Thursday, September 18, 2014

Crowd-Source Funding. Good or Bad?

After college and my time in the Military I have worked nearly all of my adult life in the non-profit world.  I have always given to charity and for many years gave directly to United Way via payroll deduction.  While in the Military I gave to the Combined Federal Campaign via payroll deduction.  So for me "giving" is not a foreign thing and I believe it is the correct thing. 

In truth after my divorce in 2010 left me with a considerable debt from a tax bill and other unpaid responsibilities I floated with the idea of crowd source funding as a way to ketch up with the debt that was destroying my credit rating (and job opportunities as many employers now pull credit scores particularly when you work in the social service field) but decided against it.  Instead I worked with the municipality that I owned taxes to and cashed in a retirement plan to pay off that debt. 

I have been amazed at the number of crowd sourced funding campaigns that, in my opinion, are not so much a "need" but a "want".  I am not bothered by people who wish to help by giving to these campaigns but I have always believed that humility was an extremely important thing.  I know that everyone is different and I accept that. 

I am not saying that my thoughts and feelings are correct or that those who wish to fulfill what I see as a "want" are wrong.  They have the right to do whatever they chose provided it is legal.  I do wonder if we are sending the wrong message as a community and also wonder if campaigns like these harm the ability of legitimate needs to be fulfilled. 

Consider that many who do crowd sourced funding for personal "wants" are typically pretty intelligent and articulate people.  They have access to the internet.  They know how to craft a good yarn on what they "want" and "why" and they are typically folks who are pretty aware of the environment around them.  Can we say the same for the families living in real poverty in out major cities in America or families and entire communities living in poverty throughout Appalachia?  This along with the "humility" part is where I struggle.  Are crowd sourced funding campaigns taking away money from charities that could help feed, cloth or raise a family / child out of poverty?  I have no idea but I do believe it is more than possible. 

I discussed briefly my thoughts about crowd sourced funding in an earlier post ( and offered how I had been following a particular campaign.  It was that campaign that really made me question if this "funding" was truly a good idea or if it was a polarizing concept where people would support folks that just might look, talk and act like them to the  exclusion of others.  Understand, we have the "right" to do so but is that the best thing for our community to only selectively help others and does such selection not clearly show a soft bigotry of exclusion or inclusion? 

The campaign that caught my eye was that of Pastor Steve Mason.  After reading the campaign along with six or seven news articles not only about the campaign but about the death of Pastor Mason's daughter I contacted Pastor Mason.  First let me say he was under no obligation to reply although he did and I am thankful and respectful of that.  Second let me say that I was not trying to play "gottcha" with Pastor Mason but was really looking to understand the situation.  I can say now that my initial questions and Pastor Mason's response left me feeling, even more confused. 

My first email to Pastor Mason was sent on 14 August 2014 and is as follows: 

