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Accountability and transparency in fundraising: Lessons from #IshiniGate

2 years ago

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By Dimithri Wijesinghe    The Lankan Twitter sphere, along with all other social media platforms, has been ablaze with the ongoing controversy that has now come to be known as #IshiniGate. Ishini Weerasinghe is a Sri Lankan social media influencer living in Edmonton, Canada who raised £ 48,000 for the victims of last year’s Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka.  In April 2019, Ishini created a GoFundMe fundraiser, following the series of terrorist attacks, on which she wrote: “When the tragic event took place, I felt the urge to do something about it because it’s the home I love and cherish. My heart yearns for my family and friends affected back home.” She shared that as she has a status as an influencer with a certain following, she chose to put it to good use by raising funds and awareness. However, following some online sleuthing courtesy of several Twitter users, it was brought to the public’s attention that the money in full has not reached survivors, for whom it was intended. From Ishini’s side, there has only been a string of seemingly evasive and contradictory updates; after much coercion from the internet, she announced on 30 September that all the money would be returned to donors, and most recently, on 24 October, she released another update, claiming she had worked with GoFundMe to find a new charity to hand over the money. The charity in question, however, has not been named. We tried reaching out to Ishini herself several times but received no response. We then reached out to a few of the online sleuths who brought the issue to light, one such person being news personality Dasuni Athauda who was personally referenced by Ishini for having led the witch hunt against her. However, the majority consensus remains that Dasuni was simply making attempts to allow donors to get what they deserve – some accountability. Dasuni and a few others including Sri Lankan law student Pavani Ekanayake shared that it was clear to anyone who looked into it that there were some discrepancies in Ishini’s story, adding that all they ask is that she speak honestly and support her words with some evidence. GoFundMe is a host site. In their terms of service, they provide they are not in fact a broker, financial institution, creditor, or charity, but the services are administrative platforms only. Therefore, whatever funds transferred to the “Campaign Organiser” is entirely the business of that organiser and their third-party payment processing partner. GoFundMe campaigns contain a tab which allows for updates to be posted with regard to any ongoing campaigns in order to keep donors informed, and many of these campaign updates consist of bank statements and photographs. If there are any questions, there is an option to contact the campaign organiser. However, in this scenario, issues arose when Ishini was unwilling to share the requested information. We reached out to some Twitter users to ask how Ishini was singled out in this online “investigation”. Many were of the opinion that it was due to the alleged emotional manipulation she employed when originally initiating the campaign. Additionally, some shared that there had been incidents where she was called out for some problematic content, including cases of colourism, anti-blackness, and cultural appropriation. The most recent update was @ishiniw’s Instagram story on 17 November 2020, sharing a screenshot of a proposal she has drafted with a charity dated 14 November 2020, without revealing the name of the charity. So, if Ishini is a bad example of how online fundraising should be done, what is the right way to do it? Vraie Cally Balthazaar was the Project Co-ordinator for “Together We Feed Them All”, a fundraiser carried out during the first lockdown, by We Build Colombo Together (WBCT), Sarvodaya, and multiple other stakeholders. Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, Balthazaar shared that while she has conducted individual fundraisers for smaller sums in funds, when fundraising is handled by a company, they have the resources to carry out processes in a transparent and accountable manner. She said that if we are to refer to individuals collecting money, it is understood that maintaining this accountability and transparency is the most difficult part of any such campaign as you are responsible for every single rupee given to you. She said it does not matter if it was Rs. 100,000 or Rs. 500 as every cent must be accounted for, and the donor should be allowed the opportunity to clearly see where their money went. She also addressed the various concerns with regard to showing photographs, which many donors expect, especially when it comes to protecting the identities of those receiving donations. The ethics of it is something they’ve had to take into consideration as well. Additionally, several animal welfare groups such as Tales of Freedom and DogTime too have conducted fundraising efforts which have been carried out with complete transparency and total accountability. Legally speaking, in Sri Lanka, there are no laws governing fundraisers. However, the laws of the country will apply in all other aspects and what will be definite are your tax implications. During this pandemic, we saw an abundance of individually driven fundraisers and the community response which allowed for many families to endure the lockdowns. All of this was made possible due to the relative lack of red tape. Speaking to a legal professional, who wished to remain anonymous, she pointed out some concerns with this relative lack of governance. While Ishini’s situation, as discussed above, was an online platform, the majority of fundraisers are done on social media, where an individual would share their personal banking information, following which people will donate and they will in turn show receipts. She shared that the reason why one uses a personal bank account is because there is a long and tedious process involved in a non-profit organisation requesting funds, and in doing so, the individual is able to be the middleman and get things on the ground running faster. However, she shared that recently, due to the abundance of charitable organisations popping up and various causes supported by multiple corporates, the Central Bank has given authority for the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to crack down on transfers of large sums of money in order to apprehend instances of money laundering. However, due to the present lack of policing when it comes to individuals raising funds and using their own personal accounts, they are open to drawing suspicion.  
Avoid being a victim of charity scams Charity scams not only hurt the people who really need the money, but it also makes the person who donated less likely to do so in the future. There was even a recent example of a British woman named Nicole Elkabbass who allegedly swindled more than £ 45,000 via GoFundMe using a photo from a previous operation to convince donors that she was suffering from a life-threatening ovarian cancer. We have seen a rise in the profiteering of social causes, and if you are wise, you will note that those who opt for the choice to create new GoFundMe pages rather than divert followers to fundraisers already in existence are not innocent. There are guidelines and advice available for those who wish to make donations but are apprehensive in doing so, the very basic of which is to know your rights as the donor – your right to be informed of the intended use of the donations and of the fundraising objectives, as well as to be given access to its most recent updates. You are also entitled to be provided with written receipts and to have your privacy respected. As for the fundraisers’ responsibilities, they hold the responsibility to answer the donors’ questions promptly and to provide written or printed receipts. They should also respect donors’ privacy by getting their approval before making any donations public. It is unfortunate that the Good Samaritans of the world must be warned to be cautious instead of encouraging their spirit and good intentions. However, if you are careful enough, then you can ensure that those with good intentions are not hoodwinked into doing something they regret.