The Rise of Global Health Crowdfunding Platforms

Lee Blog Post ImageCynthia Lee, Independent Global Health Researcher

To scroll through the websites of global health crowdfunding platforms is to stumble into a world of deep and urgent need. On one website, Watsi, lack of funds and access to care fuel the growth of simple illnesses into ravaging burdens. Easy to treat allergies may lead to a young girl’s loss of vision, and woodworking cuts to life-threatening cellulitis. On another, Samahope, post-birth fistulas go untreated for far too long with women receiving herbal drinks and boiling baths in lieu of the indicated surgical treatments. These profiles represent a growing group of international patients finding health and hope through donation-based crowdfunding websites, which fund initiatives from “the crowd.” Made popular by websites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, crowdfunding more broadly has backed everything from the new Zach Braff movie to novelty items like a cardboard desk. With some in the tech cognoscenti calling crowdfunding the biggest tech story of the moment, here are three things you may not know about three prominent U.S.-based platforms.

1. Platforms emphasize transparency in both finances and outcomes.

Three well-known such platforms—Catapult, Samahope and Watsi—differ in several ways, crowdfunding for projects, doctors and patients, respectively, and relying on different sources for operational funds. Kept strictly separate from crowdfunded donations, operational funds may derive from traditional nonprofit behemoths, individual donors or even the cost difference between a founder’s moissanite engagement ring and a forsaken diamond one. This clear division reflects the platforms’ strong beliefs in transparency, in ascertaining that every cent of a donor’s dollar goes toward medical treatments for the patients—not towards jets, fancy hotels or even salaries. It’s a belief further embedded into the websites’ user experience designs, by breaking down costs line by line, providing doctors’ field notes or emailing donors with the results of treatment.

This focus on transparency appears to resonate deeply with young donors as well as Silicon Valley, both of which Samahope and Watsi report as large supporter bases. In a community long accused of believing that “social responsibility [is] fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action,” this growing involvement is no small thing and one that Grace Garey of Watsi attributes in part to “introducing socially-minded people to an impactful, direct, and transparent way [of giving].”

2. Tech-driven, global health charities will continue to be grounded in existing nonprofit structures.

Another similarity between these websites is the dependence on an existing flora of global health nonprofits. As lean organizations with small staffs, these platforms must rely on established nonprofits to perform field work. This includes following up on patients and doctors in order to share results with donors and administering treatments. To check this reliance, platforms like Samahope and Watsi have instituted audit measures, including field visits. Such visits strengthen accountability and have also provided nonprofits with opportunities to give feedback on growth.

In Samahope’s case, this feedback led to a recalibration and a shift from crowdfunding individual patients to crowdfunding specific doctors. The move reduces the administrative burden on partner nonprofits while resolving patient privacy concerns. Nina Pine, Community Engagement Manager at Samahope, notes of the old model, “If you were a woman who had lived with a fistula for 10 years and had been socially ostracized as a result, you may not want to share your story on a public domain. While our patients were never told a profile was required in exchange for treatment, we decided we didn’t want to create any potential tension. Especially when a lot of our patients had gone through incredibly traumatic experiences, such as sexual assault.”

3. For tech charities and nonprofits, it’ll be a symbiotic growth.

Just as nonprofits have been able to shape the growth trajectories of both Samahope and Watsi, these tech-driven charities are changing the futures of their partner nonprofits, strengthening infrastructures and growing operations by keeping the nonprofits financially stable. Garey notes, “By supporting the core products of these hospitals and allowing them to start generating money, we are also providing wraparound services we didn’t realize initially.” Such services include training programs, new initiatives, and opportunities for further research and analysis. In Samahope’s case, its partners are now better equipped to fund training and infrastructure, which improves medical capacity as a whole. Looking to the future, Samahope Co-founder Shivani Garg Patel shares plans to “[…] work closely with our medical partners to understand exactly what they need to serve more patients in previously underserved areas.”

Such plans are worth watching. If tech leaders call the rise of crowdfunding exciting for its ability to “change ways that companies, […] goods, services, etc. are underwritten and paid for,” crowdfunding for global health is exciting because it opens up a bold new realm of possibilities, not least of which is freedom from healthcare fears and injustices.

“Interview with Grace Garey.” Telephone interview. 11 May 2014.
“Interview with Nina Pine.” Telephone interview. 15 May 2014.
Shivani Garg Patel. E-mail communication. 8 July 2014.