You're probably aware of the viral GoFundMe campaign to raise $1 billion to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. It's a big success by some metrics.
So far it has 250,000 donors as I write this, and almost $14 million. (I know that's a tiny fraction of the cost of a wall--but it's really hard to raise tht kind of money for anything.)
The story could serve as an example for anyone trying to build support for a big effort or trying to make their marketing go viral--except, there's a potentially enormous problem.
In fact, it might be a fatal flaw that could undermine the whole effort. Here's the background, the issue, and how this could fast become a different kind of lesson.
The organizer and creator of the GoFundMe campaign is Brian Kolfage, an Air Force veteran who was badly wounded in Iraq. His personal story is very compelling.
As he says on his website, he was on Balad Air Base one night in 2004 when it came under a rocket attack, and he lost both legs and his right arm. He's now "the most severely wounded U.S. Airman to survive his wounds."
Today, Kolfage is a married father of two children, and has a degree from the University of Arizona in architecture. He's a motivational speaker, and he gained notice this year on Fox News and elsewhere, after Facebook shut down a right wing news page he ran, calling it a "conspiracy theory page."
Koflage's GoFundMe campaign on the wall took off in a way that no similar effort has before. You'd suspect it's because of at least two things:
- Koflage's personal story and social media savvy.
- The fact that all of this is happening as President Trump pledged to veto any budget plan that doesn't include funding for the wall--which is now leading to a partial government shutdown, as of Friday evening.
But there's also an enormous threshold problem with the campaign, right in the first two sentences, where it talks about whether it's even legal to raise money like this for the government:
"The government has accepted large private donations before, most recently a billionaire donated $7.5 Million to fund half of the Washington Monument repairs in 2012; this is no different."
Actually, it seems very likely that's incorrect. It's highly questionable whether that can be done legally.
Gifts to the United States
You can certainly make gifts to the U.S. Government. There's a trust fund for it, according to the Treasury Department's website, which was established in 1843. But, as the government website says:
Money deposited into this account is for general use by the federal government and can be available for budget needs. These contributions are considered an unconditional gift to the government.
The last six words are crucial: Unconditional.
In the Washington Monument example described above, Congress had to enact a special law to let it accept the donation. And Koflage has been trying to get supporters to lobby Congress to create a special law here, too--one to let the government "accept public donations to fund the construction of a barrier on the border between the United States and Mexico."
As far as I can tell, the House budget bill didn't include that language, according to the official Congressional website. (I'm writing this on a Friday night, so it's possible the website isn't updated. I haven't seen anything from Kolfage talking about a victory, however.)
Anyway, if it didn't pass then, then, it's almost certainly not going to pass. Even even if it did pass the House, it's unlikely to pass the Senate.
'Anything is possible'
In a way, this is more a political problem than a legal one. If the law doesn't allow this donation, but people actually wanted it to happen, Congress might move fast to make it happen.
The problem is, people don't really want the wall to begin with.
For example, there's a new Quinnipiac poll about the wall that many supporters were excited about, because it showed support for the wall at a "record high."
But even that poll shows a majority of Americans don't want a wall: 54 percent oppose, while only 43 percent support it. So, it seems there's a passionate minority--the 250,000 people or so who have made donations, and will probably get bigger.
But that's in a country of 350 million.
On January 3, Democrats will take over the House of Representatives, and since Democrats overwhelmingly think a massive, expensive physical wall is an insane, costly, and inefficient way to keep the border secure, it would seem even less likely Congress would act in a way Kolfage wants it to.
I emailed out to Kolfage for comment, but did not hear back. If there's an update on some legal way I haven't thought of that the government could accept this money, I'll post an update.
However, as news of his campaign's success grew, and as people started to question the legality, Kolfage summed up his thinking to The Washington Post:
"There's always a way to do something. People who say you can't would never survive living in my life," he said. "I keep hearing, 'you can't,' or 'It's not even legal,' but those are the people who will never step up to try to make a difference. Anything is possible."