How 'Caine's Arcade' raised $164,000 for a boy from East L.A.

The Internet short film 'Caine's Arcade' has touched an emotional chord among viewers, who have donated to a college fund for Caine Monroy. It shows how social media are reshaping fundraising.

The success of "Caine's Arcade" – the Internet short about Caine Monroy, a 9-year-old who created a cardboard-box arcade in his father’s East Los Angeles auto-parts store – has gone beyond cute to cash: $164,000 and counting has been sent to the Caine’s Arcade Scholarship Fund at his website.

To some media experts, it shows the potential for social-media fundraising to harness the forces of the web for good. To others, it's a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that could become less likely in the future as copy-cat, me-tooism takes hold. 

But for the moment, it's another sign of how the Internet has allowed people with compelling stories to find an audience – in this case, an audience willing to open its pocketbooks.

“This is pretty amazing when you consider the new fundraising territory that is being broken by this story,” says Rick Lavoie, senior vice president for Levick Strategic Communications Digital and Social Media Practice.

Mr. Lavoie and others agree that "Caine's Arcade" worked because a filmmaker happened upon a kid who had done something heart-warming and worth making a film about. The emotional aspect of a young boy earnestly tending his homemade arcade is what has caused the outpouring of funds for his college education, they say.

But if the Internet becomes flooded with heart-wrenching pleas for donations, users might tune out. "Although I think it depends on the story, I’m thinking that over time there is a burnout factor in such stories, you can only carve the groove in the record so deep,” says Lavoie.

Others agree. “Crowd-funding only works when there's a crowd of people doing the funding, not a crowd of people asking for money,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for the Study of Television and Culture at Syracuse University, via e-mail. "If everyone in the subway was asking for a handout, nobody would get one.”

Research suggests that social-media fundraising has its limits. A Forbes magazine article in January concluded “social media are no gold mine for do-gooders.… Traditional fund-raising, using direct mail and events, is far more effective than newer methods, such as e-mail and social networking,” it said, summing up a survey of 11,200 nonprofit professionals by the Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark 

It is not a broad-brush solution, some experts add.

“Crowd-sourcing the funding of Monroy's college education is great. But this is only helping one child and it isn't sustainable,” says Gordon Coonfield, a professor of communication at Villanova University in Philadelphia. “We need to find more sustainable and broader-reaching ways to help those who need help. Maybe crowd-sourcing and social networks are something the nonprofit sector and education institutions need to take a closer look at.”  

"Arcade" filmmaker Nirvan Mullick is doing just that. He has enlisted the Goldhirsh Foundation, which supports entrepreneurship and creativity in youth, to match the funds reaching up to $250,000 to help other kids like Caine. 

“We have a lot of ideas in the incubator stage which include programs for schools,” says Mr. Mullick. “We’re trying to take this whole idea to a new level.”

When this campaign began a week ago, “We were afraid that a goal of $25,000 was overambitious, but we wanted to try anyway,” he says. “Look where we are now.”

Such efforts should not be dismissed, says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of TexasArlington’s sociology department.

“As this young man demonstrates, these portals allow the cultural creator to go public, without an agent or the imprimatur of a big studio or publisher," he says. "This intellectual entrepreneurialism guarantees that fresh ideas and fresh faces will surface and thrive. From e-books to YouTube, the cultural game is changing.”

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