When a law enforcement officer dies in the line of duty, the grieving comes first. But after the media coverage and memorial services, the family is left to pick up the pieces. While states and the federal government have death benefit programs in place, that money can take a long time to make it to the families. That’s where local charities, national groups and crowdfunding websites often step in to help those families when they need it the most.
OFFICER Magazine reached out to representatives from Fund the First, The Hundred Club of Massachusetts and GoFundMe about fundraising for fallen officers, the challenge of doing so during the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of keeping survivors connected.
A local touch
The Hundred Club of Massachusetts has been a registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization supporting the families of fallen law enforcement officers and firefighters in the state since 1959. There are similar charities, as well as unions, in states across the country that address the needs of families in mourning locally.
“The idea behind the organization was to provide care for those who had given so much for us. They provided funding for the widow at the time of the tragedy and helped them bridge that time period where they needed funds for all different of expenses,” says Peter Smyth, President of The Hundred Club of Massachusetts. “It stayed with them throughout their lives and their family’s lives. They formed a community of people who had lost their loved ones in the line of duty.”
Smyth says they have some members who have been with the club for over 40 years. “It’s an impressive group of people, and the camaraderie that it provides and the opportunity it affords these people for conversation and helping one another.”
When a law enforcement officer or firefighter in the state of Massachusetts dies in the line of duty, The Hundred Club provides the widow immediately with $10,000. The money provides gap funding to families that face mounting costs as soon as their loved one is gone. “Now with the state and the feds chipping in, it can be anywhere upwards of $600,000 to $700,000,” says Smyth. “We provide that funding until they receive those funds. We’re there right at the point when the tragedy happens. Their paychecks and their insurance stop that day. There’s a widow, she’s just lost her husband or her loved one and she has no money. She can’t pay the rent, she can’t pay the tuition, she can’t pay anything. So, we provide that immediate short-term funding.”
The Hundred Club of Massachusetts also provides educational assistance and psychological counseling to the families.
Raising funds online
Websites like GoFundMe, Fundly and YouCaring are available to help raise funds for fallen officers, as well as officers who have been severely injured in the line of duty. Last year, a new effort was launched to raise funds online specifically geared toward first responders, medical professionals, and military veterans. Since it first launched on July 4, 2020, Fund the First has raised more than $1 million in total donations and has hosted more than 160 campaigns. What sets this site apart from others is it relies heavily on the service ID.me to verify campaigns before they are launched.
NYPD Detective Robert Garland, founder of Fund the First, first had the idea to launch the website after his supervisor Jason received news following the birth of his daughter that she was born with a rare illness called Alexander disease. Jason’s daughter was not hitting her milestones, and Garland says that is was tough for him to watch his friend go through this. When she was diagnosed, her parents were hit with medical and financial hardship since their insurance didn’t fully cover their needs. They had to travel from New York to Pennsylvania every time she was sick, which could be two to three times per week.
In 2018, when Jason’s daughter was 8 months old, Garland told him that he wanted to get him on a crowdfunding platform to raise money for his family. “He looks at me and just says ‘No.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to put my daughter’s name out there on a public platform where someone could steal her identity.’ ” That’s when Garland took a deep-dive into the crowd-funding space and found that there was no true verification or vetting process. “People instantly trust it because they trust that brand and it’s really the only thing out there.”
He stressed that sites like GoFundMe do serve a purpose and do good things, but that first responders were in need of a verified and vetted source to raise money in times of need. “I told Jason, I’m going to develop something just for you and your daughter to get you guys the help that you need,” he recalls. “He got excited about it and choked up a little. When I said that, I really put pen to paper. Something needed to be done.”
Garland did the research and put together a team comprised of first responders, military veterans and business professionals. They partnered with ID.me so they could make sure that the money was going to the intended source. A civilian can start a campaign for a charity, which is then verified, and all of the funds are sent to that charity. A first responder or military veteran who wants to start a campaign for themselves or a loved one signs up and then goes through a verification process before the campaign can accept funds. The process of making a campaign live takes about 24 hours.
Angelique McNaughton, a spokeswoman for GoFundMe, says that while their verification process differs from others, one is still in place. “Funds are collected by our payment processors, held, and then released only to the person named as the beneficiary,” she says. “Before funds are transferred, their personal information, including ID and banking information, must be verified. If any questions arise, our team will hold the funds until the beneficiary is verified to our satisfaction.”
Users of GoFundMe also have the ability to report any campaigns they may be suspicious of. Every GoFundMe page has a contact button for the organizer and a ‘Report Fundraiser’ button. “If you have any questions about the fundraiser, you can easily reach out to the organizer and ask them directly. In addition, clicking the ‘Report Fundraiser’ will result in one of our specialists investigating the fundraiser,” says McNaughton. “We take these reports very seriously, and we will take immediate action if anything is wrong.”
Fundraising in a pandemic
For the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the ability for charities and group to fundraise. Those who would have donated in the past have faced tightened budgets, while companies that would normally make large contributions have not been able to do so.
While crowdfunding sites like Fund the First and GoFundMe may not have been greatly impacted, groups like The Hundred Club of Massachusetts that rely on large-scale events each year to help raise funds, have been.
The club is involved with the Bruins Foundation’s BFit Challenge event that would normally take place at the TD Garden and have law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs and civilians take part in fitness challenges to raise funds. In the past, The Hundred Club has received six-figure gifts from the event, but with this year’s event going virtual, that contribution isn’t expected to be the same. Smyth says that the club’s membership program, in which each member donates $250 annually to the club, has helped steady the ship during the pandemic.
“Not everyone has renewed back and money is tight for everybody, but we’ve been able to reach out to our members. I think they appreciate the things that the club provides and what it’s there for and represents to them,” he says. “I think we’ve been OK. I don’t think we’ve been great, but we’ve been OK.”