04/26/2013 05:44 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

Generation Ask


When everyone you know is passing the hat, who gets supported and who gets the shaft? Welcome to the new ethics of crowdfunding.

There are few people in the Bay Area more dialed-in, networked up, Oprah power-listed, and philanthropically connected than Lateefah Simon. Simon, the teen mom and budding activist who, at just 19, became the executive director of a San Francisco nonprofit to help troubled girls like herself. Simon, the 26-year-old MacArthur "genius" who created a pioneering program for the district attorney's office to keep young drug offenders out of prison. Simon, the civic dynamo who raised $7 million for her first organization, the Center for Young Women's Development, and $2 million more as head of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. When she and her husband, Kevin Weston, recently renewed their vows at City Hall (her ex-boss, state attorney general Kamala Harris, presided), it seemed like half the city's politicos were in the audience cheering them on.

So it says something about this cultural moment that you can find Simon asking -- or begging (we'll get to semantics in a minute) -- for help on GoFundMe. But sure enough, plug her name into the site, and you find a photo of Simon, Weston, and their adorable toddler, Lelah, looking blissful. Their story is anything but.

Until last summer, the 44-year-old Weston was an editor at New America Media, a nonprofit news site where he, too, spent a good chunk of his time raising money for worthy causes. Just as he was about to report to Stanford for a journalism fellowship, he went to the doctor with a sore throat and came out diagnosed with a flesh-eating bacterial infection -- and a rare type of leukemia. Doctors gave him days to live, but he held on through intensive chemotherapy. Simon, meanwhile, launched a nationwide drive to register African-American bone marrow donors, hoping to find a transplant match for Weston and others in his situation.

No less catastrophic was the family's sudden plunge into financial chaos...

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