Tim Cadogan started his first day as CEO of GoFundMe about two weeks before the pandemic wrecked the world. He knew he was joining a company that tried to help people make extra money. He didn't know his company would become a lifeline for millions of Americans who couldn't pay their bills or put food on the table.
And so after a year in which millions of people have asked for help from strangers on GoFundMe, and at least $600 million has been raised (that number could be as much as $1 billion or more now, but GoFundMe didn't provide fundraising data past August) just for coronavirus-related financial crises, Cadogan has had enough. On Thursday, he wrote an open letter to Congress calling for a massive federal aid package aimed at addressing people's fundamental needs. In an unusual call for federal action from a tech CEO, Cadogan wrote that GoFundMe should not and can never replace generous Congressional aid for people who are truly struggling.
"I don't look at it actually as political. We've got facts, we should share them," Cadogan told Protocol. Given the ongoing negotiations over a new federal aid package, Cadogan said he felt it was his duty to speak out. "There are many millions of people who urgently need help."
In mid-March, the first wave of pleas on GoFundMe focused on help for struggling small businesses, a pattern the site had never witnessed before. Campaigns for PPE came next, and then for everyday financial needs. The wave fell a bit in early fall (perhaps coinciding with the gradual reopening of businesses), and then the scariest trends sharpened as winter rolled in and the pandemic worsened.
People couldn't pay their bills, and they couldn't put food on the table. Their relatives were dying, and health care costs were escalating. When it became clear the need was overwhelming, acute and not going away anytime soon, the company launched a new fundraising category in October called "Rent, Food, Monthly Bills." In December, even after Congress passed another relief bill, the number of people asking for help was higher than in May, the peak of the pandemic's first wave.
"They need help with rent. They need help to get food. They need help with basic bills," Cadogan explained. "It's nothing fancy. It's the basics. That's what people need help with to get through this period." It seems obvious that Congress should help fix that, he said.
Reckoning with what's technically a pandemic success story for GoFundMe has been at times emotionally overwhelming for Cadogan and his team. GoFundMe has never had more demand, and it's for all the wrong reasons. The product was never meant for this kind of world, according to Cadogan; it was built to help people fund the better times in life, like study abroad trips and vacations.
"There are the folks on our trust and safety team and happiness team helping these customers directly, and it's a lot to take on," he said. And so they've focused relentlessly on improving their product and hiring new people to meet the demand. Their jobs are not nearly as hard as the lives of the people they are helping, and Cadogan focuses on that context to get himself and his team through each day.
"Our platform was never meant to be a source of support for basic needs, and it can never be a replacement for robust federal COVID-19 relief that is generous and targeted to help the millions of Americans who are struggling," Cadogan wrote in the open letter.