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‘Free’ Crowdfunding Site Linked to Right-Wing Causes Generates a Windfall for Itself

9 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

The trucker-led protests that paralyzed downtown Ottawa and galvanized supporters across the world ended Feb. 20 without achieving their goal of ending Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions. But there was one clear winner from the demonstrations: GiveSendGo, the “Christian crowdfunding site” where the truckers raised millions for their protests.

The formerly obscure Boston-based company has recently positioned itself as a crowdfunding platform for controversial right-wing causes, including legal defense funds for Kyle Rittenhouse, the Jan. 6 rioters and “whistleblowers” who spread anti-vaccine disinformation. So when the crowdfunding giant GoFundMe cut off the popular “Freedom Convoy” campaign for the truckers, GiveSendGo seized the opportunity by promoting itself as an alternative. Using the platform, supporters quickly raised more than $9 million for the Canadian truckers, flooding the site with more than 100,000 donations.

GiveSendGo came away with plenty of cash as well. The platform appears to have received more than $640,000 in “gift” donations from supporters of the “Freedom Convoy 2022” campaign and a similar “Adopt a Trucker” effort, according to an analysis of leaked data shared with TIME by DDoS Secrets, a whistleblower non-profit which obtained the data after an apparent hack.

These are voluntary donations that supporters are encouraged to tack on to their final contribution as a “tip” to the site. And the windfall was part of a pattern. According to TIME’s analysis of the GiveSendGo campaigns in the leaked data set, the platform itself appears to have received at least $2.6 million in such “gifts” from more than 8,000 fundraisers since July 2017.

It’s a huge sum for a company that has only recently swelled to just 25 employees who work remotely. Jacob Wells, co-founder of GiveSendGo, acknowledges that taking on controversial causes has been key to its growth. “Anybody that’s been in business and in marketing a company recognizes that there is value to stirring the pot,” he told TIME in an interview Feb. 23, “because it gets your name going around.”

Wells did not dispute the figures of the company’s profits disclosed in the leaked data, but cast it as the result of years of hard work “struggling as entrepreneurs,” saying it took him five years to even see a paycheck from the venture. A company spokesperson did not respond to questions about the company’s profits from controversial fundraisers.

Wells dismissed criticism of GiveSendGo’s decision to host controversial and extremist right-wing causes, including from religious groups who say it runs counter to the company’s stated Christian values, as “complete nonsense.”

“It’s not the place of a Christian to rob people of freedom,” Wells told TIME. “Jesus was actually called a friend of sinners.”

Read More: America’s Frontline Doctors Sold Access to Bogus COVID-19 Treatments—And Left Patients in the Lurch.

GiveSendGo, which bills itself as the “#1 Free Christian Crowdfunding Site,” is a for-profit company that operates on a “voluntary donation model,” Wells says. When users give to a cause through the platform, the site asks them to add a “generous gift,” and automatically includes an extra 10% as a default tip. Users can manually remove the 10% tip to GiveSendGo by going through two more steps and entering a zero instead.

Plenty of users were happy to tip GiveSendGo for its support of the Canadian protests, according to hundreds of comments accompanying donations to the trucker convoy. Many users said they were doubling or tripling their donations after GoFundMe blocked the campaign. “I give this gift to support Freedom and an extra gift to support GiveSendGo because they are not Totalitarian like the Big Tech platform that just turned their backs on our Freedom Truckers,” wrote one donor, who gave a 20% gift to the platform.

“We’re a business and we’re trying to provide a service,” Wells says. The recent attention, he adds, has “really put us in a position where we can be a leader in this space.”

GiveSendGo was launched in 2015 by Wells and his sister, Heather Wilson, as a tool to raise funds for missionary trips, medical expenses for needy families, and other charitable causes. The devout Christians promoted the site as a “unique social crowdfunding platform for those living out the heartbeat of God.”

The site prominently features buttons to offer prayers as well as financial donations. “While most other crowdfunding websites charge a minimum of 5%, we believe so much in your missions projects that we have decided to take a step of faith and not take any fees for ourselves,” the site states. Wells, who says he previously served as a cryptology technician in the U.S. Navy, told TIME the first years of the venture were “very difficult” as the site struggled to gain traction.

GiveSendGo exploded in August 2020, when it hosted a fundraiser for the legal defense of Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old who fatally shot two men and injured a third during a 2020 protest in Kenosha, Wis. At the time, the founders said they were blown away by the attention they were suddenly receiving. “We were like, ‘Oh, my goodness, what should we do here?’” Wilson told the Washington Times last July. “I mean, we were primarily a place for mission trips and puppy dogs.”

