How YouTubers and Streamers are Changing the Face of Charity

The world of celebrity philanthropy has evolved since the days of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. The need to go door-to-door to collect checks or hold massive galas has steadily decreased as the internet makes it easier for us to crowd source fundraising. Today, parasocial bonds with total strangers have become the norm and personal relationships are replaced by Instagram likes and "FOMO."

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The collection of streamers at St. Jude Play Live St. Jude

On live streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube, content creators generate their income by convincing their massive fan bases to donate money or pay subscription fees. The influencer evolution is now a path to traditional celebrity, and the stars make a comfortable living by mobilizing fans to open their wallets to support all kinds of content. Painters can create works of art, gamers can broadcast their skills and vloggers can invite fans into their lives (and drama).

Celebrity can lead to philanthropy in the form of "charity streams." These broadcasts inspire the audience to donate to an influencer's chosen cause instead of their bank account. Awesome Games Done Quick, which showcases top speed runners during a week-long marathon, raised more than $2.4 million last year and HBomberGuy pulled in more than $340,000 himself while playing Donkey Kong 64. YouTuber MatPat, best known for his GameTheorists channel, speculates that more than $20 million total was raised on charity streams in 2018.

YouTubers and Twitch Streamers Come Together

Seán "Jacksepticeye" McLoughlin has pulled in more than $2 million for charity since January of 2018. "People are very giving by nature, and they just want to keep giving. You need to give them an outlet and a focal point to be able to do so," McLoughlin told Newsweek. The green-haired Irish YouTuber with more than 22 million subscribers hosts a monthly event where fans can donate money directly to charities like charity:water, which helps provide clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries.

"People are good by nature, or at least they can be if you give them a reason," McLoughlin said. "I try to remind myself of the community, that the money that's raised is all from individual people giving their time and their money to go towards good causes."

Other YouTubers have been even more successful. Mark "Markiplier" Fischbach broke donations records in February. His army of 23 million subscribers donated more than $500,000 in under 24 hours for My Friend's Place, a charity that helps homeless youth. To put it in perspective, the charity raised $2 million the previous year; Markiplier generated a quarter of that in a single day.

"I wanted to see if I could just sit in front of a computer and do nothing, and get people to raise an amount of money that we've never had before," Fischbach told Newsweek. "I wanted to create a goal that I've never hit, that was so much bigger and just, like, literally have this attitude where we're not stopping until it's done."

News of the record fundraising failed to break through to the mainstream media (which often fails to report on these live streams), but that didn't matter to Fischbach. "That doesn't mean that people should feel pessimistic about the nature of society or the nature of YouTube," Fischbach said. "We can continue to do good things and we can try to push goodwill out there and we can try to do events for charity; I don't need people talking about it."

Even smaller streamers can pull in large amounts of money mobilizing their communities. Maya Higa started broadcasting herself on Twitch in April but she's already gained 76,000 Twitch followers. She believes her platform comes with a responsibility to give back.

On May 24, her birthday, Higa earned more than $32,000 from 700 donors for the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition, which gives resources to homeless families in the South San Luis Obispo County area. "When you amass that kind of audience, every little bit counts and it adds up," Higa said. "It feels good to help people."

With this massive surge of potential capital flowing across the internet, some charitable foundations are trying to catch that wave.

St. Jude Play Live

In late April the St. Jude Play Live summit gathered 270 live streamers, ranging from small affiliates with barely a few fans to Twitch streamers with tens of thousands of followers, in Memphis, Tennessee for a conference on how to run charity streams. Throughout May, those charity streams raised money for St. Jude Children's Hospital. It costs about $1 billion a year to operate the hospital, which does not charge families for its services. This demanding budget mean its fundraisers need to stay aggressive, and get creative, when it comes to finding new revenue streams.

Since this event started seven years ago, more than $17 million has been raised through thousands of charity streams. For 2019, the goal is to raise $2.5 million through this event. The strategy is for streamers to give viewers incentives to donate. A $20 donation might earn you a keyring or shout-out on stream. When certain milestones are reached, streamers might have to eat a very hot pepper or dress in cosplay.

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Streamers entertaining children at St. Jude Play Live St. Jude Children's Hospital

Streamers can get a lot out of attending this event, too. Hotels, food and travel are taken care of by St. Jude, which gives streamers a chance to network or just relax. Special hoodies, highly coveted amongst the Twitch crowd, are only available to those exclusive few that manage to raise at least $500 for the hospital. While it's too early to tell if the investment will pay off for St. Jude, organizers are optimistic about its long term potential.

"One year, two year, three years out, I hope everybody can get a chance to come to St. Jude and to help the mission in a way that's meaningful to them," said Melanee Hannock, Chief Digital & Innovation Officer of St. Jude said. Hannock believes that these "live-a-thons" are the future of philanthropy. "Technology has enabled this whole new world to open up in new ways. You can donate and get thanked right away, shortening the feedback loop. I think gaming can change the world,or at least the world of pediatric cancer for us."

GuardianCon, a gaming convention that takes place at the beginning of July in Orlando Florida, holds a weeklong marathon stream to raise money for St. Jude. Starting in 2015 as a gathering for Destiny 2 fans, the convention has quickly grown from 1,000 attendees to more than 9,000 in 2019. Streamers from all around the globe partnered with companies like Bungie and Rare to raise $4,048,285 for St. Jude. This staggering total is a record for the organization. Benjamin "DrLupo" Lupo raised $900,000 over a four hour stream, with St. Jude awarding him with the Content Creator of the Year Award.

Ben "ProfessorBroman" Bowman, one of the Twitch streamers who took part in the charity stream, thinks it provides the perfect example of the future of fundraising. "GuardianCon exists to provide a focal point that we can bring everyone to in order to rally behind Saint Jude," Bowman said. "Gaming, streaming and YouTube have incredible influence in this world and we believe it is our responsibility and the responsibility of any creator to use the influence that they have to make the world a better place."

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Streamers entertaining children at St. Jude Play Live St. Jude Children's Hospital

The world of influencers can be hard to comprehend, especially for those who exist outside of it, but shares similarities with the traditional media anyone can understand. Like any hit TV show or Netflix series, content creators provide a space where viewers can go after a hard day and know that their favorite gamer, vlogger, cosplayer or whatever waiting for them. That consistency creates a bond that is quite literally worth something. Supporting your favorite streamer feels good, supporting their charity feels even better.

It's always nice to give back.