Dear Mr. Mason;
I have attempted to post the following comment on your "go fund me" page but it continually is denied.  I am sure it is a computer "glitch" but I want to forward my thoughts and feelings to you because you have made your family a public entity by not only seeking donations via go fund me but by appearing in several news sources. 
Here is the comment that I attempted to post:  First let me say it is a sad story and in brief here is my understanding; Lisa Mason the 27 year old daughter of Pastor Steve Mason and his wife Darnelle died from liver failure due precipitated by a history of drug abuse in 2009. I did a simple "Google" search and discovered that according to the Albuquerque Journal (June 2011), Ms. Mason (per her family) had a long history of drug abuse and the family was or is currently suing the Doctor (Barry Maron) who they say had prescribed her more than 400 pills in a two week period (note; I could find nothing further on the lawsuit). 
The family, after the death of Ms. Mason, is on the hook for more than 100,000. in private student loans that they co-signed for while she attended school. Since her death the family admits they have paid nothing to the lenders although they admit the have an income in excess of 75,000,00 a year with both Pastor Mason and his wife employed by the church he leads. The family states they cannot pay on the loan because they are, as grandparents, raising the three children Ms. Mason had given birth to. I am sensitive to this and wonder if the three children are receiving SSI benefits as they are eligible until they reach legal age and what the contribution from child support from the children's father is.  CNN / Money has reported that the lenders have reduced the principal of the loans to 27,000.00 and has lowered the interest rate to 0% on three of the four loans. Sen. Warren has been talking this case up and the family, as you can see below, has started a "go fund me" campaign where they have raised over 20,000.00 so far.
My point here is . . . . . I am a nice guy. But . . . . wow. After my divorce ('10) I was left with a horrendous debt (some of which I was not aware of) and since '11 have struggled finding decent work. I am unemployed as I write this and was just informed by Applebee's that I was not selected for a position. I am not currently behind with child support for my three children from my first marriage, but soon (next month) will be and the State of Michigan will put this on my credit report and it will stay on that report for seven years. When your degree (B.S. Corrections and Juvenile Services) and work history is in working with children having that on your credit report really does not sit well with organizations that hire. Right or wrong, it makes me look like a deadbeat father, I know that. What I am trying to communicate is that I understand how such things can damage your credit rating - honestly, I do.
I know many of the folks on my Facebook "friends" list are struggling and they are all good people. I guess my struggle with this is that the family understood the risk of co-signing a loan and understood the history of substance abuse by their daughter.  The family admits they have not paid on the loans and the lender admits they have even lowered the principal by more than 20,000.00.  Finally . . . . the family admits an income in excess of 75,000.00 and a pending lawsuit against the Doctor (Barry Maron) who they say wrongfully gave Ms. Mason the drugs (and to be fair . . . 400+ pain pills in less than two weeks is excessive, IMO) but no mention is made to if the children receive child support or SSI.  Although, I understand that if the children receive child support the family does not have to claim that as income for tax purposes.  Further as a pastor does Mr. Mason having housing, transportation and insurance provided by his church?  I am not being mean with this but being honestly skeptical that if someone does not have to pay rent or transportation cost the income from 75,000.00 plus (which the family admits) sure stretches a ton further.  Maybe I could also mention that under IRS publication 517 clergy are pretty well blessed with nearly tax free status (schedule SE, Form 4361) which makes that 75,000.00 plus stretch even further.  More ironic to me is that the median income in America for 2014 is only 51,017.00 a year and Pastor Mason already admits he is 23,983.00 above that level; without the benefit tax rules favoring clergy, without addressing if he church pays for his home or transportation, without addressing if the children receive child support, without addressing if the children receive SSI and really without saying what his wife's income from the church actually is.  Yet, somehow Pastor Mason seems to believe others should pay a debt that he willingly co-signed for his daughter even though he as an adult understood the risk of the loan and according to news reports the family acknowledges knowing of the daughters history of drug abuse.   
I just don't see this as a "need" but a "want". I get the pastor feeling that this will impact his retirement but far too many of us are worried about simply feeding our children during the next month and don't have time to think about retirement. I don't want to be mean or without compassion but seriously. I know what I and my spouse are going through and have gone through and can only shake my head at a Pastor and wife who makes more than 75,000.00 a year asking the public for help and even getting a US Senator to trumpet the cause. Crazy. To be even more callous, I don't think the story would not have gotten the attention that it has gotten if Ms. Mason were not an attractive white girl and her Mother and Father not such sympathetic figures (really, who wants to think ill about a pastor). Sure, I know I sound calloused and I will accept that but understand according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are more than 90 million families, like mine, that are either under employed or unemployed (but no longer counted) that are struggling greatly. The Pastor, I am sure, sees this in his church. Somehow I find struggling to cloth and feed children more pressing then paying back a loan but I imagine we are all different. I am also sure that when bad things have occurred in our lives most of us have not looked to "go fund me" or worked to start a petition to change the situation that we created by our own choices. 
I am all for helping others when needed and have spent my entire career helping others (well, when I was working) even to the detriment of my family but in this case I just don't see it. I feel bad for the family and send them nothing but my good thoughts and prayers however I don't see this as a grave injustice or wrong but rather as an opportunity.
I see far to many folks now using the idea of being a good "reformed Christian" as a means to raise money.  I am sure the family are nice people but so too are the millions of Americans who are out of work and simply want to feed the children they have and those families do not have the income or resources this family has nor have most of those families found lending agencies so willing to forgive as much principal debt.  I will say that to me we have become too willing to hold out our hands.  As I said earlier I was divorced in 2010.  My youngest child from that marriage has achondroplasia (a type of dwarfism) and my ex-wife used "go fund me" to pay for a medical trip that she wanted to take from Michigan to Maryland.  She was able to raise more than 1,200.00 for this trip.  She too considers herself a good Christian and is currently married to a youth minister.  The funny thing was that when she took the trip she was receiving full child support (42% of my income), she was working full time, her rent was "controlled" based on income and she had just mislead me on taxes and had gotten a very substantial refund by claiming all three children when our agreement was that I would be claiming two that year (she filed first).   But . . . people wanted to be helpful and gave her more than enough and she took our son out to Maryland.  The thing is . . . . at that appointment they told her (and I via the telephone); nothing new and the appointment was not an emergency.  The doctors recommended no new course of treatment other than to "monitor" his progress via his doctors at the University of Michigan.  IOW, it wasn't a "need" but a "want".  I honestly see the same here with the Mason Family. 
Sorry if I sound callous or mean but frankly the story does not add up IMO.   I wish the family nothing but the best but . . . . . having been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray in the past I have grown pretty good at identifying things that don't seem right and IMO that is the Mason Family story. 
If I have misunderstood anything please let me know.  I do have nothing but regret and remorse for your family that you have not only lost your daughter but are dealing with the debt she incurred.  That said, there are millions of Americans doing far worse and I find your pontifications far from humble and another poor example of Christian behavior.  We are all different. 
Will Sweat
Pastor Mason responded to my initial email on 19 August 2014 with the following: 

