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crowdfunding + casseroles | how humboldt set a new standard

This past weekend marked one year since our country – and the world – mourned the tragedy that was the Humboldt Broncos. We all watched, as there was a collective movement from shock, to grief, to action, resulting in a record $15.2M raised for the victims of the Humboldt accident.

Since April 6th, 2018 a lot has changed. As survivor Kaleb Dhalgren so eloquently shared: “You guys should be proud of the impact you have on our world, including new bus laws, semi laws, health notions etc. You have reminded us how valuable life is and by doing so have made this world a better place. I am very proud of the mark you have left.” As the survivors and families of the victims work towards putting their lives back together – with the last survivor, Morgan Gobeil, just recently being released from the hospital – I often found myself wondering what kind of impact the campaign had.

The Humboldt Broncos crowdfunding campaign sparked a lot of questions; mostly around what would be done with all of the money raised, and given its proximity to another horrific tragedy our country saw in a space of three weeks, why some campaigns resonate more with the public than others. I equate crowdfunding campaigns that emerge from tragedy as the modern-day version of dropping off a casserole when someone has passed. When we want to help, and we don't know what to do, we cook or bake. Now, when all it takes is a few clicks, making a $20 gift is a way of doing something immediate to help, when we feel helpless.

the campaign

Modern day crowdfunding is the practice of soliciting financial contributions from a large number of people from the online community, and donation-based is the second most popular use of crowdfunding, making its way into the charitable sector to quickly and efficiently raise money for a good cause. Anyone can create a campaign with a few taps on a phone. That’s exactly what happened the night of April 6th, 2018 – Humboldt resident Sylvie Kellington, a hairstylist from the salon responsible for the team’s bleach job, launched the campaign with an initial goal of $5,000 at first, then $10,000. “I remember just thinking about all the families and people that I kind of knew that would be affected,” Kellington said. With that, the GoFund me campaign was set up, raising $80,000 by the next day.

Donations continued to pour in from over 140,000 people in over 80 countries, raising $15.2M by the time intake of donations was closed on April 18th 2018. After deductions of $495,000 in credit card processing and GoFundMe fees, the anticipated amount transferred to the Humboldt Broncos Memorial Fund Inc (HBMFI) was $14,676,373.

how does it work?

While the Humboldt community tried to move forward, with the rest of Canada – and the world – supporting them, there was now the complexity of distributing funds from the country’s largest crowdfunding campaign. This of course, was in no way as simple as anyone would have assumed.

In 2015, the Government of Saskatchewan enacted a law regarding crowdfunding donations known as The Informal Public Appeals Act. It is the only law of its kind in Canada. The Informal Public Appeals Act fills in legal gaps highlighted by online crowdfunding, but the problems it confronts have been around since much before the technology existed, says David Freedman, a professor at Queen’s University Faculty of Law and counsel at Gowling WLG LLP.

“This question has been around for ages,” he says. “It's an old problem, but it's certainly made much more relevant given social media. It seems like not a big deal, not an important piece of legislation, but actually it’s really important.”

So how does it work in Saskatchewan? The Act makes it clear that all money raised is held in trust. It also outlines the responsibilities of the person spearheading the fundraising effort. By filling out the necessary forms at the outset, that trustee will be offered the fullest protection under the Act. The trustee may state what will happen to the money raised once the fundraising effort has reached its goal. Otherwise, the surplus has to remain in trust.

The Act was put to the test for the first time following the Humboldt tragedy.

First, following the closing of donations intake, the Humboldt Broncos Memorial Fund Inc. was created to responsibly manage and distribute funds to the individuals and families for which the funds were intended, with 100% of the funds and interest in the HBMFI earmarked for the victims, or families of the victims of the 29 individuals involved.

Then, in August 2018, a Saskatoon judge granted $50,000 interim payments to the 13 survivors and 16 families involved. The HBMFI assembled an advisory committee comprised of Hayley Wickenheiser (Olympic hockey gold medalist), Dennis Ball (retired Saskatchewan judge), Dr. Peter Spafford (surgeon), Mark Chipman (chairman of the company that owns the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets), and Kevin Cameron (expert in traumatic stress), to decide how the rest of the donations will be allotted.

Finally, in November 2018, a judge in Saskatoon accepted the recommendations of the committee to distribute $525,000 for the 16 families of those who perished, and the 13 surviving players will receive $475,000 each. The fundamental question in dividing the funds, according to the committee, was to determine whether payments should be divided equally or unequally. The committee received 31 reports approved by the 13 survivors and family members of the deceased. Twenty-four people stated they wished to be heard by the committee directly.

