GoFundMe became the world’s largest social fundraising platform off a simple notion: the generosity of others.
CEO Rob Solomon is leading the Redwood City, California company that’s helping people around the world raise money for personal causes, strangers, disaster relief and charities.
His career is a classic example of the growing trend of non-technical people finding their niche in the technology sector.
The Liberal Arts grad jokes about majoring in water polo (it was actually history) at UC Berkeley. During his undergrad, Solomon became fascinated with Silicon Valley, eventually signing up as a video game tester and customer service representative for Electronic Arts shortly after graduating.
Fast forward to 2015, Solomon joined GoFundMe as CEO after leaving behind a COO seat at Groupon where he helped catapult the company from 100 to 7,000 employees. Before that, among other things, Solomon took a turn as Yahoo’s SVP of commerce.
In just seven years, GoFundMe has fuelled one of the fastest growing categories for donation: personal cause crowdfunding. The GoFundMe platform made it possible for 40 million people to donate $4 billion since the company launched. In 2016, Forbes named GoFundMe one of the next billion-dollar startups and it is on track to become the world’s largest giving organization within two years.
The high-growth company has created an online environment that’s democratizing donating, supporting campaigns in 18 countries with its team of nearly 300 employees. GoFundMe recently launched a video studio too to tell the life-changing stories of campaigns on the platform.
You saw immense success with scaling Groupon. What led you to join GoFundMe?
Roughly half a trillion dollars is given to charities globally each year. But roughly $500 billion of that is happening through very old fashion methods; a lot of times through a cheque, direct mail and telemarketing.
When you think about the internet—and what it has done for other industries—it has really transformed them, sometimes completely disrupting them. But that really hasn’t happened in the giving space. There’s this gigantic area that hasn’t been disrupted by the internet. So this is one of the next spaces that is going to be transformed.
When I looked at GoFundMe, I saw this global potential to do for the giving space what LinkedIn did for the jobs space, what Amazon has done for e-commerce, what Facebook and Twitter have done for communications, what Netflix has done for entertainment. So I think there is a gigantic opportunity to not only create a special internet company, but an internet company that has a positive impact on the world.
Social fundraising—which is the category that we’re defining in the world—is going to create one of those next big spaces on the internet and we think we’re well positioned to be the category-defining company.
How is social fundraising disrupting the traditional way of giving through a charity?
The old paradigm for fundraising was, “I need help,” and an individual would give you money or send in a cheque. But when you layer asking for help with social media, it turns one donor into hundreds, even thousands of donors sometimes.
It turns one advocate for your cause into an evangelist; where they can talk about a cause and share it broadly.
We want charities to leverage that expertise. We know how to raise money in a social environment better than anyone else in the world. We want to make sure that whether you are the American Cancer Society or the Red Cross, that you have the ability to use those same tools to get into the social fundraising game.
That’s why we have built out an enterprise offering to allow non-profits and charities to use our platform to raise money. The greatest charities in the world are our customers.We’re creating an amazing experience for people to help each other out, and we’re also creating these tools for charities to use our software.
GoFundMe has the feel of a foundation, but it’s a for-profit business. What are some of the challenges that come with that distinction?
While we operate in a space where people help people, we take the point of view that in order to transform the giving world, you have to do it in an internet and mobile-first way. That means you have the best and brightest data scientists and engineers; you’re building it like an Amazon, an eBay or a Netflix. You are leveraging technology to create a whole new way of doing something. In order to do that, you have to have a different approach than a typical non-profit.
GoFundMe is very transparent in that we have a five per cent platform fee. The rest of the funds raised go to the causes. We’re trying to build a software company and provide the best possible service for the fundraisers on our platform.
What is the competition like in the digital fundraising space?
The way we think about competition is that it is very healthy, it shows how important the giving space is. And there are definitely competitors trying to do what we’re doing. But we try to focus on different things. Some of our core company values are to delight the customer, to consider everything, to do the right thing, and a big one is to spread empathy.
In doing those things, we have a special company with a special culture and I think that allows us to compete with the top contenders for the throne. Anyone that wants to do this is going to have to do it much better than us, and we hold ourselves to a very high standard.
We take giving very seriously. We have the only guarantee in the industry and it protects our users. You need to have a trusted brand in this space to fundraise and to collect money.
There have been some cases of people abusing the platform. How does GoFundMe monitor the integrity of the causes?
All fundraising on GoFundMe happens out in the open, in the village square. The typical campaign almost exclusively receives its first set of donations from friends, family and the local community. So the community helps us police the system. We also have an internal team of experts in the trust and safety universe who monitor the platform.
Fraudulent campaigns make up a very small percentage of any of the campaigns on GoFundMe. It’s well under one-tenth of one per cent of all campaigns. We take very swift action anytime we receive notice of an issue.
We have layers of protection in place to ensure security, including proprietary fraud prevention tools.
When you get to the scale we’re at—50 to 60 million visitors on a monthly basis—we’ve become part of the social fabric in many countries. We’re a part of the zeitgeist.
When news events happen in the world, GoFundMe is a big part of the story now.
There’s this fundraising component where we are helping people and then there is this notion of moving from compassion into action, where people see something happen and want to help.
What was the catalyst for GoFundMe to launch a content studio?
When you dig into GoFundMe, it’s a human interest goldmine. There are tens of thousands of compelling stories.
That is what GoFundMe really is; a storytelling platform but more importantly a story changing platform.
When hundreds of thousands of dollars are committed to a campaign, it changes that person’s story. The reason we went after the notion of a studio is to tell the stories of the campaigners on our platform to essentially bring awareness.
How is a platform like GoFundMe changing the way Canadians give?
Canada is one of the most generous nations in the world when it comes to donation volume. Canadians donate more money to a GoFundMe campaign than the average user.
We’ve had more than two million Canadians give to campaigns. If you take out kids and people who don’t have credit cards, we’re close to 1 in 10 Canadians that have given to a personal cause on GoFundMe.
In 2016, nearly $70 million was raised by Canadians and this year we’ll see more than that. We’ve had well over $200 million dollars given to Canada-based GoFundMe campaigns.
What’s different about the GoFundMe campaigns that are launched in Canada?
While the healthcare and education systems are stronger in Canada than in the United States, we still see a large number of campaigners raising for medical-related reasons. You may have had an operation that takes you out of work and can’t afford your rent.
A big part of what I see in Canada is kindness. Strangers helping strangers, it’s a big part of the platform.
There was a campaign in Langley, B.C. for a man named Miguel who sold hotdogs out of the Langley Real Canadian Superstore. Due to health issues, he had to close his stall for some time. One of the shoppers who used to see him there started a GoFundMe campaign to help him with financial strain and more than $5,500 was raised by the Langley community for Miguel, “the hot-dog guy.”
You can feel sorry for Miguel, but actually helping him is what we can do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.