          Thanks for contacting me Will.  I believe you when you say you are sympathetic with the loss of
          our daughter.  Much of your information is incorrect.  I never said we earn more than $75,000.           I was asked if I make more or less than that amount by the reporter and I told her I made less.  
         We receive no child support from anyone.  Dr. Maron prescribed much more than 400 pills
         to my daughter, which tested negative for opiates when she was initially examined by Dr.
         Maron.  Four months later she was dead.  She did not have a long history of drug abuse.  There
         was never a news report stating that we knew our daughter had a history of drug abuse.  We
         have never said we paid nothing to the lenders.  We have paid every month since our daughter’s
         death.  In fact, we have paid tens of thousands of dollars for over 4 years to the student loan l
         lenders.  I do pay taxes like everyone else.  As a pastor, I do get a housing allowance.  My
        salary is less than $25K after my housing allowance, which is very modest for California.  I
        have never corresponded with Senator Warren or anyone associated with her and asked them to
       “trumpet our cause".  She mentioned our story without us knowing anything about it.  My wife
        and I didn’t even start the gofundme page.  We had never heard of crowd funding or websites
        like gofundme until our story got reported. Some friends and family members started the page f
        for us.  Again, I appreciate the tone of your email.  And I understand your skepticism, but much
       of the information you have is incorrect.  I have refrained from defending our actions or
       sharing the details with others that I have shared with you.  It would be an endless effort to
       explain these details to most of the critics.  Your email seemed sincere and your concerns valid. 
       I hope I’ve answered some of your questions.

Steve Mason
Senior Pastor
Oasis Church
Office:   (909) 335-8211
Mobile: (909) 435-9988

Pastor Mason's email raised several more questions to me and on 19 August 2014 I sent Pastor Mason the following email: 

Mr.  Mason;
I appreciate your time.  I imagine the issue then is the conflicting stories in the news. 
From the Albuquerque Journal newspaper I read; "Lisa Mason was the mother of three, a registered nurse, and had a history of dependence on prescription narcotics. Her drug-induced death in 2009 at the age of 27 was ruled an accident." Further the Albuquerque Journal reported that your family attorney said; “Addiction is a disease that far too many people have, unfortunately. Just like any other disease, you go to a doctor for treatment, not to fuel the fire,” said attorney David M. Fine, who filed the wrongful death lawsuit for the Mason family.  To me this clearly indicates not only a history of substance abuse but an awareness by the family.  If that is wrong then understand the impression is coming from the media and from Mr. Fine who is reported to be your family AAL.  
I don't know that I intended to say you made more than 75,000.00 a year and will retract that.  However from the Georgia News Day it stated you as, "Steve makes less than $75,000 a year at Oasis Church in Redlands, California and Darnelle earns less in her role as director at the same church." In other words while you say you make less than 25,000.00 much of the media is saying you make closer to 75,000.00 and the income of your spouse is unreported but is less than yours.  
Although it is none of my business I do wonder why the children's father is not paying support.  I also wonder if the children are receiving SSDI as they ought to be. 
I don't know that I intended to imply that the Sen. Warren had been contacted by you or your family but I found it sad that a sitting US Senator would be touting a story that after reading several reports in the media seems to raise questions. 
I accept that you tell me, "it was friends and family how started the "go fund me" page".  I have no choice but to accept you at your word.  However, whomever started the page did you no favors then by using your photograph and stating on the page that it was created by you (Steve Mason) on 29 July 14.  Further the most recent update (listed as one day ago) states, "Darnelle and I will be on Fox's The Daily  Helpline this Tuesday, August 19".   This, IMO, seems to imply that you are not only the one that created the page but are the one doing the updates.  Let's be fair . . that is what the site says. 
I terms of implying you did not pay on the loans at all the reality is that I should not have said that and I apologize.  I made a mistake after reading your words to CNN when you said; "We didn't have a lot saved to begin with, and now any extra money goes to the kids, as it should, and then whatever we can pay on the loans, we do," he said. "At my stage of life, I should have a very different lifestyle than I do." 
Anyhow - thank you for the return email and for taking the time.  I honestly do wish nothing but the best for you and your family.  Honestly, I do.  My issue if you will is that after 17 years working as a social worker with families I see far too many examples of things that don't add up.  Although I am Catholic and have a very firm faith I will admit that I do not attend any church and have no desire to.  I have found Christianity far to often filled with hypocrisy and a motive for making money and advancing ones career.  I will be honest enough to admit that much of my skepticism of your story comes from not only the reporting of it but my own personal life experiences.  In truth - I have far too many good reasons to be skeptical and suspicious. 
Please accept my heartfelt condolences on the loss of your daughter and know that I wish you, your wife and the children the best.  Please contact an SSI office as a means for assistance for the children; they deserve that. 
Have a good day. 
Not surprisingly Pastor Mason never replied to my second email. 
The thing is that I didn't expect him to reply and in reality who am I but an unemployed guy that writes a blog, right.  Yet this story got me to thinking how easily the whole "crowd source funding" thing could be to simply misuse. 
In the post, "Damn, I have a "new" favorite bigot, Awesome!", we saw how some people use crowd source funding as what seems to be a way of life.  It doesn't impact me if people want to give to others but I do think that these campaigns have an impact and can harm non-profits from fund raising.  So this isn't an easy topic.  I want to be a nice guy but at the end of the day honestly feel that enough of the "crowd source funding" is to close to the questionable range for me to be comfortable.  But that's just me and we are all different. 

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