Those readers who have already had their fill of the A Fund For Jennie controversy, feel free to skip this post. Those readers who don't know who Jennifer Perillo is, or who have never heard of Bloggers Without Borders, Shauna Ahern at Gluten-Free Girl or GOMI, keep reading. I wrote this post in an effort to organize some of my own thoughts about acts of charity and humanity in the online world.
"Every one of our actions has a blast radius, and there are other people in it."
--The Last Psychiatrist
By now, practically everyone in the food blog world has heard of A Fund For Jennie, the charity drive set up to support Jennifer Perillo after the sudden death of her husband. This effort, spearheaded by Bloggers Without Borders, became a spontaneous internet phenomenon that went viral in late August of this year. It seemed like every food blogger was involved.
Sadly, however, this charity drive, which started out as an inspiring collaboration among food bloggers, now finds itself caught up in controversy--and even questions of fraud.
It started with a commenter named Petunia, who mentioned many of the seemingly luxurious activities Jennifer Perillo had been taking part in (and openly tweeting about too) since the charity drive started. Those comments from Petunia initially met with viscerally angry responses.
It wasn't until the website Get Off My Internets began to investigate that things became more clear. If you're interested in learning all of the details, there's an extensive list of resources, sites and posts you can refer to at the end of this post. In short, however, one can essentially summarize the entire controversy this way: it appears that A Fund For Jennie raised $76,430.50 for a woman who never needed the money.
There's a lot of blaming going on, but it isn't exactly clear where the blame belongs. Some have criticized Bloggers Without Borders for failing to acknowledge the mistakes made during and after the fundraising process. And it's true that BWOB appeared to fundamentally reframe the nature of Perillo's financial need and the nature of the financial gift.
Some have focused criticism directly on Jennifer Perillo, despite her obvious and extremely public emotional suffering. Honestly, from my standpoint, Jennifer was in a lose-lose situation all along. First, critics viewed her as complicit for remaining silent about the controversy. Later, she was criticized by people who didn't think her comments went far enough. And during all of this time, of course, she was grieving the loss of her husband.
When she finally did address the subject on her blog, she claimed, in responses to two critical comments, that the situation was not her fault. She said she wasn't aware her financial situation had been misrepresented, she wasn't involved in the fund-raising process, and she was unable to change how Bloggers Without Borders contributed the money to her. How should we receive her statements? With cynicism? Or with sympathy?
Others have strongly criticized Shauna Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl, who originally portrayed Jennie's financial situation in a melodramatic and--and as we now know--inaccurate way, and stood to gain from pageviews, publicity and general goodwill. However, let me share a reaction to this criticism too (I'll phrase this as diplomatically as I can): if you were among the thousands of bloggers, blog readers and blog commenters who participated in this charity, consider looking in the mirror before making this criticism. By participating, you also stood to gain in the same way, albeit to a lesser extent.
Finally, there are those who vehemently shouted down those first, faint voices of criticism. Yes, nobody likes it when a feel-good vibe gets broken, but why such a visceral reaction? Why, initially, did no one want to face the facts? From my standpoint, Petunia's comment was actually quite brave. She stuck herself out there (admittedly anonymously) and risked the first, harshest barrage of criticism. Remember this the next time you see a righteous consensus ganging up on a lone dissenting voice.
Clearly, there are few if any winners here. But one of the biggest losers may turn out to be Bloggers Without Borders. With just one mismanaged, high-profile fund drive, BWOB may have wrecked what could have been a truly powerful charity platform. Fallout from A Fund For Jennie may seriously compromise this charity's ability to help others.
Which brings us to the real victim in this drama: future charity recipients.
Of course, these victims don't exist... yet. But in the coming months, you can be sure that someone in a state of genuine financial need will tragically lose her husband. Someone will lose his or her home, someone will suffer some other sort of severe loss. These victims are nameless and faceless, but I assure you, they will be real. And any of these people could be recipients of charity from BWOB and the blogging community's collective teamwork.
But the blogging world has just been tapped for $76,000, donated under changing, confusing and poorly explained circumstances. When the next truly needy person comes along, will people still give?
Readers, please share your thoughts.
For Further Reading:
1) Gluten-Free Girl's post A Fund For Jennie. This is the post that started it all. Pay particular attention to the paragraph starting with "As you can imagine..." for the key (mis)statements of Jennie's financial situation.
2) "Petunia's" initial critical comment at Blogging Angels
3) Examples of Jennifer Perillo's tweets that deeply confused donors: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
4) The initial articles from Get Off My Internets: first, Did Jennifer Perillo Use Her Husband’s Death To Swindle Money? and then second, Widow Donation Scandal Continues To Raise Questions. Note also this influential comment.
5) A Fund For Jennie: The Final Update at Bloggers Without Borders' site. A post that's oddly silent about the controversy surrounding the charity drive. Note also these two key dissenting comments (update: Bloggers Without Borders has since deleted this post, and as far as I can tell, deleted from their site almost all mentions of A Fund For Jennie.)
6) Jennifer Perillo finally responds with a post that thanks donors. And then responds to a commenter, sharing more details. And then responds with still more details to another commenter (update June 2012: this post and these comments have since been deleted).
UPDATE 7) Bloggers Without Borders responds to donors in a post, admitting that mistakes were made in the administration of the fund, but denying that they intentionally misrepresented Jennie's financial situation. Further, BWOB alleges that Jennifer Perillo was "regularly kept abreast of developments" throughout the handling of A Fund for Jennie. BWOB offers to refund any donations. Later, BWOB blocks comments on this post (this post has since been deleted from BWOB's site).
UPDATE 8) Jennifer Perillo updates her "Thank You" post (update June 2012: again, Perillo appears to have deleted this post) alleging again that Bloggers Without Borders misrepresented her financial condition without her knowledge. She follows up with increasingly combative tweets on Twitter.
UPDATE 9) (January 2012) Jennifer Perillo gets a two-book deal with publisher Running Press to write a cookbook and a memoir about her husband's death.
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