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Grassroots web fundraising efforts experience mixed results

GoFundMe pages and other online-based fundraising sites have been a blessing for individuals going through rough times.

For example, a GoFundMe page set up to help two Seneca parents pay for medical expenses to bring their teenage daughter home after she was seriously injured in a car crash, had raised $20,825 of its $50,000 goal in four months, as of late Friday morning.

And donations poured in on a GoFundMe page for a Plainfield family asking for financial help after Sean McGrail suffered a severe brain injury in a moped accident. In five days, the page raised $15,580, surpassing its $15,000 goal.

But fundraising support for some nonprofit organizations and those associated with the United Way haven’t seen the same vigor in Will and Grundy counties, despite the reliance by area residents on those organizations.

GoFundMe struggles

Two of the area’s most discussed GoFundMe fundraising calls have come from the Senior Services of Will County and residents concerned about the Rialto Square Theatre.

However, several months of GoFundMe fundraising for both causes have not produced the desired results.

Mary Beth Gannon, a de facto leader of the Rialto page, said people had issues with donating to the GoFundMe page, which as of Friday had raised $6,932 out of a $100,000 goal in four months.

“I just know a lot of people complained that GoFundMe took such a large chunk of the donation,” Gannon said about the 7.9 percent cut the site and its payment contractor take. “We don’t want to get rid of it for people who want to donate online. But we set up an account at Harris Bank, where more of the recent donations are going.”

The Rialto GoFundMe page has been part of a saga centered around the decision to put up a new marquee on the historic building. It was started by a group formed on Facebook called “The Rialto Belongs To The People” as an opposition and alternative to a $300,000 donation by retired Joliet businessman Ed Czerkies, who wanted to put a written memorial inscription for his parents on the marquee. Czerkies eventually withdrew his donation.

As of Wednesday, Gannon said the GoFundMe page and Harris Bank donations had raised about $12,000.

“The interest has never waned,” Gannon said, adding that group members have met with Rialto officials about fundraising ideas. “People are just waiting to find out what will happen with the marquee.”

Senior Services falls short

The Senior Services Center of Will County recently went through a management change and a fundraising crisis.

A GoFundMe page was set up under the direction of former Executive Director Patricia Hensley to help cover a $400,000 line of credit. The debt was threatening to cut the center’s Meals on Wheels program, which has since been taken over by the Northeastern Illinois Area Agency on Aging.

Hensley resigned her position in March, but the GoFundMe remains, raising just $1,315 out of a $400,000 goal in two months.

Interim Director Mary Pat Frye said the center’s message may have been unclear on the GoFundMe site.

“I see it so successful for other organizations,” she said. “It raises excellent money. It just didn’t work out for us. Maybe our message wasn’t as sufficient enough, or maybe the goal of $400,000 was too big.”

United Way organizations

United Way of Grundy County Executive Director Karen Nall said there are legitimate issues with how GoFundMe dollars are being spent.

“What concerns myself and a lot of other entities is that people need to make sure their money is going to where it should be going to,” Nall said.

Nall said the uncertainty with GoFundMe and other crowd-sourcing fundraiser sites can be mitigated by donating to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, which are obligated to share tax information with the government.

The United Way of Grundy County has seen good fundraising fortune.

“We are very, very fortunate,” Nall said. “Some of our neighbors are struggling, but we have very great success in fundraising.”

The United Way of Grundy County spreads donations to 29 area agencies. One of those agencies is the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living.

Executive Director Pam Heavens said the center has tried increasing its donor base in the past several years.

“It’s a challenge,” Heavens said. “Donors are just not giving as much as they used to.”

Will County

Unlike Grundy County, the United Way of Will County has had to ramp up fundraising efforts in the face of smaller donations.

“From an overall fundraising standpoint, there’s a decline in support,” said President Michael Hennessy, noting that donations are down 8 percent from last year.

Nall attributed Grundy County’s success to its economic demographics.

“It’s more of an agricultural community with factories and other institutions,” she said. “So I think that’s what differs us from Will County.”

The United Way of Will County spreads donations to 47 county agencies. So a drop in funding at the United Way means fewer donations for the agencies.

“We’ve lost a lot of our larger contributors,” Hennessy said.

Another concern is the smaller contributions from wage-givers, Hennessy said. Longtime employees of participating businesses have consistently given a small percentage of their wages to the United Way.

But as they retire and get replaced by new, younger employees, the wages and donations become smaller.

Hennessy also noted that nonprofits await the impact of state budget discussions before assessing their funding needs.

All those issues have forced individual organizations to spend their own resources in reaching out more for support.

“We’re still optimistic and we’re not giving up,” Hennessy said. “One in four residents of Will County will reach out to some agency for assistance.”

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