When Louis Goffinet, a middle-school science teacher in Connecticut, first started buying groceries for struggling families, he never expected to be handling tens of thousands of dollars.
Determined to help a few elderly or laid-off neighbors last April, he appealed to his Facebook friends to throw him a few bucks on an online fundraiser.
Much to his surprise, that effort quickly drew hundreds of donors from around the world. By July, Goffinet had raised more than $30,000, using the money to buy and deliver bags of food — as well as gas and rental assistance — for more than a hundred families in Mansfield Center, Conn.
The bad news came in January, in an envelope from the Internal Revenue Service: He owed about half that amount in taxes.
“I was so shocked,” Goffinet, 27, told The Hartford Courant. “It’s such a big amount. It’s not like I can say, ‘Oh, for the next month or two, I’ll dial down my expenses and I’ll save $16,000.'”
Unknown to him at the time, third-party transaction sites like Facebook Fundraisers are required to issue a 1099-K form to the IRS on any transactions that exceed $20,000. While those guidelines are posted on the social media giant’s donation platform, Goffinet said he never thought his volunteer grocery effort would get so big.
In fact, the endeavor was not really his idea to begin with. It started when an elderly neighbor was worried about the risk of heading to the supermarket, and Goffinet’s dad volunteered his son to go shopping.
That supermarket trip went so well that the 27-year-old decided to offer his help to others on their Connecticut town’s Facebook page. Given he was young, healthy and stuck at home teaching on Zoom, it was the least he could do.
“I thought about just paying for their groceries and getting some good karma,” he told WVIT at the time. “I realized there’s probably a lot more families in their same position.”
His original ambitions to raise $200 were met before he even made it to sleep that night, and the project quickly snowballed. With donors from across Connecticut, the effort quickly grew to include two other volunteers and outreach to needy families through social services in Mansfield Center’s town government.
By last July, Goffinet had made 130 shopping trips for struggling households, using more than $30,000 he raised online to help a range of neighbors in need — from other retirees to a young family dealing with layoffs and health issues. Goffinet took care to ask parents for their kids’ favorite cereal or snack.
UConn Magazine, an alumni publication at his alma mater, labeled him a “local hero.” The owner of a local Domino’s Pizza store donated pizzas for recipients of the fundraiser across several weekends.
In the fall, the team launched a similar effort aimed at helping neighbors through the holiday season, raising about $10,000.
In January, the IRS informed him that he owed an eye-popping $16,031 in income tax on all the money he had raised to support his neighbors.
As Goffinet explained it, his use of a third-party fundraising system like Facebook’s platform meant any donations he received actually qualified as personal income, because he is not an accredited nonprofit. Likewise, any of his donations to needy families — through cash, check, or goods like groceries — were a legal gift, not a deductible expense.
Because he is pursuing his master’s degree on a public schoolteacher’s salary, such a total is untenable for Goffinet, he said. So he has had to return to Facebook to ask his project’s backers — and other do-gooders online — to offset his tax payment.
“It’s so uncomfortable,” he told the Courant. “I had a similar discomfort when I set up the fundraiser. This is a pandemic. People are in a tough spot. It feels weird to be asking anyone for money. And now to be asking it purely for myself is so bizarre and really out of my comfort zone.”
This time, however, he’s steering clear of any online platforms. Goffinet said that he’s only accepting donations sent in the mail by check.