How A Grassroots Lahaina Fundraiser Found A Better Way To Help Fire Survivors

HONOLULU (AP) — A Maui wildfire fundraiser created by three local volunteers within days of the disaster has now distributed nearly $780,000 to displaced families.

While that’s a small portion of the tens of millions raised via online fundraising campaigns, the Help Maui Rise fund has drawn praise for its transparency and a commitment to disbursing donations more equitably by using data.

The fund has also managed to avoid the ethical and legal traps that can befall community-driven efforts through a partnership with the nonprofit arm of the GoFundMe fundraising platform.

The Help Maui Rise fund is worthy of recognition, according to Sally Ray, director of domestic funds for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, a nonprofit that advises communities on disaster recovery and manages several recovery funds. “Whenever there’s a focus to try to spread those dollars to everyone and make it an equitable recovery — and they’re trying to prove that — I applaud them,” she said.

Ray said larger charities need to do a better job of getting funds to people who may be marginalized by age or language and not connected digitally. “There’s a need to make sure that everybody who is affected recovers from the disaster, and to be honest with you, our systems are not set up for that to be the case,” she said.

Well-managed locally focused efforts can be effective at distributing funds “but there needs to be accountability whenever you’re talking about donor dollars to support recovery,” Ray said.

Inequities in donation distribution

Digital fundraisers driven by social media have quickly become ubiquitous after disasters, according to Hudson Wells, executive director of, the charitable wing of the fundraiser site GiveSendGo. GiveSendGo has only 4% of the online fundraising market, but still raised an estimated $200,000 for fire survivors, with Wells’ nonprofit arm raising another $25,000.

The more-established platform, with over 30% of the online fundraising market, hosted hundreds of Maui fire campaigns, generating over $65 million in donations. With thousands of potential recipients featured online after a disaster, the most compelling stories on social media often end up driving donation choices, Wells said.

Those without a strong social media presence, like kupuna, can often be marginalized.

The velocity of digital fundraising also creates risks from bad actors and well-intentioned people who aren’t set up to handle the funds they raise. “Anyone can go on a fundraising site and set up whatever campaign they want until it’s seen to be incorrect or something like that,” Wells said.

While larger fundraisers like GoFundMe have strict rules and requirements for their campaigns, “I would say those independent ones where you’re sending money to PayPal or whatever, it is awfully difficult to track those dollars, for sure,” Ray said.

Oversight of the online fundraisers varies depending on which state they operate in, but there are tax pitfalls if fundraisers distribute amounts that fall outside the IRS threshold.

Online emergency fundraisers in Hawaii will be more tightly regulated by the state attorney general after the passage of Senate Bill 2983. After January 2026, campaigns will be required to register, file regular reports and the AG will have more power to investigate how funds are solicited, handled and distributed.

The new legislation was driven in part by campaigns like the Lahaina Fire Fund which raised nearly a million dollars in the weeks after the Aug. 8 fires and is currently being audited by the Tax and Charities Division of the Department of the Attorney General.

The campaign founders, Maui real estate agent Eric West and his son Colton, initially said the money would be distributed as direct aid to survivors through a charity they would establish.

That charity never materialized, and Eric West said he instead distributed over $750,000 to Maui churches and spent nearly $50,000 on direct support, supplies and other costs. Some of those disbursements have been confirmed, but all told there’s $160,000 to $175,000 unaccounted for.

That initial false representation is what drew the attention of the attorney general. Public Information Officer Toni Schwartz with the Attorney General’s Office said last week the department won’t comment on audits or pending cases.

West also didn’t respond to voicemail and text messages seeking comment.

Regardless of legislation, Ray warns would-be fundraisers that “if you step into this space, you’re always going to risk being audited, accused of fraud, accused of inappropriate use of funds; so you need to be prepared for that and build your systems in a way that minimizes risk as much as possible.”

Donors should generally give to trusted charities in good standing, Ray said, “But I also know that there are some valid organizations that stand up quickly after a disaster and then go on to be a really strong community support in that space,” she said.

Partnering up for leverage

Help Maui Rise founder Kendra Reed, a photographer from Oahu, said the fund was “rooted in this skepticism in myself and in others about who it was OK to donate to, and how much money you would donate to an organization would go to people who actually needed help.”

Reed said initially she began sharing links to individual wildfire fundraisers from her Instagram account because “there was so much talk about how there were no government officials there, and people just so desperately needed help, they needed cash.”

When people started asking her to repost appeals, Reed saw a need to try and verify recipients and create a public list of displaced families in need. Lahaina photographer Gabrielle Pascual offered to create a Google sheet to share the list more widely and a week later there were 900 displaced households on it.

The online spreadsheet also provided transparency by allowing donors to see which recipients had received the least or most assistance.

Reed, Pascual and fellow volunteer Sam Feyen also set about verifying people through social media, personal outreach and mutual contacts. A couple of weeks in, GoFundMe reached out offering to help the volunteers review potential recipients. “That took the vetting process to a new level,” Reed said.

Then, GoFundMe pointed Reed to a relatively new program that partners grassroots efforts with the platform’s registered 501(c)3 nonprofit That fiscal sponsorship enabled Help Maui Rise to create its own fundraiser page and accept tax-deductible donations from businesses and foundations. (Donations to non-charity fundraisers are usually not tax deductible.)

The pairing also gave Reed and the others support with security, compliance and legal cover. “I think as GoFundMe has realized how serious I was about continuing this, they became a lot more serious about making sure we were doing things in the best way possible,” she said.

As of April 8, $777,000 from the fund had been distributed through grants of $400 to $900 to more than 1,600 qualified households, GoFundMe spokesperson Alex White confirmed last week. GoFundMe distributed the Help Maui Rise funds using its own data to award the larger grants to households that had received lower levels of online support.

While recipients of the grants have to apply, the Help Maui Rise volunteers held workshops on Maui and created resources in Spanish, Tagalog and Ilokano to assist non-English speakers and older people fill out the application. No costs or salaries have been deducted from the fund, Reed said.

She hasn’t heard from the Tax and Charities Division.

Reed initially imagined that the fund would only exist for a couple weeks, “but as time went on it became apparent that people weren’t going to step in at the level that was needed.” Now it’s 10 months in, and she doesn’t feel comfortable walking away from it. “I see how alone some families feel, and they don’t feel anyone’s advocating for them,” Reed said.

Now Help Maui Rise has a system that can be used to help distribute funds for other organizations looking for a more equitable model, Reed said, and she has no intention of winding it down. “Personally I’m very frustrated with how much money is just sitting there not helping anyone.”


This story was originally published by Honolulu Civil Beat and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.