Seeking (and Receiving) Money Through Crowdfunding
During the recent government shutdown, a number of federal employees used a variety of methods to meet their expenses. In a FedSmith article, we noted: “A quick search of federal employees on the GoFundMe page lists 1,953 federal employees or organizations seeking money for federal employees (as of the time of this writing). A few of these employees have been successful in raising hundreds or several thousand dollars. Many others have raised a few hundred. Most have not been successful.”
While those using crowdfunding may have thought they were free and clear from ethics requirements during the shutdown, we advised readers: “While the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) is now closed during the shutdown, the agency will eventually open again. Those seeking crowdfunding to help pay their bills may be facing disciplinary action when the government reopens.”
While the shutdown has been over and most have received backpay by now, there are more crowdfunding pages from federal employees now than during the shutdown. Some of these pages may be scams from people who are not federal employees but see an opportunity to get free money.
A more recent check of the gofundme.com website shows there are 2,674 requests for financial assistance using the term “federal employees” and 1,985 with the term “federal employee”. Some of these requests have resulted in more than $1,000 being received by the federal employee associated with the crowdfunding request. Some of the more successful requests have apparently been removed.
In any event, the shutdown is over. Why would a request for donations from a federal employee who needs money because of the shutdown still be up on the internet?
Office of Government Ethics (OGE)
Based on the information above, it is not surprising that OGE has now issued specific guidance on crowdfunding. The government’s ethics agency writes: “Some employees have sought financial assistance through electronic ‘crowdsourcing’ campaigns through platforms such as GoFundMe. Such campaigns raise a variety of ethics concerns….”
Here is what this agency is telling federal employees about crowdfunding:
May I, or may someone on my behalf, start a crowdsourcing campaign to raise funds because I am in non-pay status?
Generally, no. An employee (or a person acting on the employee’s behalf, such as a spouse) may not solicit a gift based on the employee’s federal employment. Therefore, an employee’s agency, title, or status as a federal employee should not be used in any such solicitation. Additionally, employees cannot generally accept gifts from prohibited sources. Therefore, an employee would need to be able to identify and reject such prohibited donations.
May I accept assistance from a crowdsourcing campaign designed to provide assistance to federal employees in non-pay status?
It depends. Such offers of assistance may be accepted if (1) the assistance is offered to a broad class of government employees that does not discriminate based on responsibility, rank, or rate of pay (such as all furloughed federal employees) and (2) the campaign organizer is not a prohibited source.
This does not mean that all of these requests for donations are in violation of the guidance from the Office of Government Ethics. On the other hand, some of them identify the employee’s agency or status as a federal employee (furloughed or otherwise). Other requests are requesting donations for a “furloughed federal employee” without identifying the person’s agency or title. Some list the name of the employee as well.
The GoFundMe Fundraising Campaign
The crowdfunding website GoFundMe launched a fundraising campaign to benefit federal employees who were going without pay during the ongoing partial government shutdown. Because the fundraising effort announced by GoFundMe will distribute funds to nonprofits rather than the individual federal employees, this fund would alleviate the ethics concern by distributing the money to nonprofits to provide aid as needed rather than having the money go directly to the federal workers according to OGE’s new guidance on the matter.
What Should You Do Now?
If you are a federal employee who set up a “GoFundMe” account, solicited money from the public, and received money as a result of this campaign, what should you do now?
Having worked in federal human resources for several decades, the first reaction of many who fall into this category will be to keep quiet, keep the money, and hope the issue goes away. That may work. Your agency may not call you to account. They may not even check to see which of their employees, if any, may be in violation of the ethics requirements as outlined by OGE. Or, if they do check, the agency may decide to forgive and forget under the circumstances of the shutdown.
On the other hand, to make sure your career is really in the clear, another option is to meet with your agency’s ethics advisor, explain what has occurred, and resolve the issue with your employer. You may be advised to pay the money back to the extent possible. While most people would want to keep the money, you would have a clear conscience (if that is a problem) and you may sleep better knowing you have dealt with the problem and will, presumably, be in the clear.
What About the Inspector General for Your Agency?
In some agencies, there is a possibility the inspector general (IG) will open an investigation. If you have had (or still have) a crowdfunding page on the internet soliciting money, will this create a problem for you?
First, the shutdown is over and you have probably already received backpay if you were furloughed. If your GoFundMe page is still up, it should come down right away.
An IG investigation can create a problem for a federal employee. The IG offices are independent organizations. They do not work for the agency.
Under the unique situation of a government shutdown, perhaps there will not be IG investigations opened. If an investigation is opened, it does not mean you will be subjected to disciplinary actions but it is not automatically precluded either. The outcome could depend on how much money was received, whether it was paid back, how soon your GoFundMe page came down after the shutdown, and whether you have discussed the situation with your agency.
The government shutdown undoubtedly created a hardship for some readers. It is not difficult to articulate why a federal employee should be allowed to obtain money from the public through a crowdfunding source.
But, for the reasons outlined above, do not be naive. While a person may believe seeking donations is justified, your agency may not agree and OGE may not agree.
Carefully evaluate your own situation and take action that is most likely to be helpful in remaining a federal employee with a successful career.