To help fund a national gun-control movement, a small group of South Florida students who survived the worst high school shooting in U.S. history set up a modest website Sunday and created a GoFundMe account to pursue an ambitious goal: raise $1 million.
They’ve received more than three times that amount. In four days.
In a sign of just how much momentum they have, the students who survived the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland have amassed donations from more than 18,000 people backing the #NeverAgain movement and the March For Our Lives, an anti-gun violence protest they’re planning on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The money has poured in from all over the country, escalating to seven figures before the young organizers could even set up a foundation to fund.
By Tuesday, the pot was nearing $1.5 million. And then Hollywood celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and George Clooney committed a half-million dollars. Each.
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With $3.5 million suddenly at their disposal, this core group of roughly 20 teenagers — still grieving the loss of 17 classmates and school mentors — has enough money to fund a a national march and a revolution. They’re now beginning to consider the long-game: a lasting movement to keep the pressure on pro-gun politicians and the National Rifle Association.
“Donations will be used to pay the expenses associated with the [March 24] March For Our Lives gathering in Washington, D.C., and to provide resources for young people organizing similar marches across the country,” a spokeswoman for March for Our Lives told the Miami Herald. “Any leftover funds will go towards supporting a continuing, long-term effort by and for young people to end the epidemic of mass shootings that has turned our classrooms into crime scenes.”
With the emergence of celebrity benefactors, the march has suddenly developed Hollywood ties. But despite conspiracy theories fostered by far-right blogs and pundits that liberal gun-control groups are using Parkland survivors as pawns for their cause, the #NeverAgain movement has so far been an organic, loosely organized phenomenon.
Teenagers like Cameron Kasky, Emma González, Alex Wind and David Hogg — all of whom have received enormous media attention since the shooting — seized a moment when the country was mesmerized in horror and called for action. Prepared by years of theater, journalism and debate classes, the students began leveraging media interviews and social media to solicit donations before they’d even set up a fund to accept the money, and without any expertise on how to organize a national rally.
At first, they weren’t even planning on seeking donations, said Kasky’s father, Jeff Kasky. But then they decided to pursue the national rally, and things steamrolled after their announcement. Kasky said his son sought out to raise $1 million only after he and his friends did some basic research on the costs of organizing a rally in Washington D.C.
“That’s where the money is going,” Jeff Kasky said. “They’re being directed by people with knowledge of how to responsibly spend this money and it’s going to be very transparent. Every penny is going to be accounted for.”
With Clooney’s help, Kasky said the group has brought in some attorneys, some administrative help and a public relations firm, 42 West. This week, they expect to establish the March For Our Lives Foundation in order to deposit all donations to the cause.
Kasky said Clooney spoke to the students’ parents Tuesday, during which the actor helped allay some concerns about “whether there would be an adult in the room.” But he stressed that while Clooney is helping, he isn’t running the show.
“These people putting their money in — not a single one of them has said anything along the lines of ‘I'll donate but you have to listen to what I say.’ Nobody is pulling the strings for these kids,” Kasky said. “I have to make clear: [Clooney] is not directing them, nor is anybody. I don’t know if they've even spoken. But at least some pressure is off them.”
In order to help organize the rally in Washington D.C., which requires applying for permits with the federal government, the city, and probably with the state of Virginia or Maryland depending on the exact route of the march, the students have brought in Deena Katz, co-executive producer of “Dancing With the Stars.” Katz is the co-executive director of the Women’s March Los Angeles Foundation, but is not involved on behalf of the organization.
A permit application for the National Mall filed Monday by Katz shows organizers are expecting 500,000 people to arrive by 20 buses and public transportation. They plan to erect 14 Jumbotrons, and 20 tents. The event will feature student speakers, musical performers, guest speakers and video tributes.
Emma Collum, a South Florida attorney who ran point on transportation and logistics for the Women’s March in 2016, said the endeavor will be complicated and vast for the upcoming gun-control rally. She said the regulations about where buses have to park, how marching routes are formulated and changed, and even how portable toilets are paid for and shipped in can be exhausting and costly: “At a minimum half-a-million” dollars, she estimated.
Collum, who said she’s assisting in the organization of a March 24 event in Parkland, helped the Women’s March gather more than 1 million people in D.C. But despite initial crowd estimates by organizers, she thinks the upcoming gun-control event will be even bigger.
“I truly do think the numbers are going to be above 1 million” people, she said.
The donations to the march fund are only part of the picture. A GoFundMe page for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims has also raised $1.8 million, with donors from all 50 states and over 50 countries.
The page is run by the Broward Education Foundation, a registered arm of the School Board of Broward County that raises funds to enrich education throughout the district.
“This is nothing that any of us were prepared for, however we are surrounded with the best possible resources, we're working with the senior team from GoFundMe, they are helping to guide and instruct us every step of the way because this is not your ordinary fundraising effort,” said Broward Education Foundation director of marketing Pejay Ryan.
The Broward Education Foundation has experience with managing millions of dollars. In fiscal year 2015, the foundation raised $1.1 million in contributions, gifts and grants while doling out $2.5 million in “program services,” according to financial documents. The foundation has a silver rating from Guidestar, a service that evaluates the finances of registered non-profits, meaning the Broward Education Fund has a high level of transparency.
Ryan said donations to their page will go to short-term and long-term needs for the victims, and not for political activities like advocating for new gun laws. She also said it's hard to gauge how much money will be needed for victims after the more immediate expenses like paying for funerals and medical treatment.
“The first thing that comes to mind is an individual who is a college student and has PTSD three years down the road,” Ryan said. “We can't anticipate what those needs are.”
A total of 22 pages that are raising money for Parkland victims have been verified by GoFundMe. The money donated as of Wednesday on the pages ranges from $3,000 to $1.8 million.
“We’ve got all we can handle right now,” Ryan said. “The offers of support coming through are mind-blowing and we’ve got a Herculean task on our hands, but we’re well-supplied with the best possible resources.”