Last summer, torrential rains dumped 7 trillion gallons of water on Louisiana, sparking flash floods and setting homes adrift. As images of devastation looped across the nightly news, on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe there were flickers of hope—in the form of digital payments. Moses Wells, a commercial fisherman in Edgewater, Maryland, started a GoFundMe campaign to deliver emergency supplies. “I’m raising money and donations to make multiple trips in a large box truck,” he announced, and $2,381 poured in. In Boston, Louisiana State University fans raised $3,829 to help their bayou-based Tigers. In Texas, a Louisiana native organized an effort on behalf of his hometown: “Please help us as we are just Humans Helping Humans!” Donors responded with $12,403. By the end of the year, funding efforts for Louisiana flood victims had raised $11.2 million.
Humans helping humans has helped GoFundMe quietly become the biggest crowdfunding platform on the planet, responsible for more than $3 billion since its launch in 2010. It can now bring in as much as $140 million a month in donations, and generated an estimated $100 million in 2016 revenue. (A for-profit enterprise, it levies a 5% fee on campaigns, in line with other crowdfunding sites.) GoFundMe started as a bootstrapped operation that found its audience in the heartland by embracing virtually any personal cause, from honeyfunds to memorials. While coastal-centric crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo kept their focus on project-based campaigns, GoFundMe connected with families staring down foreclosure, medical bills, and tuition debt. Then, in the summer of 2015, investors, including Accel (which backed Facebook in 2005), acquired and recapitalized GoFundMe, seeking to build on its success and create a fundraising behemoth.
The key to this transformation has been GoFundMe’s cultivation of a new kind of campaign organizer: not just people looking for funds for themselves, but the proverbial Good Samaritan who jumped in after the Louisiana floods. At a basic level, Good Samaritans translate into more campaigns and more activated social networks. Add up their efforts, and the impact is profound: a realignment of how charitable aid is collected and distributed, especially in the United States. GoFundMe can raise millions in response to natural disasters and major news events—$9 million for victims of the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, $7.8 million for protesters at Standing Rock, $3 million for Hurricane Matthew relief. In each case, the company provided distant bystanders with easy means to take action, and then worked behind the scenes to make their efforts go viral. Where the government and community organizations can’t (or won’t) help, there’s GoFundMe. “The needs are gigantic,” says chairman and CEO Rob Solomon. “If the holes weren’t huge and gaping, GoFundMe wouldn’t need to exist. We’re this digital safety net”—with more than 25 million donors eagerly holding it up.
At a time when Twitter spats and Insta-glamour seem to dominate the hype cycle, GoFundMe has turned the old-fashioned value of neighborliness into an animating principle. “We’re trying to encourage people to look around them and see who might need help,” says Solomon, a former Groupon and Yahoo executive who joined GoFundMe as part of its mid-2015 reinvention. Under his watch, GoFundMe has stayed true to its heartland roots while becoming a tech-world star. “We talk a lot in Silicon Valley about technology changing the world,” he says, “[but individuals] haven’t been empowered to change their worlds all that much.”
GoFundMe gives them control, thanks to a finely tuned product that optimizes for a “pay it forward” ethos. On campaign pages, for example, there is no simple Facebook-style “like” button, which would allow people to feel as though they’re engaging with a project—without contributing to it. “Likes didn’t actually help anyone,” says chief technology officer Ujjwal Singh of GoFundMe’s early experiments with the button. “It was an easy way out.” Instead, visitors are given three options: donate, share on Facebook, or tweet. Similarly, in the automated emails that acknowledge donations, GoFundMe encourages sharing by telling people how much their promotion could be worth, in dollar terms, based on analyses of past campaigns. “That’s had a dramatic impact on people sharing more,” says Singh. When clicking “Post To Facebook” could be worth $100, it’s hard to say no.
This idea—that a modicum of effort can produce outsize results—translates into a new, viral mode of giving. In November, Arizona teacher Lisa Fandrich started a GoFundMe page on behalf of 76-year-old Paul Lomax, whom she had often seen selling copper coins on a busy corner in the Phoenix heat. “Why is a man of his advanced age out here?” she recalls thinking. She pulled over to talk with him, and then turned to GoFundMe. She raised more than $30,000. “Our elderly are not making it,” says Fandrich, who worries about Lomax’s ability to care for his wife and his house, which is in disrepair. She attributes the campaign’s success (she initially set a target of $5,000) to the public’s hunger for good news. “People are so tired of the negativity on the news and social media,” she says. “They want something to believe in.” The site currently hosts 100,000 campaigns a month.
GoFundMe owes its explosive reach to its ability to widely disseminate the good news that’s taking place on its service. “We view ourselves as a content-distribution machine,” says Dan Pfeiffer, who joined GoFundMe as its communications and policy chief in late 2015, after serving as a longtime adviser to President Obama. Pfeiffer’s mandate is to help campaigns achieve breakout growth by seeding stories about them on social and traditional media. “In a world where the internet is starving for content, GoFundMe has more than almost any company,” he says. All he needs is a Good Samaritan at the center of the story: “The campaigns that go really big are the ones where strangers are giving.”
Pfeiffer and his staff constantly monitor the platform for campaigns with a spike in shares or donations per minute. From there, they start pitching local press; as a story picks up, they reach out to a combination of legacy outlets (NBC’s Today, USA Today) and share-friendly digital media, including BuzzFeed and Refinery29. When a story starts to fade, they find ways to bring it back—publishing a list of the top campaigns by state, for example. Last fall, $384,260 in donations poured in to establish a makeshift retirement fund for Fidencio Sanchez, an 89-year-old Chicago Popsicle-cart vendor, after the story was picked up by Chicago-area TV and radio, CNN, and more. In another era, in another place, a church or government program might have provided aging Americans like Sanchez with relief. No longer. “GoFundMe presents a more efficient and effective way to access help,” says Pfeiffer.
GoFundMe’s agnostic embrace of campaigns has served it well. While many organizers tug at the heartstrings (campaigns for children and pets consistently do well), just about any cause is fair game—even fundraising for an abortion, which the company previously banned, is now permitted within legal bounds. Increasingly, the crowdfunding service is a vehicle to push political buttons. A search for “Planned Parenthood,” for example, returns campaigns to help the organization alongside pages dedicated to replacing it. Solomon isn’t concerned. “We’re a neutral platform that’s empowering people to help people,” he says. “It isn’t up to me or the right or the left to be the arbiter of worthy causes.”
In the coming months, it may become more difficult for GoFundMe to maintain this nonpartisan posture. But for Solomon, the current political environment—in which major government investments in struggling communities have been stymied by partisan gridlock and distrust—underscores the company’s broader opportunity. In January, GoFundMe acquired nonprofit fundraising platform CrowdRise, which has built Facebook-style pages for its members, in a bet that millions more people are interested in defining themselves based on the causes they support. “I don’t think we’re going to solve [through public policy] the education problems, the medical problems, for years,” Solomon says. “There’s a populist movement around effecting change.” And GoFundMe is its Good Samaritan.
This article is part of our coverage of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2017.