Why Even Viral-Fundraising Skeptics Can Feel Good About Donating to RAICES

Protestors march against the separation of migrant children from their families in Los Angeles.
Protestors march against the separation of migrant children from their families on Monday in Los Angeles. Mario Tama/Getty Images

As a rule, I am generally skeptical of viral fundraising campaigns. When everyone was dumping ice on each other’s heads on Facebook, I was the killjoy. The ALS Association seemed to be an entirely random choice as the destination for funds raised by the Ice Bucket Challenge, which started as a dare between professional athletes totally unrelated to ALS, and there was no good reason to believe those funds would be put to particularly effective use.

This time, however, I’m out on Facebook myself, supporting the increasingly viral campaign to raise as much money as possible for RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in Texas. I donated money to RAICES before the campaign even started, and it’s been amazing to watch as this formerly obscure nonprofit has achieved a level of visibility that thousands of much older and more established organizations can only dream of.

Right now, with the Facebook campaign closing in on $6 million at the time of publication, and still seemingly accelerating, is normally the point at which I’d start worrying about the capacity of a small shop like RAICES to absorb all that money. Look at Michael Dell’s Rebuild Texas fund, for instance, which was set up in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and rapidly raised about $90 million; so far it has spent only $30,876,658. One wonders, as we enter the next hurricane season: What are they waiting for? (It’s not the next hurricane; these funds were specifically raised to respond to Harvey.) All too often, when fundraising outruns a charity’s capacity to spend the money, donations end up either sitting in a corporate account somewhere doing nothing or else spent on projects that were mostly dreamed to find a use for the money.

What’s more, the RAICES donations are mostly coming from a place of political outrage: They have all the hallmarks of being emotionally driven rather than the product of much careful ratiocination. Emotional appeals can be effective in terms of fundraising, but they generally tell you nothing about whether the charity in question is a worthy steward of your hard-earned philanthropic capital.

In this case, however, we got lucky: The RAICES donations are not only going to an excellent and effective cause, they’re going to an excellent and effective cause that scales. Effectiveness of donations is hard to measure at the best of times, but it’s much easier than normal in the case of RAICES, because of the way in which the funds are going to be used. To put it another way: The RAICES money will be well-spent, not because we can be sure that RAICES itself is well-managed, but rather because of what it’s going to be spent on.

There are two main areas where the inbound millions will flow. The first is the Legal Representation, Advocacy, and Education Project, which aspires to provide universal legal representation for released unaccompanied kids in Texas. Last year, 76 percent of children in immigration court in Texas were not represented, and the LEAF fund will help find lawyers to change that. It’s similar to many other legal funds: The money comes in, it goes to lawyers, and the lawyers help individuals who would otherwise find themselves helplessly caught in a system they have no ability to understand. It’s all pretty straightforward, in terms of how the funds are used.

Of course, there is a limited supply of lawyers in Texas to do the work. At some point, it’s not obvious that a marginal extra dollar will have anywhere to go, and no one really knows where that point lies. But RAICES isn’t just raising money for LEAF and for its own operating costs. It’s also raising for a family-reunification bond fund, and that’s an area where an almost unlimited amount of money can be put to great use.

When an immigrant is separated from his or her child, there’s a way to reunite that family that doesn’t require any action from Congress or the Trump administration: You pay an immigration bond, the parent is released from detention, and the children can then rejoin their parents. But the immigrants themselves rarely have the necessary cash. Immigration bonds are never less than $1,500 and are usually closer to $5,000, $10,000, or more. The bonds will, eventually, get repaid, once the immigrant’s case is heard. A bond is not a fine: It’s just a surety, designed to ensure that the immigrant shows up to all court dates. Once the immigrant has obtained legal status or has been deported, a process that can take well over a year, then the conditions of the bond are met, and the government gives the money back. A permanent bond fund, which has the resources to bail out every detained parent, and ideally every wrongfully detained immigrant, is a fantastic public good, and once it’s seeded with enough money, it can operate almost indefinitely.

Across America, thousands of people are jailed every night, not because they’ve been convicted of any crime, but because they can’t find the bail money they need to be able to go back home and back to their jobs. Bail funds solve these problems at a stroke, but they almost never have enough money. When you give to a bail fund, your money doesn’t just get used to bail someone out once. It gets recycled with repayment, and used over and over again to help out the most neglected people in the justice system. That’s why I’m going to be happy to see RAICES raise as many millions of dollars as it possibly can. It’s that rarest of beasts: a viral fundraiser where the money is going to a deserving and urgent cause that can scale almost without limit.