Right-Wing Crowdfunding Clashes With Idealistic Mission
It was shortly before Christmas in 2018, and GoFundMe employees were furious.
A political activist and United States Air Force veteran named Brian Kolfage had launched a fundraising campaign on the website to raise money to build a wall for President Trump on the United States’ southern border, and the company had decided that it didn’t violate its policies.
Company executives delivered the news at a tense and well-attended internal all-hands meeting, provoking anger throughout the startup’s idealistic employee base — from its headquarters in California’s Redwood City to its offices in San Diego, just a few miles from the Mexican border.
Some workers viewed the provocative campaign as an implicit violation of the crowdfunding company’s policies and mission; others were personally politically opposed. And many GoFundMe users felt similarly. Angry members of the public flooded GoFundMe’s reporting tools with hundreds of thousands of angry complaints — throwing the internal “trust and safety” team tasked with policing the site into disarray and crashing internal systems, leaving employees unable to make updates to other, unrelated fundraising campaigns.
The Wall campaign ultimately ended ignominiously. After Kolfage allegedly tried to use donations he said would go to the US government and divert them into a private non-profit instead, GoFundMe issued refunds for donors. A little over two years later, New York prosecutors charged Kolfage and his fellow organizers with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. (He goes to trial later in 2022, and has decried the charges as “politically motivated.”)
But while Kolfage’s barrier separating the United States and its southern neighbor never materialized, his campaign succeeded in driving a wedge within GoFundMe itself. The refunds to donors weren’t enough to tamp down employee anger at the company, with several employees quitting in frustration following the campaign. (The exact number of exits isn’t clear. Estimates range from a handful to more than a dozen). Roughly three years later, the legacy of the Wall campaign continues to cast a long shadow over GoFundMe’s strategy.
Both COVID and the 2020 election resulted in some very unusual and unexpected kinds of fundraisers that the company wasn’t prepared for
GoFundMe built a brand around positive change, helping others, and doing social good. “There’s a part of every one of us that dreams of a better world,” the company’s mission statement says. It has championed myriad worthy causes, from racial equity to natural disaster relief, and has raised more than $15 billion over the years from 200 million donations. During the pandemic, it became a lifeline for countless Americans.
But GoFundMe’s success becoming the go-to place to raise money from strangers has also put it at the heart of some of the most contentious political fights of the past few years — from Trump rallies to COVID-19 protests — testing its rules and its mission. While some employees believe the spate of populist fundraising campaigns, however unsavory, should be permitted so long as they are within the existing rules, another camp has pushed GoFundMe to take stronger action on campaigns that appear to be contrary to the company’s mission — even if they do not clearly break its terms of service.
“Both COVID and the 2020 election resulted in some very unusual and unexpected kinds of fundraisers that the company wasn’t prepared for,” a former employee said about the past few years. “GoFundMe doesn’t want to facilitate spreading misinformation, but you have to be mindful of people’s beliefs.”
The dilemma comes as speculation mounts that GoFundMe could be preparing for an initial public offering. And it has thrown GoFundMe and its employees into an identity crisis: What happens when building a “better world” becomes a political act?
With its roots in San Diego in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, GoFundMe lets people set up crowdfunding campaigns to solicit donations in times of crisis, to support others, and for causes they care about. For many of the millions of people who have given money to a GoFundMe campaign, the causes often involve helping people pay medical bills or college funds.
The do-gooder company has been led since 2020 by Tim Cadogan, a former advertising technology executive who also worked for years as a search-and-rescue volunteer in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. (In 2015, cofounders Brad Damphousse and Andrew Ballester sold the company to venture capital firms Accel Partners and Technology Crossover Ventures.)
GoFundMe declined to make Cadogan available for an interview or answer any of Business Insider’s questions.
For many employees, it’s a organization with a powerful sense of mission — a rewarding opportunity to help people at scale when they need it most. It can also be grueling, emotionally difficult work, particularly for those on the frontlines working with customers in the throes of various hardships. “You’re working with people on some of the worst days of their lives,” said one former employee.
By early 2020, GoFundMe had netted $5 billion in donations, earning it the title of “the biggest crowdfunding platform on the planet.” But when the pandemic started, it further elevated the company’s profile — and took working at the company to a new level of intensity. An unprecedented wave of people across the globe fell sick, lost their jobs, said goodbye to loved ones, and experienced myriad other crises. Many turned to GoFundMe for help.
A national reckoning with racism in the United States, wildfires and natural disasters around the world, and other flashpoints only added to the deluge of campaigns on the site.
For employees at the company, a job based on doing good deeds and helping others was suddenly incredibly stressful, despite extensive mental health support from the company.
“It felt like my whole life revolved around tragedy,” said another former employee of the time. “Covid was happening, George Floyd was happening, Asian violence was happening, there was massive floods in Spain, Germany. It’s kind of like a culmination of every bad thing in the world that could happen, was happening at one time, and we were just in it.”
For the first time, GoFundMe was forced to hire contractors to supplement its full-time staff to deal with the influx of usage, with more campaigns than ever before on the platform.
Around the same time as the pandemic-driven surge in GoFundMe campaigns, the hyper partisanship kindled by the Trump presidency hit the site with full force.
Divisive causes like the border wall campaign a few years prior now appeared on the site with increasing frequency. Within GoFundMe, deciding what was acceptable and what crossed the line was no easier than getting Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress to see eye to eye on an issue.
You can’t have it both ways, you can’t make money off the misinformation, and also make money off the funerals
The company’s rules ban misinformation related to vaccines, yet allow fundraisers for campaigns against masks and vaccine mandates that can rely on dubious scientific arguments. Taking a page from social media sites, GoFundMe addressed the issue by adding a small info-box to certain pages that displayed links to the CDC and the World Health Organization sites — a middle-ground that irked some employees.
