New digital safety net or just more ‘friendfunding’? Institutional analysis of medical crowdfunding in the United States

Sumin Lee*, Vili Lehdonvirta

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Crowdfunding is becoming a popular way of financing healthcare. Some commentators suggest that crowdfunding could serve as a new institution that fills gaps in conventional safety nets. Others suggest that crowdfunding is simply another way of obtaining help from family, friends, and local associations, and has little transformative potential. We provide one of the first quantitative analyses of medical crowdfunding, and the first to model the broader societal context in which campaigns are situated. We scraped data on US medical campaigns from the leading platform and combined them with county-level socioeconomic data, to model predictors of campaign frequency and success. Our findings suggest that many seek help from crowdfunding when both formal and informal conventional safety nets fail them. Significantly more campaigns are initiated in US counties with poorer private insurance coverage, lower social security provision, fewer social associations, and weaker cultures of giving. However, few campaigns reach their goals where most needed. More successful campaigns are found in counties that are wealthier and healthier and have more social associations. Crowdfunding is not merely ‘friendfunding’: fundraisers can increase their chances of success by having their appeals widely shared on social media. However, the returns to sharing are greater for campaigns initiated in wealthier areas. Overall, our findings suggest that medical crowdfunding is an entrepreneurial safety net: one where protection is not afforded universally or on the basis of need, but on the basis of one’s ability to appeal to the audience and out-compete rivalling needfuls.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1151-1175
Number of pages25
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2022
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • charitable crowdfunding
  • donation crowdfunding
  • institutions
  • Medical crowdfunding
  • safety net


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