Operating a controversial fundraiser tied to a racially charged case in the national spotlight proved far more lucrative than the small-dollar fundraisers for local churches and medical expenses that GiveSendGo had done in the past. The site itself appears to have received more than $40,000 in donations for hosting Rittenhouse’s fundraiser, which raised $631,000, according to TIME’s analysis of the leaked data.

Since then, GiveSendGo has leaned into controversy, gaining hundreds of thousands of new donors by positioning themselves as an alternative to “authoritarian Big Tech” companies. Wells still describes GiveSendGo as a nonpartisan platform. “We’re not siding with one political ideology over the other,” he says. Yet roughly 75% of the funds raised for the 74 GiveSendGo campaigns that have brought in more than $100,000 have gone to controversial right-wing causes, according to an analysis of the leaked data shared with TIME by Daniel Hosterman, a software developer in Durham, N.C., who focuses on extremist movements.

Read More: How An Online Pharmacy Sold Millions Worth of Dubious COVID-19 Drugs.

Since the Rittenhouse fundraiser, the GiveSendGo platform has hosted fundraisers for “whistleblowers” who spread COVID-19 and anti-vaccine disinformation, efforts to investigate alleged voter fraud in the 2020 election, and the legal defense of Jan. 6 rioters and members of the Proud Boys extremist group. It has raised money for movements peddling false election fraud claims, a QAnon organization and the right-wing conspiracy site InfoWars. GiveSendGo is also being used for more than a dozen fundraisers tied to the American “Freedom Convoy” that is scheduled to end its cross-country journey in Washington, D.C. on March 5.

The site’s terms note that users “are not permitted to create a Campaign to raise funds for illegal activities, to cause harm to people or property, or to scam others.” Wells says there are only two causes for which he and his sister have determined they would bar fundraising campaigns from their platform for “doing harm”: fundraisers for abortions, and fundraising for transition-related surgeries for teenagers who are transgender.

Eleven of the fundraisers reviewed by TIME also featured a checked box where users agreed to “Subscribe to Project Veritas,” a right-wing activist group whose self-described whistleblowers frequently fundraise on GiveSendGo. Wells says Project Veritas reached out to the platform and asked if they could add an opt-in to collect email addresses, and the site agreed.

The perception of a right-wing agenda at GiveSendGo has drawn backlash from some Christian groups. “GiveSendGo has clearly abandoned its original mission of ‘funding hope,’ instead becoming a tool for the Christian nationalist purveyors of hatred, disinformation, and political violence,” says Rev. Nathan Empsall, the executive director of Faithful America, a national Christian advocacy organization which launched a petition signed by 34,000 people condemning GiveSendGo’s hosting of extremist fundraisers. “As Christians, we are called to stand against authoritarianism and white supremacy, not give them a platform.”

GiveSendGo’s founders have continued to portray the site as a nonpartisan, Christian, charitably minded venture. Promotional videos posted over the past year have showcased small fundraisers for missionaries, pets, or sick people in need with the tagline “helping families smile again.” Wells says the site’s mission is “sharing the hope of Jesus” and “God using our platform to be the vehicle for bringing freedom back to the tech space.”

Yet in a recent interview with Breitbart, he explicitly connected the platform’s success to the adoption of controversial right-wing causes, citing the “massive growth” it experienced “when we allowed Kyle Rittenhouse to use our platform to fundraise when no one else would.”

In recent weeks, Wells says, the site saw a 1000% increase in users as they promoted the Canadian truckers’ protest. GiveSendGo is hiring “as fast as we can” to grow the platform, he says. “This is the problem that the left never understands,” he adds. “They attack this way and it only makes us stronger, it only makes us better, it only gets our name out there further.”

On Feb. 10, a Canadian court issued an order halting access to the donations raised on GiveSendGo for the Canadian truckers occupying Ottawa. The company has assured donors that it is working on finding “the most effective legal ways to continue funds flowing” and pleaded with them not to ask for refunds. “We routed those campaigns to accounts here in the U.S. so that they’re outside the reach of the Canadian government,” Wells told TIME, describing it as a “somewhat delicate process” as the company assesses its legal options.

In the meantime, the site has also promoted its own fundraiser, titled “Fund GSG,” on social media. “When we started GiveSendGo back in 2015 little did we know what God had in store,” the company says in the description, asking for donations and prayers. “Mission trips, adoptions, some medical fundraising is where we thought we would find ourselves. Never did we imagine where God would take us.” It’s the only fundraiser on the site that does not show the total amount of money raised.

This story has been updated to reflect comment from Project Veritas about the group’s relationship with GiveSendGo.

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com and Chris Wilson at chris.wilson@time.com