I was a New York City public school teacher when I gave birth to my children, two girls just 17 months apart. I opted for the standard six-week maternity leave to heal and bond with each child, now 5 and 7.
The catch? I hadn't accumulated enough paid time off to see me through even one week of my first stretch. Both leaves were funded through "loans" I took out from the board of education. I essentially borrowed days to keep my pay intact during maternity leave, and once I was back at work that pay was deducted little by little from my paychecks. It took me four years to pay back those borrowed days.
My story, unfortunately, isn't unique, especially considering the U.S. is the only developed country not to require some form of paid maternity leave. Although California, New Jersey and Rhode Island offer their own paid family leave (soon to be joined by New York and Washington, D.C.), the only law of the land is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If you work for a company that has a minimum of 50 employees, FMLA protects your job for up to 12 weeks if you meet the requirements — albeit unpaid.
That leaves the fate of your maternity leave pay in the hands of your employer — and let's face it, most of us don't work for companies like Facebook, Etsy or Netflix, which have made headlines for their generous leave policies. That's left some new parents resorting to other measures to help fund their time off. Enter crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding Maternity Leave as a Last Resort
Do-it-yourself fundraising is already used to cover everything from unexpected medical catastrophes to college tuition to honeymoons — now, helping to cover new-baby costs and lost income has joined those ranks. Platforms like GoFundMe, Plumfund and YouCaring feature an ever-increasing number of maternity leave funds. On GoFundMe, for instance, a search for maternity leave yields more than 3,000 results. And there's even a beta crowdfunding platform specifically for maternity leave called Take12.
Amy Gerving's Plumfund was set up to help welcome her and her husband's third child via adoption: a 6-month-old baby boy named Charlie who's also the biological sibling of Gerving's adopted daughter. Although her job offers short-term disability pay for women who have birth children, they offer nothing for adoptive parents. "So there's absolutely no pay, no health insurance, no benefits at all for any time I take [off]," says the Tampa, Florida–based 42-year-old medical claims adjuster.
Gerving plans to max out the one week of vacation she has saved up, but that won't cover the amount of time she'd like to take off. "My goal is to be able to stay home with him for one month, and just use that time to bond and for him to get to know us," she says. So she's aiming to raise about one month's worth of take-home pay, with a little extra thrown on top to cover health insurance for the month — about $3,500. If she doesn't raise enough, she'll return to work earlier than anticipated.
It was actually a friend of Gerving's who thought to turn to crowdfunding and created the page for her. "I was really touched; I cried," Gerving says. "I was a little bit worried that friends would think we were asking for a handout, but everyone’s been really supportive. I would never have considered having a fundraiser for my maternity leave."
Lisa L., a 44-year-old school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, raised over $3,200 via GoFundMe, which went toward her mortgage and bills during her 12-week unpaid maternity leave last year. She had used up all her vacation and sick days to undergo fertility treatments, so these cash gifts, along with some financial help from her brother, were what kept the single mom afloat after her daughter was born. Lisa was pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of love and support.
"There were people from my childhood who I hadn't talked to in years, friends of friends, and people I had never even met who were giving me money," she says, recalling one stranger who gifted her $300. "I was so grateful to everyone who donated, and to the many people who wished me luck and left so many nice comments."
What to Know Before You Crowdfund
If you're thinking of turning to crowdfunding to help make up for a less-than-stellar maternity leave policy at your work, here are some things to know.
You likely won't have to pay taxes on the money. True gifts (i.e., money that's given purely as a donation, for no goods, services or rewards in return) are typically considered nontaxable. Note, however, that a campaign creator who collects more than $20,000 and has 200 transactions in a year will receive a 1099-K form the third-party payment processor (e.g., PayPal or Amazon Payments). This doesn't mean you have to pay taxes on that money; however, because crowdfunding is still a gray area for the IRS, it's best to consult with a tax adviser.
You'll still have to pay fees. Even without paying taxes, don't expect to keep every penny of what you raise. Most platforms charge a fee, usually between 3% to 5% of each transaction, but this can go a lot higher, like the 7.9% cut plus 30 cents of each donation that GoFundMe takes. Some sites may even charge your donors. So be sure to check out the fine print before committing to any site, even the ones that say they are free.
Be realistic about how much money you might raise. Although it's easy to view crowdfunding as a way out of a sticky financial situation, truth is, there are no guarantees you'll actually raise the amount you need. So when you're trying to plan ahead, it's better not to rely on those donations as a given, but rather as a nice-to-have that could help pad your budget.