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How GoFundMe became America’s coronavirus safety net

GoFundMe's new CEO, Tim Cadogan, started the job just weeks ago. He talks to Protocol about the efforts underway to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

GoFundMe CEO Tim Cadogan

GoFundMe CEO Tim Cadogan joined the company in early March, before the country's coronavirus crisis went full-spectrum.

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York

GoFundMe has emerged in recent years as America's de facto health care safety net, so it makes sense that the crowdfunding platform would play a huge role in helping Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.

People have created more than 35,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe campaigns in recent weeks, raising more than $60 million already. They are raising money to buy medical supplies and protective equipment, support jobless workers, pay for medical treatments and more. Those are unprecedented numbers for GoFundMe, and people are making more COVID-19 campaigns every day.

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All of this activity is happening under Tim Cadogan, GoFundMe's brand-new CEO, who joined the company in early March. Cadogan spent just a few days with his new team in the office before the entire company went remote. "I've been mainly getting to know people over videoconferences," Cadogan said (over a videoconference).

In his first weeks on the job, he's taken action never before seen in the company's 10-year history: autogenerating fundraising campaigns for small businesses. This is the first time the platform has ever been proactive about creating campaigns to fill gaps where it sees need. Cadogan talked to Protocol on Tuesday, the day the autogenerated fundraiser effort started, about how he sees GoFundMe's role in addressing the coronavirus fallout. In the days since this conversation, some small-business owners have expressed unhappiness that the campaigns are opt-out, rather than opt-in. Cadogan addressed why the campaigns were designed this way in the interview.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why are people turning to GoFundMe right now?

Typically on the platform, people give to campaigns that they are not directly affected by. Now, everyone has been affected by coronavirus, yet people are giving at unprecedented levels. It's quite amazing.

There are a few things that make GoFundMe effective in this context. First of all, every campaign is specific. It's clear what the money is being raised for. It's also easy to use. It's easy to set up a campaign, it's easy to give, and it's quick to get your money as a beneficiary. At the same time, it's safe.

How does GoFundMe vet coronavirus-related fundraisers?

We are applying the same tried-and-tested techniques to COVID-19 campaigns as we have in other circumstances. We scan text using technology, and we have a team of employees looking for anything that might be out of the ordinary. Then, we have a whole set of internal checks and balances before the money is released to the person named as the beneficiary. It's very rare that something goes wrong — a little bit less than one-tenth of 1% of the time. If at any time something has gone wrong, we guarantee that the money can be refunded.

There is a social proof point on the back-end of the whole process as well. These are all social fundraising campaigns, right? The community of friends, family and the extended network of people that are looking at a fundraiser often provide us with an early warning. Essentially, if someone sees something that just doesn't feel quite right to them, they reach out to us. On the receiving end, once the money has been paid to a beneficiary, that beneficiary is still in the community within which they reside. Your community is going to validate that the money went to what you said it was going to go to.

Why did GoFundMe decide to get involved with small businesses during the coronavirus outbreak?

If you think about other national and international crises, like 9/11 or the financial crisis, businesses were still open. They may have had somewhat less demand, but they were open. This is totally different.

Before launching the Small Business Relief Initiative, we had been seeing some local businesses create campaigns on GoFundMe. But we knew that there were many businesses that maybe didn't know that GoFundMe was an option to help them, or were so busy that they couldn't create a campaign themselves. And we had a lot of folks asking us, how can we help our local businesses? Can you help us help them?

The idea, which really we had only about eight or nine days ago, was how can we create a larger-scale program for small businesses? So, that's how the idea came about.

The goal is to get these campaigns created, get them exposed to as many people as we can, and start to enable local communities to help the businesses they love.

We've also set up the Small Business Relief Fund with our partners Yelp and Intuit QuickBooks. This fund already has $1.5 million in it. We hope to add a lot more with other corporate sponsors soon. That fund will provide matching microgrants to small businesses in the program. If they raise $500, we'll match that up to $500 until the fund is extinguished, essentially.

Tell me about the Frontline Responders Fund, the $10 million fundraising project that launched the same day as the Small Business Initiative.

This fund is a collaboration, launched by an amazing company called Flexport. Flexport is a transportation and logistics company that has put together a chain of logistics components to help with getting and transporting medical supplies to the hospitals and facilities that need them. It already has all sorts of team members like Ron Conway, Edward Norton and Arnold Schwarzenegger to promote the campaign and has also received very, very, very generous contributions from many of them. It's certainly tracking to be a very big fundraiser. It's a great example of the scale of help that the platform can generate.

What is GoFundMe doing now that's different from before?

We haven't ever autocreated campaigns for folks. It's a function of the unique circumstances we're in. We thought it made sense to try and be proactive here, given the scale of the problem. Our focus is very simple. It's like: What can we do quickly that can help provide a conduit for others to help? And then let's move heaven and earth.

Because they're autogenerated, one of the dimensions of promoting the initiative is making sure that businesses are aware that these campaigns have been created. That way, they can claim themselves as the beneficiary and modify the title and description if they want to. But also, if businesses want to opt out — we totally understand some people might not want this. They can opt out and close their campaign. In that case, if there have been any donations, those donations, depending on the donors' wishes, would either be refunded or moved into the general relief fund. It's uncharted territory.


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Is this a signal that the purpose of GoFundMe is changing?

Overall, I would say no. The vast majority of campaigns being created are still by people and organizations. So that hasn't changed. We're always looking for how to make it easier for people to both get help and to help others. In a time like this, if there are extraordinary things that we can do and that we can create, we are doing those. The fundamental tenor of GoFundMe is the same.

If people start relying on GoFundMe to fulfill their needs, how big can that get? Can that last forever?

We think about it as: How can we do as much as possible? How deep and broad is the well of generosity? It's very deep and broad. There is an enormous number of people that want to help, and they want to help in specific ways. We have a unique ability to help people harness that desire to be generous. But to answer your question, what is the maximum potential of GoFundMe? I don't know. We are by no means the only solution. We all hope that there's going to be some more government aid. But we have a role and, you know, it's sort of our duty to do everything we possibly can to use our platform.

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