When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the international humanitarian group Project HOPE quickly mobilized more than 1,600 content creators on the video-streaming platform Twitch. Over a couple of months, these streamers raised more than $1.4 million for medical services and support to refugees and the health-care workers serving them.
One streamer, who uses the handle @koji, planned a nine-hour livestream to raise $1,000 but raised more than $3,000 in just one hour. Donors made gifts of a few dollars and a few hundred dollars. When Project HOPE dropped a note of thanks into the chat box of his livestream, he was speechless. By the end of the stream, he had raised $11,000.
“We have lots of video clips of streamers crying because they’re so proud of what they were able to do for our organization, along with their fans,” says Christine Newkirk, senior director for development and communications operations at Project HOPE. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. Imagine people crying at a gala!”
Streaming for charity is not new, but it has become more sophisticated in recent years.
Charity livestreams are a lot like a Jerry Lewis telethon — minus the phone banks. Newkirk says they can last a full 24 hours, with the host encouraging viewers to give the whole time. Sometimes the streamer will play a video game live. Other times the streamer will act out a role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons. Some streamers cook a dish or talk to their viewers. Often they’ll perform silly challenges to encourage more giving, such as eating a stink-bug-flavored jelly bean if viewers contribute a certain amount.
“I’ve done just about everything there is to do for charity except shave my head,” says Nick, who streams under the handle @itsnippy and asked that we only use his first name to protect his privacy.
Since 2019, Nick’s livestreams have raised just over $25,251 for a range of charities. He’s pledged to buzz off his hair if one of his streams brings in $10,000. His highest grossing fundraising event to date raised roughly $5,700 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 2021.
Fundraising as Part of Streaming Culture
Through walkathons and other events, fundraisers try to bring elements of gameplay to winning donations, says April Stallings, gaming and influencer community manager at Make-a-Wish International. But streamers have always raised money for causes, she says. The process just used to be a lot clunkier than it is now.
“Fundraising is part of the [streaming] culture,” Stallings says. “It’s hard to find any other space like it, where, from day one, they were like, ‘We’re giving back no matter what.’”
The crowdfunding site Tiltify, launched in 2013, collects donations from livestreams on platforms like YouTube and Twitch and directs them to PayPal, Giving Block, or other gift processors. Tiltify provides streamers with a dashboard to monitor funds raised and creates an overlay, including a donation button, for its streaming platform. For this service, the company charges charities 5 percent of funds raised.
This summer Twitch — which is owned by Amazon — rolled out a donation tool: Twitch Charity. When streamers switch it on, their viewers will be able to click a button to donate. Gifts are processed through PayPal Giving Fund. And unlike Tiltify, Twitch lets charities keep all the funds raised on its platform.
Streaming Attracts Many Ages
It’s not just teenagers who put on these livestreams. Stallings says people who run charity streams for Make-a-Wish International are generally in their 30s. That jibes with demographic data on gamers. Three-fourths of gamers are older than 18, with the average gamer being 33, according to research by the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group for the gaming industry. Nationwide, 66 percent of people play video games, and gamers are split about evenly between men and women.
Many millennials who grew up playing video games now have money to donate and time to join livestreams. Anthony Marinos, director of business development and partnerships at the nonprofit Charity: water, grew up playing video games and pushed the charity to experiment more with fundraising on streaming platforms. Now 38 and still gaming, Marinos says plenty of other adults like him first picked up a Nintendo controller as a kid and never looked back.
In total, streamers have raised $2.5 million for Charity: water. The nonprofit marked its 16th anniversary in September by launching Stream for Clean, a monthlong campaign to raise $500,000 — a “stretch goal,” according to Marinos. The charity fell far short of that and lowered its target, aiming to raise $200,000 through streaming by the end of the year. Still, Marinos is no less bullish on streaming — in part because of its broad appeal.
“Video games are practically a universal language,” says Marcus Howard, a consultant who helps nonprofits and companies run esport events. “They transcend age, race, gender, and geography.”
A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that 48 percent of Hispanics, 44 percent of Black respondents, and 41 percent of white respondents said they often or sometimes played video games.
The urge to play, Howard says, is fundamental to the human experience. He credits video games’ broad appeal to the diverse genre of games available — from sports and adventure to first-person shooter games — and their accessibility. Some gamers play with only an internet connection while others use state-of-the-art virtual-reality headsets. “There’s something for everyone,” he says.
Streaming and gaming are also popular with LGBTQ people. Trans streamer Clara Sorrenti, who uses the handle @keffals, got her start on Twitch streaming herself playing video games, but she’s better known now for her livestreams breaking down news events. She has more than 53,000 followers on Twitch, and she leveraged her reach in April to raise $205,290 for the Campaign for Southern Equality’s work supporting trans youths in the American South.
“I don’t know very many of my trans friends or people who work at Trans Lifeline who aren’t playing video games,” says Taegen Meyer, co-executive director of Trans Lifeline, a nonprofit that provides emotional and financial support for trans people in crisis. The charity has a page on its website directing readers to streaming channels and groups for LGBTQ gamers.
One reason for gaming’s popularity among trans people is that trans characters have long been a part of video games. Meyer points to Metroid, a 1986 arcade game whose protagonist is believed by many to be a trans woman. Video games, Meyer says, have “been a way for trans people to be represented in certain types of media that allow us to really see ourselves in a role that we’re not going see ourselves in TV for another 10 years.”
Meyer says charity livestreams are special because hosts thank even small-dollar donors for their gifts, either directly or through an automated announcement. That kind of one-to-one interaction would never happen at a charity gala, she says, where tickets alone might cost hundreds of dollars.
“It’s hard to be fake when you’re going live,” Marinos, at Charity: water, says. “The streamers never take the credit like it’s them doing it. They are always highlighting their community and being like, ‘You guys did this.’”
Fundraisers are quick to say that giving thanks is at the core of their profession, and streamers, it seems, have mastered it.