Iran plane crash fundraisers shut down by GoFundMe without explanation
Online campaigns potentially run afoul of terms of service due to U.S. sanctions but unclear how or why
At least two recent GoFundMe campaigns based in Edmonton have been pulled offline, then reinstated without explanation, with organizers concerned that references to Iran or Iranians may have caused the U.S.-based crowdfunding platform to temporarily disable their campaigns.
Both fundraisers aimed to help families and friends of passengers of the downed Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, which crashed outside Tehran's Imam Khomeini Airport, killing all 176 people on board, after it was struck by a missile launched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on Wednesday.
One campaign, run by the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton, was shut down less than six hours after the organization held a news conference on Friday announcing its fundraising to help subsidize a memorial service for the victims.
"It was out around six, seven hours, which was terrible for us in terms of capturing all the funds at the peak of the attention," said Amir Ghahari, treasurer of the IHSE.
Emails provided to CBC News show around midday on Friday, GoFundMe had requested the IHSE provide additional documentation for its fundraiser including "a clear explanation of how you know the intended recipients of your campaign's donations."
Everyone's telling us … if you put the word Iran then you're going to get blocked.- Amir Ghahari, Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton
The email stated that if a response was not given within seven days, the account would be removed. The IHSE provided CBC News with emails showing the organization replied on the same day, within business hours.
Regardless, the campaign was seemingly deleted later that same evening. According to Ghahari, IHSE officials did not receive any alerts from GoFundMe to indicate the campaign was suspended, and were actually alerted that it was no longer accessible by a local Edmonton media outlet.
"Everyone's telling us, like, if you put the word Iran then you're going to get blocked. So we're like, 'OK, what do we do?'" said Ghahari.
"The thing about GoFundMe is for some reason there is no help line, like a phone number that we could reach out to."
<a href="https://twitter.com/gofundme?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@gofundme</a> URGENT!!! Hey guys, I’m a board member of Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton (IHSE) and respectfully request your immediate action on resolving our campaign being taken down despite providing information requested. PLEASE!!!<br>URL: <a href="https://t.co/1qiizbSnpH">https://t.co/1qiizbSnpH</a><a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/FlightPS752?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#FlightPS752</a>—@amiraghahari
Several hours after CBC News made inquiries with GoFundMe representatives, the campaign was restored.
An email from GoFundMe on Friday said the U.S.-based company was in touch with the campaign organizers. The Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton said they did not hear from a company representative until early Sunday morning.
In a message time-stamped 5:10 a.m. PT on Sunday, a GoFundMe "community manager" advised the IHSE that their campaign was "queued for a proactive review, but has since been cleared to raise funds" and added that funds in the account are subject to a precautionary hold until their payment processor completes a review.
Not the first time
Another Iranian-Canadian attempting to fundraise for the community in the wake of the plane crash ran into a nearly identical problem.
"When they took the page down, I tried every single way to put it back, but my account was totally blocked," said Majdnia.
A former official with the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton herself, Majdnia had included this detail in her biography and description of the fundraiser to lend credibility.
It may have backfired.
"I did not know the real reason, but somehow I know maybe because I mentioned I was the former president of the Iranian society," she told CBC News.
Majdnia was able to get her campaign restored by reaching out to GoFundMe media and public relations contacts — an option unavailable to the general public. Since being reactivated, her campaign has raised tens of thousands of dollars.
Is it because of sanctions?
In an email to CBC News on Friday, GoFundMe said in some cases — which the company called "rare" — sanctions can be a factor.
"In some rare cases, U.S. or Canadian sanctions will prohibit us from supporting specific campaigns," wrote a communications manager for GoFundMe. The company also included a link to a help page titled "Raising Funds for a Beneficiary in an Unsupported Country."
Majdnia's GoFundMe specifies that it would fund a memorial service in Edmonton, and an endowment fund at the University of Alberta.
"We're not reaching outside the Edmonton area. We're like basically helping all the families, victims, and their related family members in the Edmonton area," said Iranian Heritage Society treasurer Amir Ghahari.
CBC test found same result
As a test, CBC News created an account on GoFundMe and prepared a fundraiser that included the words Iran, Canada, and referenced raising money for the victims "who are in Canada." The fundraiser was never published or publicly available and the process was not completed.
Within an hour, the entire account was suspended. An email was sent from GoFundMe that stated "we are writing to inform you that your GoFundMe account has been removed due to sanctions involving an unsupported country and a violation of our Terms & Conditions."
GoFundMe hasn't clarified
GoFundMe did not respond to specific questions about exactly what parts of the terms and conditions were violated for this experiment, or for the other Iranian-Canadian GoFundMe campaigns affected in the Edmonton area.
On Monday afternoon, GoFundMe contacted CBC News to clarify that the review process of IHSE's campaign was not related to "new sanctions announced by the [Trump] administration."
Under "Prohibited Content" in its terms of service, it includes "activities with, in, or involving countries, regions, governments, persons, or entities that are subject to U.S. and other economic sanctions under applicable law, unless such activities are expressly authorized by the appropriate governmental authority."
In an email, GoFundMe explicitly stated that Iran "is not a restricted term" on its platform.
A company spokesperson told CBC News on Monday afternoon that GoFundMe requires a "transparent delivery plan [for] use of the money collected for all campaigns that involve a tragic event taking place in a sanctioned country."
According to the spokesperson, this process has been in place for several years.
An email from GoFundMe to the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton last week had indicated that further review would not have removed their ability to receive donations. This email was received hours before the campaign was pulled offline on Friday.