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Willner ’06 discusses $20 million fundraiser for separated families

November 30, 2018

$1,500 is the minimum bond required to help reunite one family separated at the U.S.-Mexico border and was the original goal of Dave and Charlotte Willner’s ’06 Facebook fundraiser. It’s also the amount they received within 22 minutes after starting the fundraiser in June.

Within 90 days, the pair raised over $20 million for RAICES, a nonprofit agency that provides free legal aid to immigrant and refugee families in Texas.

Dave and Charlotte started the fundraiser after seeing photos of young, distressed children who had been separated from their parents at the border. This reminded the couple of their own daughter, and they hoped it would resonate with others in the same way.

“You can reach people—there is that common humanity. Every single one of us is somebody’s child,” Dave said.

Dave, now the Director of Community Policy at Airbnb, returned to Bowdoin on Monday for a discussion sponsored by the McKeen Center and the Latin American Studies Department, where he addressed how and why the fundraiser was so successful.

While many organizations work to solve issues arising from the immigration crisis, he noted that RAICES is unique in that it functions as a pro bono law firm, providing direct legal aid to undocumented minors and families.

As part of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy enacted in April, adults who were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border were often sent to prison, while their children were put under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services, resulting in family separation. Part of RAICES’s work involves collecting money to pay bonds to release adults from detention facilities. The organization also helps track down individuals to make the process of reuniting families easier.

Dave recently visited Texas to see the impact of the money donated from the fundraiser firsthand. In addition to legal aid, RAICES provides support to those recently released from prison.

“When [the Department of Homeland Security] releases people from the detention facilities, they drop them off at the bus station in San Antonio with a ticket to their eventual destination and nothing else. No food, no directions, no translation services,” Dave said.

Dave and Charlotte’s fundraiser for RAICES was possible in part because of the couple’s vast network of Facebook friends—both literally and figuratively. The pair had jobs at the social network in 2007, so they were able to utilize contacts within the company to work with engineers to adjust Facebook’s fundraiser software itself. Facebook’s previously largest fundraiser brought in $2 million, so the software was not capable of supporting a fundraiser as large as the Willners’.

“We ended up on a chat thread with the actual engineers of the project, and they were helping us make sure that everything kept moving in real time,” Dave said.

In addition to familiarity with the site and the software, the couple also has a vast network of friends due to their professional careers and time at Bowdoin. Their connections helped spread awareness about the fundraiser and provide support in various fields, a point that resonated with students.

“I had a kind of negative impression of Silicon Valley, but after listening to his talk, I was definitely more interested in thinking about jobs there because it seems like they’re doing a lot of good,” Emilia Majersik ’22 said. “You hear about all the ‘evil stuff’ that happened at Facebook, but it seems like they’re doing more good than bad. You just don’t hear about it as much.”

For Dave, the success of the fundraiser goes beyond work connections and social media: it appealed to a general desire for the common good, a theme with which Bowdoin students are familiar.

“This resonated with people morally in a way that went beyond partisan politics,” he said. “It spread in a way that penetrated more deeply than a partisan divide, which I think really speaks to that notion that there is some fundamental decency.”

Dave added that he felt lucky to find such an impactful organization and become involved at an opportune time. The pair is still involved with RAICES and acknowledges that the success of the fundraiser is the result of the company’s work.

“We were the lightning rod,” he said. “Not the thunderstorm.”


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