Why it took an Edmonton social media star over a year to donate crowdfunding proceeds
Ishini Weerasinghe raised $82K for victims of Sri Lanka bombings, getting the money to them proved difficult
When Ishini Weerasinghe decided to leverage her social media presence to raise money for victims of last year's bomb attacks in Sri Lanka, she did not expect the campaign would bring online criticism and vitriol toward her and her family.
Weerasinghe, 21, came from Sri Lanka to Canada with her family when she was eight and dozens of friends and relatives remain in the country.
In the areas of fashion and beauty, Weerasinghe is considered an "influencer" — someone with power to influence potential buyers — and she has a contract with a marketing agency.
The MacEwan University student has hundreds of thousands of followers on the social media platforms TikTok and Instagram.
She set up a GoFundMe campaign and turned to her followers for donations.
To her surprise, $82,882 rolled in.
But getting the money to victims proved harder than she expected, turning into a nearly 20-month ordeal with a chorus of online critics questioning the delay and her intentions.
In a September update on the GoFundMe page, she wrote that as a result of online bullying and harassment, "I slowly entered into a depression mode."
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Weerasinghe said she worked with GoFundMe to find a charity, which a spokesperson confirmed, but finding one was difficult and time-consuming.
"Some of them didn't get in contact with us because obviously it was a very busy time," she said.
In June 2019, she donated $20,000 to Alpha Trust, a social arm of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel in Sri Lanka, but according to a statement on Facebook from the church, after "extensive interviews and fact-finding," members of the Alpha Trust team concluded that all victims who needed help were being taken care of by other groups.
In December 2019, Alpha Trust returned the money, minus tax and travel expenses.
Weerasinghe said she and her family identified a handful of victims themselves with the help of a family friend and a priest in the city of Negombo.
That month, the family travelled to Sri Lanka for a wedding, and during the trip met with victims of the attacks and visited their homes, she said.
She used about $9,000 from the campaign funds to support these victims, Weerasinghe said.
She has receipts — and has posted copies of them online — associated with three of those cases.
She said the funds have helped people affected by the attacks who need hearing-loss surgery, school supplies, furniture and physiotherapy.
This September, people started asking questions about the status of Weerasinghe's campaign, often using the hashtag #Ishinigate on social media.
Commenters accused her of fraud and speculated she had spent the campaign funds on breast reconstruction surgery, a house or a car. Weerasinghe denies she ever misused any funds.
She said she lives at home in her parents' house, bought her car in September 2018 and underwent breast reconstruction surgery for a deformity in November 2018.
Weerasinghe said she is not usually fazed by online comments, but the accusations hurt her family.
"People started spreading lies about not only me but my mom," she said.
The online backlash — coupled with pandemic lockdowns in Sri Lanka — also impeded progress on tracking down victims' records, she said.
The final donation
In November, Weerasinghe donated the campaign's remaining funds — approximately $70,000 — to the Samadhi Community Development Foundation, a non-profit in Sri Lanka.
In a 10-page document, the organization outlines plans for spending the money, with a focus on health and education initiatives.
In recent updates to GoFundMe donors and social media followers, Weerasinghe apologized for the delay and logistical errors, but maintained she never did anything wrong.
She told CBC News that if she could have done things differently, she would have handed the money to one organization or found someone more qualified to take over.
When crowdfunding works
Joseph Santini, who works at a non-profit in Denver, Colo., and donated $700 (pooled between 25 of his friends) to Weerasinghe's campaign, said he empathizes with her over the difficulties associated with organizing a relief effort abroad, but the time delay in this case was "unacceptable."
He said he still believes in the power of crowdfunding, but he may be more hesitant to donate to a similar campaign in the future.
Laurie Styron, executive director of Charity Watch, a non-profit charity watchdog, said social media influencers can better leverage their fame by encouraging people to donate directly to a charity with experience in helping victims of tragedies.
"Cutting out the unnecessary middleman will improve the chances that your donation will get where it's supposed to go and will really help people," she said.
She said crowdfunding campaigns are convenient when the goal is to donate money to an individual person with a financial problem. Unlike charities, she said, individuals are not subjected to the same kinds of regulations and reporting requirements.
A spokesperson for GoFundMe told CBC News in an emailed statement that fraudulent campaigns are rare and the platform takes all complaints seriously.