lawyer Everett McMillian has helped guide that fundraising effort while he also aided the family in arranging and securing home-bound flights.

The only tangible connection: Cauthen and his colleagues know another lawyer in Columbia who happens to be Gabriel’s cousin. But that's not what drew them to help.

“When I get these GoFundMe (pitches) and I don’t personally know the person involved in it, I rarely give,” said Cauthen, who annually devotes 10 percent of his salary to his favorite charities, including the Humane Society.

“But this was compelling enough to me where I did want to donate. He’s a cute kid. And, I mean," Cauthen said with a pause, "... those photos.

"I think people (who give) do like seeing the numbers going up on the (GoFundMe) chart. When they make a donation, they get a little thrill out of that."