Skip to main content


The question

Recently, we looked at the high-profile case of bullied bus monitor Karen Klein and the grassroots drive that raised a stunning $600,000. We received a lot of questions asking how to tell if quickie startup online causes are legitimate. Here is our response.

The answer

In 2009, photos of an attractive young Burlington, Ont., woman, her hair and eyebrows gone and the words "Won't Quit" inked on her knuckles, appeared all over social media. Ashley Kirilow was broke, alone and waging a fight against cancer. The story moved Canadians to give her an estimated $20,000.

However, Ms. Kirilow did not have cancer. The donors had been scammed.

Some people want to cut out the middleman, to give direct donations to make the most impact. That, however, raises a critical question: How to give without being taken in by frauds? The reality is, once you give money to an individual, it is no longer in your control. "If it turns out to be a fraud after you've given, that money is never coming back," warns Daniel Williams of the RCMP's Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

For perspective, we turned to a man with some experience in this area: Keith Taylor, founder of – a website that connects individual donors with people in need.

Having overcome crisis in his own life thanks to the generosity of friends, Dr. Taylor wanted to help others. A pioneer in the now-crowded field of online giving, he launched Modest Needs in 2002 to assist low-income individuals and families in the U.S. and Canada experiencing short-term financial emergencies.

Imagine your child needs glasses and the expense leaves you unable to pay your heating bill. You apply to have your case posted on, where a caring person can see it and give to help you out.

"Well, you know people are going to try and scam you," says Dr. Taylor. "So we needed a system to prevent people who are not as honest as they should be from getting money they don't need."

His site avoids frauds by giving donated funds not to the individual but to the vendor to whom the money is owed. When that donor helps you pay your heating bill, Modest Needs cuts the cheque to the energy company, not to you.

The site also does due diligence. When you ask for help, you must submit documentation that proves your identity and that your need is real. The staff follows up directly with phone calls, cross-referencing your documentation to verify your case. According to Dr. Taylor, due diligence elevates the worthier online cause websites above the pack, and that's what donors should look for. "Those are the dangers, the sites that just allow anyone to post: 'I need help, give me money,'" he says.

Don't be afraid to phone or e-mail a website to ask if they verify the causes on their site.

A spokesperson for Indiegogo, the site that hosts the Karen Klein donation page, says that while they use a fraud algorithm to detect fake causes, there is no direct verification or cross-checking. Two other popular sites – and tells users it is up to them to check the validity of individual causes.

Dr. Taylor also says to be wary of sites that take a cut of the donations. "They're not interested if the causes are legitimate. They're just interested in whether people will give."

Modest Needs does not take a cut of donations, but Indiegogo and Wish Upon a Hero do. Indiegogo takes 4 per cent of donations if you reach your fundraising goal, and 9 per cent if you don't. Wish Upon a Hero takes a flat 5 per cent.

If you really want to maximize the impact of your donations, Dr. Taylor recommends giving to sites that funnel donations to legitimate organizations – sites like and

Or just take a step back from your keyboard. "Look around you," says Dr. Taylor. "You already know people who need help – your friends or coworkers, or simply someone you overhear talking in a lineup or the movie theatre. There are people in need right on your doorstep."

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to