Carl Bass (center) is flanked by volunteers Daryl (left) and Jake (right) working on making more face shields for donation to local hospitals. Photo: Pete Rosos

When the pandemic hit, Carl Bass and Chris Taggart heard the call of duty and transformed a West Berkeley metal shop into a manufactory for plastic face shields. They’ve since donated more than 20,000  shields to doctors and nurses fighting COVID-19 in California, New York and Detroit, a charitable endeavor that’s dinged them out-of-pocket roughly $100,000.

To defray some of the cost, the pair turned on April 2 to the planet’s self-proclaimed largest crowdsourcing site, GoFundMe. Their campaign succeeded in passing its $60,000 goal; what was less successful was their ability to touch the money. Each day Bass checked his account, the date when he could withdraw funds shifted further into the future, even though GoFundMe promised in an email that “withdrawals to a bank account will start arriving 2-5 days after set-up.”

“There were promises to send money from the beginning that were always a week into the future,” said Bass. “Every day they moved it to a day later. Even now, their promised date is 27 days since we started the campaign. That’s a long time for them to hold the money.”

Bass, formerly CEO of Autodesk, finally got frustrated enough that he cold-contacted GoFundMe’s CEO, Tim Cadogan, guessing his email address by formulating variations of his name.

“We have raised this money to help frontline healthcare workers,” he wrote, “and your delay is impacting our ability to do this.”

Cadogan responded, and Bass received a message from customer support explaining he had a “hold on the funds” that he must’ve “missed the email” about it. Bass says he never received such an email or saw any indication of a hold when he was inside his account. Blasting the CEO directly was “the only way I got an answer,” he said. “If you send a message to [customer support], you get a ‘We’re experiencing long wait times, blah blah blah’ kind of email back.”

It’s been 25 days since Bass and Taggart launched the GoFundMe campaign. Each day, more people contribute. With the hold lifted, Bass hopes to receive the donations by the end of April, nearly a full month after launching his GoFundMe.

In these tough times, many East Bay businesses and nonprofits are using GoFundMe to pay for healthcare, rent, charitable endeavors like mask-making, and the protection of employees laid off for the foreseeable future. A directory of local GoFundMe campaigns, hosted by Berkeleyside to help connect local businesses and nonprofits with potential donors, has over 90 entries and continues to grow daily.  But many of those companies are reporting difficulties with GoFundMe. In fact, seven out of nine Berkeley companies using GoFundMe contacted for this story spoke of unforeseen obstacles in receiving their desperately needed money.

GoFundMe’s customer-support department seems to have gone AWOL, often taking days to respond to cries for help

Some, like Bass, say they have not been made aware that GoFundMe has put a hold on their funds. Others feel blindsided by a verification process that can involve round after round of submitting documentation — a process made more stressful because if verification isn’t completed within 30 days of fundraisers receiving their first donation, their future donations are paused, according to GoFundMe’s rules. There are complaints about a customer-support department that seems to have gone AWOL, often taking days to respond to cries for help.

GoFundMe seems aware of that last issue. As one member of its “Trust and Safety Team” wrote to Bass: “While we strive to answer users in one day, we have fallen short as my team works to meet the global need for help and support during these unprecedented times.”

On March 28, Andrea Hirsig, house manager at Freight & Salvage, created a GoFundMe to help the music venue’s out-of-work sound technicians, concession workers and event planners. It has so far raised over $22,500. A couple of days after launching the campaign, she received a notification saying her withdrawals were on hold and asking for bank-account statements and a photo ID. “That seemed fairly reasonable since I understand they want to prevent scammers,” Hirsig said.

After providing documentation, she attempted to take out money and got a new message saying GoFundMe needed to see proof she had distributed the donations to the people she said would be receiving them – screenshots of cashed checks or debit charges. There was no proof, of course, because she couldn’t access the donations to distribute them.

“Meanwhile, I had gone through an application process and had about 30 people waiting for me to send them support money,” said Hirsig. “Feeling a little desperate at that point, I snowed GoFundMe with an email including everything I could think of: all the emails I had sent to laid-off Freight staff, a copy of the application form, a copy of the email I sent informing folks of their support award, their responses, a list of requested support amounts and what people were using them for, even a photo of the staff on Zoom chat.”

Freight & Salvage is one of many local nonprofits that have launched a GoFundMe campaign to help its workers but has had problems accessing donated money. Photo: GoFundMe

The hold was finally lifted. “I am sure that the delays were a product of GoFundMe’s system suddenly being overwhelmed by thousands of new pandemic/business closure-related campaigns that were started,” she guesses. “But it did make for a very anxious couple of weeks for us!”

A GoFundMe spokeswoman wouldn’t talk on the record about delays and other complaints, but emailed a statement from the company that reads, in part: “Our top priority is to balance speed and safety in order to ensure funds arrive as quickly as possible into the hands of those in need. We continue to listen to our community and look at ways we can improve with new resources, product features, and services to alleviate stress and make fundraising more efficient during this difficult time.”

Andrew McGee, co-owner of the Albatross Pub, is trying to raise rent money on GoFundMe for his employees .“I’ve had to repeatedly set up/fill out my personal and banking info,” he told Berkeleyside. “Each time either something goes wrong during the process or, when I actually do complete the process, it says ‘pending’ and I’ll have to go back to check. When I do go back and check I’m back to the beginning as if I haven’t filled out anything, and we’re back to square one. Very frustrating.”

He still hasn’t accessed the $8,320 that has so far been contributed.

Max Wechsler, operations manager at the salvaged-goods depository Urban Ore, started a GoFundMe to pay for the healthcare for 29 full-time workers at the still-open business. He admits his GoFundMe issues were hamstrung by an initial user error on his part, but thinks the site’s support staff did little to remedy his headaches.

“I didn’t click one of the buttons that didn’t seem necessary toward the beginning,” he said, so his account wasn’t verified. “I contacted GoFundMe the best I could …  but it took them three or four days to get back to me. By then I had scrapped the whole thing and created a new one from scratch with a new email address.”

“People are just trying to raise money to survive.” — Savannah McCarthy, Corso/Rivoli

Savannah McCarthy, a server at the Corso/Rivoli restaurant group, launched a GoFundMe to pay the bills of 55 laid-off staffers. “When you sign up, you have to sign all this paperwork and I definitely read it carefully,” she says. “One of the main things was how quickly [the funds] would be available because, you know, this is an urgent matter.”

Hopes for a rapid payout of the $27,500 the campaign has raised so far were dashed last week when she received a request asking her to sign an “attestation form.” “It basically says I, Savannah McCarthy, am withdrawing these funds and am going to distribute it to 55 people. And it’s like a legally binding contract, which is definitely not what GoFundMe is.”

The last McCarthy heard, she’ll be able to access the funds not on April 28, as she had previously understood, but on May 7. “It’s pretty stressful because we’re not sure what’s going to happen. Right now, potentially all the money we’ve raised is frozen because we can’t get our hands on it.”

“It’s unfortunate, too, because this is one of worse things a company can be doing,” she said.  “People are just trying to raise money to survive.”

Update, April 29, 8:30 a.m. Carl Bass wrote to Berkeleyside that GoFundMe has finally transferred funds into his shop’s bank account.

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John Metcalfe is an Oakland-based freelance reporter who's written for Berkeleyside, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. He enjoys covering science, climate and weather, and urban...