Once the tool of independent artists to fund projects, online crowdfunding campaigns increasingly are used for everything from college tuition to medical expenses.

All the same, when a relative suggested that John Nowe of Milton, N.S. start a crowdfunding campaign to pay bills after his contract job with Nova Scotia Power ended, he was skeptical.

But with nowhere else to turn, he started a campaign, asking for $1,200 to help himself and his three children get through the holidays.

"Any little bit would have helped," Nowe said.

For 'the most sympathetic'

People using, or donating to, crowdfunding campaigns should think about why such campaigns are necessary in the first place, said Jeremy Snyder, a professor in Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.

Rather than filling in the gaps of unpaid health care, crowdfunding medical expenses could make some people more vulnerable, he said.

"It's a sort of marketing, selling behaviour," Snyder said.

"It changes it from a situation in which we're all in the same system to one in which we're competing with one another for the same donors, and instead of focusing on need, it's really who's the most sympathetic."

Crowdfunding popular to pay medical bills

The amount of people using crowdfunding sites to meet basic needs should ring alarm bells, he said.

Most people on crowdfunding sites are asking for small amounts of money, but crowdfunding is big business, with more than $1 billion raised through one crowdfunding website — GoFundMe — alone. 

Crowdfunding companies themselves collect revenue by charging fees on donations — in GoFundMe's case, roughly eight per cent plus $0.30 per donation.

Nowe used GoFundMe, popularly used to pay uninsured medical expenses, except for abortions or assisted suicide, which are prohibited by the site.

The campaign raised almost $9,000, with donations from around the world.

"It sort of set me back in my place, I didn't expect anything," Nowe said.

"I just think, 'Oh my God, you know? There are actually people out there that truly care. They're not judging me because I'm doing this'."

Advocate for change offline, professor says

Nowe, who struggled to find a permanent job with benefits, said he closed the drive because he didn't want to draw attention from other causes.

Not everyone benefits equally from crowdfunding, Snyder said, and those with the best results likely are powerful in other ways, either through personal wealth or social networks.

"It's a powerful tool for individuals," Snyder said.

"But we shouldn't forget that that's not going to be the case for everyone."

Synder doesn't suggest people give up on crowdfunding entirely, but instead advocate for more systemic change offline.