(AP) — Single father Billy Price was already struggling to make ends meet before someone broke into his Michigan storage unit, stole his identity and ruined his credit.
Price filed a police report, and then tweeted about it to Bill Pulte, a multimillionaire who he'd heard uses Twitter to give money to those in need.
“They took nearly everything, including everything that my grandpa gave me before he passed,” Price tweeted last month, only to be met with silence. “On top of that we’re about to be homeless, it’s like the weight of the world. Please help us.”
Price, 35, recently moved from Illinois to Michigan to maintain joint custody of his 5-year-old son Maddox. Price is living at an extended stay Kalamazoo hotel while he searches for a place to live, but he's worried that between his bad credit, his dwindling savings and his lack of employment he won’t qualify for anywhere that isn’t a “slum.”
“I really don’t want that for my son,” said Price, who lost his landscaping job during the pandemic and has relied on odd construction jobs and day-trading cryptocurrency to make money over the past year.
Practically every minute of every hour, someone sends a tweet to Pulte, a 33-year-old private-equity investor and heir to the mammoth PulteGroup homebuilding company.
A grieving mother needs $800 to retrieve her young daughter’s ashes. A Texas man needs help paying off more than $60,000 in credit card debt. A family of four is about to lose its house.
People send photos of their eviction notices, tearful videos of their empty refrigerators, screenshots of the paltry sums they have in their bank accounts.
And, nearly every day, Pulte responds. He gave $500 to a man who sent a video of his missing teeth. He gave $125 to a woman to pay for gas so she could make the long drive to her brother’s funeral.
It’s all part of what Pulte calls “Twitter philanthropy” – a concept of direct giving in which Pulte and others offer immediate financial support to a tiny percentage of the thousands who reach out every day over social media.
“I call them hand-ups, not handouts,” said Pulte, who has grand visions of disrupting the traditional philanthropy model by using social media to help form an online army of donors to help people in crisis.
For Timi Gerson, vice president and chief content officer at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Pulte’s generosity is laudable, but she said it’s turned into a “grotesque Hunger Games” in which desperate people compete to get noticed while struggling to survive in a “broken system” that has “deeply unequal access to health care and housing and services.”
Online direct giving is nothing new – for years, people have used sites like GoFundMe to get money for medical expenses, funeral costs and other unforeseen bills.
But Pulte’s approach is nearly instantaneous. Within seconds, on a whim, he can send a follower life-changing money: his largest single donation so far is $50,000, according to his records of the more than $1.2 million he has spread among more than 2,200 followers over the past three years. In that time, his follower count has skyrocketed from around 35,000 to 3.2 million.
Gerson appreciates the “immediacy and the transparency” of Pulte’s approach but she said it’s ultimately far too little to achieve meaningful change, comparing the situation to the old tale of the Dutch boy who kept his finger in a leaking dike to try to prevent his town from flooding.
“Endless fingers in the dike aren’t going to solve anything if the dam wall is crumbling. You’ve got to fix the structure,” Gerson said. “If you want to effectively solve the deeper problem, you’ve got to fund groups and organizations that are looking at things systemically.”