LOS ANGELES—When a new job forced Andrea and Mark Wittig to pack up and move from Los Angeles to Chicago in 2011, they had already drained their savings on an adoption process they now had to start over. They didn’t know how they’d get the $35,000 to adopt a boy from Uganda while resettling their family, including their 3-year-old biological son, Evan, in a new city.
That’s where AdoptTogether stepped in. Created by the Wittigs’ friend Hank Fortener, AdoptTogether crowdsources funds for adopting families the way Kickerstarter brings money together for creative projects.
Adopting families may use the website to set up profiles with their financial goal in mind, then invite friends and families to support them through the expensive and trying adoption process. The Wittigs set up the site’s first profile in December 2011 and in nine months raised $35,000 in donations.
Fortener, who pastors Mosaic church in Los Angeles, is familiar with the adoption process: His parents, Chuck and Anne Fortener, adopted eight children and took in more than 30 foster children. Once they could no longer adopt, they helped other families with the adoption process, but were convinced there had to be a better way to connect more children to more families.
The answer appeared unexpectedly one night in 2008 as Fortener watched Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. The segment featured a site where women create profiles so others can donate money for them for breast implants. Fortener thought the idea was crass, but he was surprised at how much money the site raised, and realized there was something to the crowdsourcing concept.
With the help of volunteers, Fortener and his father Chuck put together the 501(c)(3) organization. Because peer-to-peer funding is difficult to set up, they created the Hoping Hearts Foundation Board to mediate the process. Donors make a tax-deductible donation to Hoping Hearts, which then awards money to adopting families based on their need. To ensure the money raised is going toward adoption costs, AdoptTogether first confirms the family is working with an authorized adoption agency and contacts the family to walk them through the process. The organization requires families to send receipts, invoices, and documentation before they can receive any grant money. Based on their need, families can at times get more money than the amount they raised.
The Wittigs had experience in fundraising as Andrea previously worked on fundraising at World Vision. They used every type of communication: talking to family members in person, calling friends, sending out letters and pictures, and linking to their AdoptTogether profile in emails and Facebook status updates.
“We told people we get that this is going to be a long journey and we don’t really understand what we are stepping into, so we need community around us,” Mark said. The site allowed them to update supporters when they passed fundraising goals or completed steps of the adoption process. Money started to pour in from friends and family, even Facebook friends they hadn’t talked to in years. To ensure their friends wouldn’t feel donor fatigue, they would go months without mentioning it, then relink to their page. By September 2012, they had reached their goal of $35,000.
“It’s been such a stress reliever for us,” Andrea said. “I mean I couldn’t imagine going through this process, which is so emotional, and having to stress about delaying the process because we couldn’t pay $10,000.”
News about AdoptTogether spread through Facebook and word of mouth, and by the end of the site’s third month, 100 families had set up profiles. Mark said that nothing else like it is available—the only other way they could have raised money would be by asking friends to donate to them directly. AdoptTogether adds a sense of legitimacy, allowing acquaintances to donate to a qualified nonprofit. One person the Wittigs met once at a wedding saw their post on Facebook and ended up donating $1,000. As of April, AdoptTogether has helped 275 families and raised $900,000.
Adoptions owe their high cost to adoption agency fees, which cover the social services, lawyer, home study, and audit. Travel expenses to the child’s home country, miscellaneous doctor’s appointments, and fees paid to the country’s government quickly pile up, resulting usually in tens of thousands of dollars total.
Fortener insists the system is broken: Millions of orphans need families, and thousand of families want to adopt, but the cost of adoption is often the biggest thing separating the two. Without families, many of these children end up homeless, in prison, and draining resources through welfare.
“These families are caring for a kid who will no longer be a burden on society,” Fortener said. “Why can’t I take a kid who has no one? Why does it make sense for couples to pay $90,000 to help a child? As a culture, it’s whack.”
His vision is to give friends, family, and the church a chance take part in a family’s adoption process, which creates a community around the baby even before he or she comes home. Many of the donors stay in these children’s lives and are even considered extended family for the adopted child (see sidebar below).
For now, AdoptTogether relies completely on volunteers for everything from web development to video production, and volunteers include the Forteners and members of Mosaic church.
In April the Wittigs finally were matched with a little boy in Uganda. It could take up to a year before he comes to their home, as they await a court date, make trips to Uganda, and apply for a visa and U.S. passport for their son. The process has included “a flood of emotion,” Andrea said. “Just to proceed to the next step—to have a name and a story and a face—it’s overwhelming and it’s amazing.”
Bill and Nicole Radtke decided to adopt a baby from the Los Angeles area after discovering they were infertile in 2011. They created an AdoptTogether profile in early 2012. Bill, a filmmaker, shot short video updates for their friends and families to follow them through their adoption process.
Last July, the Radtkes got a call from an 18-year-old expectant mother who wanted to meet the couple, and soon they were officially matched. The Radtkes uploaded a video on their AdoptTogether page to share the news, and many friends donated money and called to congratulate them.
But a few days later, the woman disappeared, completely cutting off contact with the agency and the Radtkes. For a month the couple remained in limbo, unsure if the expectant mother would come back or not. Nicole said having their supporters share in the experience “made it easier for us because we knew we weren’t the only ones grieving. I think it was unexpected how attached people were to our adoption journey even before Manny was born.”
In September the Radtkes were matched with another mother who was expecting her baby in a couple of weeks. The Radtkes admitted they were more reserved this time, holding back their expectations until the baby was actually in their arms. They continued updating their friends and family by video, and even brought a camera into the hospital the morning Manny was born. By the time they brought him home in October, they had raised the $23,000 they needed.
The couple said it was beautiful to see friends, some of whom they didn’t know very well, sacrifice to help them start a family. Their investment in Manny also led to a special relationship with the baby.
“We saw that the people who gave the most, sacrificed the most, became like family,” Bill said. “It created this bond, it was more than just they like being around Manny and seeing him, they literally felt like his aunts and uncles. It’s a very beautiful way to see so many people come together for this baby.”
The Sunday the Radtkes walked into Mosaic church with baby Manny in their stroller, their supporters showered them with a hero’s welcome: “It was awesome,” Fortener said, “like Caesar coming back from war.”—A.L.