Asking, Guessing, and Crowdfunding

Periodically the debates about crowdfunding start up in my online space again; right now is one such time. I noticed a disconnect between the two “sides” of the debate that I wanted to address.

To clarify, I’m talking about crowdfunding in terms of individuals who do it for personal reasons–to pay medical bills, to care for a sick pet, to provide for their needs while they search for work, to complete a project they need or want to complete, and so on. I’m not talking about this sort of crowdfunding.

These conversations inevitably get bogged down in arguments over who “deserves” money and who doesn’t, who “really needs” the money and who doesn’t, which things are “legitimate” to ask for money for and which aren’t, etc. I don’t really find that interesting or relevant. I think that people should be honest when stating their reasons for asking for donations. For some people that’s “My baby and I are going to become homeless unless we get money for rent” and for some people it’s “I want to try this cool new thing but don’t want to risk thousands of dollars of my own money on it.” From there, it is each individual’s own responsibility to decide if they think it’s worth donating to this person’s fundraiser or not.

What I do find very interesting is that many people’s objections to this type of fundraiser are couched in language like “imposing” and “being rude.” That suggests that a conflict between ask culture and guess culture may be at play.

A summary:

In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you’re a Guess Culture person […] then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you’re likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you’re an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.

[Obligatory disclaimer that these two “Cultures” are simplifications and opposite ends of a spectrum; most people have some Askiness and some Guessiness to them, depending on context.]

Guessy people see [some] crowdfunding requests as inappropriate and invasive, especially given that many of that person’s friends probably have trouble with their finances as well. It is difficult for them to see a request for donations and not feel obligated to comply with it, and they assume that others are being similarly manipulated.

Asky people don’t understand what the issue is. Anyone is free to ignore the crowdfunding post and keep scrolling, or even unfriend the asker for good measure. Asky people try not to be overly concerned about other people’s finances; that’s their job to manage for themselves. To them, there’s no harm in asking as long as you aren’t manipulative about it and can take no for an answer.

I sympathize with Guessy people here because I know how that feels. When I did not trust myself to be able to set my own boundaries, I constantly saw others’ requests as impositions and wished they would stop making them. Even when I said no and had that no respected, I felt guilty for saying no and wished that others hadn’t put me in this awkward position. It seemed to me that the kind thing to do would be to not make your friends feel bad, and the way to do that would be to not ask them for things unless you’re pretty sure that they’re able and willing to say yes.

But while I sympathize, I don’t want Guess to be the norm, because I’ve also been on the other side. For instance, I went years without asking anyone out on a date because I was terrified that no matter how clear I was that no is an acceptable answer, I would make them feel bad and they would say yes out of guilt. I avoided asking people for help as much as possible. I didn’t pitch my writing to publications or offer myself as a conference speaker or ask anyone if they could listen to me vent for a while. (I still don’t really do the latter, but, I’m working on it.)

And, honestly, that sucked. You don’t get any awards for never making anyone feel even the slightest bit guilty. You also don’t go on a lot of dates, at least not with the people you really wish you were dating.

As important as it is to learn not to feel entitled to other people’s time, attention, help, money, etc., it’s equally important to learn how to see and acknowledge others’ needs without feeling obligated to fulfill them. It is really, really hard to be a person when you can’t do that; I know that from experience. And as this periodic shaming of people who request donations shows, it also sometimes makes it hard to be a person who treats others well. If we tell the people around us that they can’t ask for things because we find that too inconvenient, we perpetuate social norms in which people have to suffer alone.

What about people who ask for money they don’t really need? That’s where it comes back to honesty. People should be honest about why they’re asking for money; otherwise, it’s not a fair request and possibly even a scam. Lying and scamming is bad. But beyond that, I don’t really mind if someone decides that they’d really like a trip to Europe that they can’t afford but don’t exactly need; I will probably decide not to contribute to that fundraiser, then. Others may make a different choice. It’s their money.

In my experience, though, most requests for crowdfunding come from a place of need. Most people I’ve known who have had to ask for money online have thought about it very carefully, and often felt quite a bit of shame. It wasn’t a decision made lightly.

When I work with trauma survivors and people with mental illnesses, I’m struck by the fact that all of them, to a person, say that they feel ashamed of their feelings because others “have it worse.” Sometimes they name specific experiences others have had that are “worse,” and then, unbeknownst to them, a client with that exact “worse” problem tells me that they don’t have the right to be upset because–you guessed it–others have it worse.

I find that the same is true with many people who request money online. No matter how bad their situation is, they worry that others have it worse and maybe those are the people the money should be going to.

That’s why, if someone asked me for advice, I would say not to worry so much about who has it worse and ask for what you need. Someone who believes that solving poverty in Africa is the most/only important issue right now will probably not donate to your fundraiser, and that’s okay. We all have the right to ask, as long as we’re doing so in a way that allows people to say no.

And on the other side, those of us raised with Guessy norms should think critically when we feel that others are imposing. It’s a difficult balance, because boundaries are important, and those of us who have had boundaries crossed by askers in the past might find it especially difficult to find that balance. But the solution cannot be to expect people to never ask us for anything. I don’t think anyone actually wants to live with those social norms.

As someone who seems to straddle the boundary between Ask and Guess a lot, I have a complicated relationship with the idea of myself asking people for money. I do it with my Patreon, of course, but that feels more like giving people the option of paying me for work that I do that they benefit from, not “requesting donations.” But I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a GoFundMe to raise money to apply for American citizenship, which is extremely expensive and otherwise unaffordable for me. But it’s not food. It’s not shelter. I have permanent residency and will be fine without citizenship. Many people will not want to donate to that fundraiser. Others have specifically told me that the would, because they think that the country needs more citizens like me. That’s their choice, and they get to decide that that’s worth their money just like others get to decide that it’s not.

It seems overbearing and infantilizing to act like it’s my responsibility to make sure that others don’t spend money they don’t have. It’s true that not everyone is great at managing their money, but that doesn’t make it my responsibility (or my right) to try to manage it for them by assuming that they cannot handle seeing a request for donations in their Facebook feed.


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Asking, Guessing, and Crowdfunding