“It’s a uniquely GoFundMe problem. Facebook can get away with putting up a label on their page,” a former employee told Insider. “But GoFundMe putting up a label on a misinformation page, that’s real money … you can’t have it both ways, you can’t make money off the misinformation, and also make money off the funerals.”
The racial tension roiling the country also played out on GoFundMe as fundraisers related to the killing of George Floyd and other people of color by police officers presented the company with difficult choices.
A fundraiser for Floyd’s family broke records for the number of individual donors. But the platform was also popular with fundraisers for police officers, with campaigns raising money for the families of slain Black people sometimes appearing alongside “Blue Lives Matter” pro-cop campaigns.
GoFundMe has long banned campaigns to support people accused of violent crimes, and it worked to shut down fundraisers for the legal support of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering Floyd. Its rules do, however, allow campaigns aimed at supporting the families of such cops — like a $178,000 campaign to support the family of Daniel Pantaleo, the New York officer who was fired after placing Eric Garner in a lethal chokehold in 2019.
A number of employees were unsettled by the awkward juxtaposition, with some grumbling among themselves and others complaining to the trust and safety team in an attempt to get specific pro-cop campaigns taken down, albeit to little effect. “I remember a good amount of us felt that you can’t fight for Black justice … and also support the police at the same time,” an employee from the time said. “It felt dirty.”
The company holds regular internal all-hands meetings organized by the company, which can become forums for discussing controversial policy decisions and fielding questions from employees. And at times, some workers were uncomfortable about assignments to assist fundraisers they disagreed with politically, but felt the company gave them no choice but to participate.
GoFundMe’s policy unit is split into two wings: Trust and Safety. The Trust group is reactive in nature, investigating claims of fraud and problems that have flared up on the platform. Safety is more proactive, categorizing fundraisers, reaching out to large campaigns, and making sure that it’s ready for major events, from hurricanes to social unrest, that could drive a surge in usage.
One such event was on January 6, 2021, when Trump held a rally in Washington DC to fire up his supporters about the false claim that the 2020 election was rigged. Thousands of Trump supporters traveled from all over the country to attend the rally, and they used GoFundMe to raise money for gas, transport, and other costs.
After the rally turned violent and throngs of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol Building, GoFundMe reversed course and banned the rallygoers’ campaigns for food and gas money.
The company’s quick reaction won praise internally, even though it meant that GoFundMe had essentially stuck its neck further out into the crossfire of partisan politics.
When the next major right-wing protest erupted almost exactly a year later — this time in Canada — GoFundMe was a central actor in the drama. In January 2022, truckers angry with the country’s vaccine mandates blockaded downtown Ottawa in a “Freedom Convoy.” More than $7 million in donations poured in to support them.
After initially allowing Freedom Trucker campaigns, GoFundMe banned them in early February 2022, saying it had seen “evidence from law enforcement that the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity.”
GoFundMe’s move was part of a broader crackdown on the truckers, including rules by the Canadian government to block cryptocurrency transactions tied to the Freedom Convoy. But critics on the right seized on GoFundMe’s move, viewing it as taking sides. Texas, Missouri, West Virginia, and Florida all said they would investigate the company after it blocked the Freedom Convoy campaign, with Republican politicians like Ted Cruz accusing it of “deceiving customers.”
The politically-charged scrutiny facing GoFundMe parallels the experience of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, whose policies about what content to allow in users’ feeds now serve as ever ready fodder for critics seeking evidence of bias.
But while news and discussion about hot-button topics is standard fare on social media, it’s just a tiny part of GoFundMe’s business. The vast majority of the campaigns on the platform are what’s known internally as “MME”: Medical, Memorial, Emergency. These three categories alone make up more than half of the company’s revenues, said one source.
However, GoFundMe wants to expand into other areas. In 2019, it launched “Causes,” letting people donate to ongoing pots that support issues they care about, from Learning & Education to Mental Health. It has an internal initiative dedicated to “Category Expansion.” And it’s trying to offer its services to established charities as a new way for them to solicit donations.
The company has been consistently profitable for years, and there is persistent internal speculation about a possible IPO. It has made some recent big-name hires, like chief marketing officer Musa Tariq (formerly of Airbnb), and a CFO with what GoFundMe called “a successful track record with both private and public companies” (but who left 5 months later), as well as a bevvy of experienced new board members in the summer of 2021.
The company hasn’t told its employees — many of whom hold stock — anything about going public, but some are reading the tea-leaves and predicting an impending
event. “A company doesn’t do that unless they’re going to make the big move,” a former employee said of the recent appointments. “That kind of horsepower is quite expensive. … everyone became quite convinced that’s what’s going on.”
For every step closer GoFundMe gets to a potential IPO, the specter of partisan politics is not far behind, threatening to upset and upend its idealistic business model. The company is trying to balance being an open and neutral platform with a desire to openly champion some causes with direct donations and resources, like access to healthcare and combating anti-Asian violence.
Meanwhile GiveSendGo, an upstart rival crowdfunding site, has carved out a niche itself as the home for populist campaigns that GoFundMe boots off its platform, including a legal defense fundraiser for Derek Chauvin and a variety of pro-trucker protest funds.
“You have to acknowledge that yes, it’s still a business,” said a former GoFundMe employee who supported the company’s decision to keep the 2018 Wall campaign up. “In order to have all these perks we love so much about working for GoFundMe, part of that is keeping it an open platform … allowing as many people as possible to use the platform.”