“Humboldt proves there is no easy way to manage crowdfunding when dealing with a tragedy, and all the more reason to ensure there are mechanisms in place to deal with future cases. When a tragedy or cause ignites widespread public compassion and action, the pool of money raised for those affected can create five “administrative and emotional” issues” says Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington D.C. lawyer who has administered the compensation funds for Vietnam veterans sickened by Agent Orange, the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the BP oil spill, the Virginia Tech shooting and the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, among others.

“One: How much money do you have to distribute? Two: Who is eligible to receive the funds? Three: What is the methodology for deciding who gets what in an allocation? Four: What are the proof requirements as to the recipient of the funds; how do you make sure the right person is receiving the money? Five: Are there any due process considerations? Do you want to give any family member or injured victim the opportunity to be heard in a hearing in confidence?” Feinberg says.

So did Saskatchewan get it right? Most interviewed desired 29 equal payments, mainly to avoid conflicts between the families involved. Lawyer Kerry Gellrich who represented the late Logan Boulet’s parents, said her clients appreciate and respect the committee’s recommendation – but it’s not what they wanted. “The Boulets feel the best way to honour their son, to honour his team spirit and to honour his commitment to his teammates would be to divide the funds equally,” Gellrich said. In the end however, the general consensus was the acceptance of the committee’s recommendation.

It is important to note that Layne Matechuk, Morgan Gobeil, Jacob Wasserman and Ryan Straschnitzki – four Broncos survivors who sustained life-altering injuries including paralysis – will be entitled to a financial distribution for long-term care from a separate fund, which has raised more than $3.5 million. Additionally, the Humboldt Strong Community Foundation (HSCF) was created to manage ongoing donations received after April 18th2018 and will operate indefinitely.

where do we go from here?

Humboldt set a precedent. In a very short (and tragic) time, an entire community was given the additional difficult task of managing an unexpected windfall of money, with unexpected consequences. Fortunately, Saskatchewan was the only province to have an Act in place to help ease the process. Anyone can argue that the last thing people want to see is money tied up in the courts, with lengthy and bureaucratic systems in place, but I would say that the alternative is much worse. The alternative being multiple crowdfunding campaigns, lawsuits over who is entitled to what, arguments over which tragedy is worse and the overall added pain of pining victims against one another.

When it comes to crowdfunding, major success stems from a perfect storm of timing and circumstance. People give to people, especially when it is simple. With Humboldt, the campaign was up instantaneously, it was the only one and it was everywhere - you knew exactly who you were helping and why. Every news piece included the same campaign, and the same team picture was seen over and over again. We knew their names and their faces by heart.

Additionally, I believe people rallied around the Humboldt tragedy because almost everyone can relate to putting their kid on a bus - or being on a bus - for a team or school trip. The Humboldt victims were also kids, which played a big part in the shock of it all. The fact that a common theme was hockey certainly came into play, especially within the media, with pro teams and leagues around the world paying tribute.

In contrast, other less financially successful campaigns usually miss the two critical elements of timing and circumstance. I have seen many worthy campaigns fail while not so worthy ones succeed tremendously. When there is no immediate outlet for people grieving, people will create them, resulting in multiple campaigns and confusion. When we don’t immediately know the victims, it makes it more difficult to understand the severity. It really concerns me when we start to evaluate the importance of a cause based simply on crowdfunding success, because it is not realistic. We need to be careful about measuring support simply through dollars – often in a tragedy, there are hundreds of examples of humanity. One worth noting given that April is “Be a Donor Month” in Canada, is that Logan Boulet gave six others the gift of life by donating his organs, and subsequently prompted hundreds of thousands of people to register as organ donors, making April 7th Green Shirt Day in his honour.

Crowdfunding campaigns aren’t going away. It is also important to note that no amount of money will ever bring back those lost, or erase the memories from that horrific day. And if I am being honest, I am really reaching in my attempt to find any kind of silver lining to come out of this tragedy, but the Humboldt campaign did teach those of us in this profession why there is a need to have a proven, simple structure in place when we’re feeling helpless and can’t drop off a casserole.

In honour of the Humboldt victims and their families, please consider supporting the ongoing efforts of the Humboldt Strong Community Foundation here, and in honour of Logan, consider giving the gift of life by registering to be an organ donor here.

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