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Why do GoFundMe campaigns like the one for Johnny Bobbitt go viral?

By Stephanie Farr, Barbara Boyer and Avalon Zoppo • Updated Sep 6, 2018 at 5:35 PM

(UPDATED at 5:35 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018)

PHILADELPHIA — Law enforcement officials converged Thursday on the New Jersey home of the couple accused of stealing money from a GoFundMe campaign set up to help Johnny Bobbitt, a homeless man whose kindness to a stranger touched hearts across the nation and beyond.

Several investigators searched the Burlington County home of Kate McClure and Mark D’Amico, who set up the fund to help Bobbitt after he spent his last $20 to buy gas for McClure when her car stalled on an I-95 overpass near Kensington last year.

The campaign was wildly successful, attracting contributions of more than $400,000. But the couple’s stated plans to get Bobbitt a home and set up two trusts to ensure his financial independence quickly dissolved, and Bobbitt accused them of squandering the money on vacations, a BMW and gambling. He sued them to try to recover the donated funds, but earlier this week, a lawyer for the couple said the money was gone.

Early Thursday, Florence Township police and investigators from the Burlington County prosecutor’s office executed a search warrant on the couple’s home as part of a criminal investigation, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office said.

On Wednesday, a Superior Court judge ordered McClure and D’Amico to give sworn testimony about their stewardship of the money in depositions scheduled for Monday. Their lawyer, Ernest E. Badway, said at the time that McClure and D’Amico would invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

McClure, 28, and D’Amico, 39, were at home Thursday during the early-morning search. McClure was inside the house and D’Amico was on the porch, pacing and talking on his phone. McClure later drove away without responding to requests for comment from reporters massed at the end of the driveway.

Investigators carted out several boxes and put them into a black car. Authorities towed the couple’s BMW.

Law enforcement officials left around 9:45 a.m., and about 20 minutes later, McClure drove away from the house in a Subaru. She did not respond to requests for comment.

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PHILADELPHIA — In its year in review for 2017, GoFundMe listed Kate McClure’s campaign for Johnny Bobbitt Jr., the man without a home who gave her his last $20 for gas, as one of its unforgettable “Strangers Helping Strangers” of the year.

But what made it unforgettable — and what made it go viral — may be as illusive as the $400,000 the campaign raised for Bobbitt that his lawyer says is now missing.

Ethan Mollick, a management and entrepreneurship professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who has extensively studied crowdfunding, said the honest answer to what makes a campaign go viral is “We don’t know.”

“If we knew what made things go viral, whichever academic or business figures that out will do very well for themselves,” he said.

But don’t certain subjects — like a man experiencing homelessness giving his last $20 to a woman in need — tug at the heartstrings?

“If you’re on GoFundMe they all tug at the heartstrings. It’s full of sad stories,” Mollick said. “National tragedy is one thing, but to nationalize an individual story is rare.”

Most people who create crowdfunding campaigns see their greatest number of donations from family and friends and then from members of their online community, Mollick said.

“It’s rare to have strangers commit cash,” he said.

But it happens. Perhaps it was a slow news day, which led “Good Morning America” to pick up the story after local news outlets reported on it, drawing national attention to the campaign. Perhaps just the right social-media influencers read the GoFundMe page and shared it with their followers.

Whatever the reason, going viral is less of a well-defined science and more of a strange and incomprehensible art.

What’s likely to make a crowdfunding campaign succeed at a more modest level, however, is more tangible. Mollick said spending time on a good pitch, having a good video and accuracy have all proved to be important. A single spelling error in a campaign can decrease funding by 13 percent, he said.

In a field crowded with campaigns for medical emergencies and scholarship funds, a distinctive campaign stands out, said Sunil Wattal, associate professor of management information systems at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, where he studies crowdfunding.

“It’s not about the need, it’s about how different your need is from the needs of others out there,” Wattal said. “This was a story that was very, very unique. Nothing like this had been funded through GoFundMe before.”

Tips for a successful campaign GoFundMe lists on its website include posting frequent updates, sharing the link to the campaign on Facebook, and using a bright image or video that includes the people involved.

According to GoFundMe, the most successful campaign on its site in 2017 was one that raised more than $11.7 million for victims of the October mass shooting in Las Vegas. The second most successful GoFundMe campaign last year raised more than $2.7 million for famine relief in Somalia.

Several campaigns that raised money for individuals made it into last year’s top-grossing GoFundMe pages, too, like one that raised $1.8 million for an experimental treatment for a sick British baby and one that raised more than $800,000 for a California rugby player paralyzed by a sports injury.

Given that about 70 percent of crowdfunding projects fail, the one McClure ran for Bobbitt was unusually successful, Wattal said.

“If this happens again, though, I’m sure that it wouldn’t raise as much as this campaign,” Wattal said, because the cause would no longer be unique.


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