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With a global community of donors who’ve raised over $15 billion, GoFundMe pays close attention to what helps people feel comfortable seeking assistance.
That also happens to be one of CEO Tim Cadogan’s missions within the company: Communicating that it’s okay to ask for help. When Cadogan joined the for-profit crowdfunding platform in March 2020, for instance, he sought out key employees who could help him understand important aspects of the business. “I was asking people to create a bit of time, even while things were very, very busy, to educate me,” he says. “Really the main thing you’re trying to do, as in so many aspects of life, is you’re trying to build a relationship of trust. That’s something that we do in our personal lives.”
Cadogan, a former McKinsey consultant who led ad-tech provider OpenX as chief executive for close to a dozen years, started at GoFundMe just days before the WHO labeled COVID-19 a global pandemic. Activity on the platform was hitting new heights as increasing numbers of people looked for help to pay for food, rent, and medical bills. Then came the summer of 2020, when GoFundMe set a record for its highest number of donations in a single campaign: More than 500,000 people raised close to $15 million for the Official George Floyd Memorial Fund.
As part of a recent TIME co-sponsored Charter Workplace Summit, I spoke to Cadogan about his thoughts on shaping social impact, leading teams in a remote environment and his worries about the new era of hybrid work.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
You joined GoFundMe at a very interesting time: March of 2020, as the pandemic was changing everything about work. How has that transition been for you?
We had to transition very quickly, and by the end of my first week, we said, ‘We’re going to go to fully distributed.’ I have to say that for a company like ours, where primarily we’re doing knowledge work, it was difficult, but I just want to note that it’s nowhere near as difficult as the situation of people who still had to work in a physical environment–which is many, many people in our economy. And while we were making that transition in the way that we worked, there was a big transition happening in terms of the use of our platform.
Our job was: Let’s figure out as fast as possible, how do we get used to working together in this new way? How do we help the large increase in people who need help, who are using our platform, to ask for that? And so, in a way, our internal challenges fell to the background. It was pretty much: Figure it out, because there are people who are facing situations far worse than us having to work in a room that isn’t configured very well for wifi. And that’s what we did. Sometimes you just have to just do it, and we did. We worked out pretty quickly how to take care of folks as they were flooding into the platform.
And to navigate that time personally, I’m wondering whether you learned anything new about how you manage people and processes?
Definitely did. I mean, I think it really is the classic of being very adaptable. I found it intimidating to learn a completely new business. I came from a very different sector, so I needed to learn a new business, a new company, a new set of people at a time in which the usage of that product and system was going up massively. So it was a lot of learning. And one thing I had done before I joined the company is I laid out what I call an open-source learning curriculum, which is basically a whole set of topics that I wanted the experts at the company to teach me. I would be the student and they would teach me. And of course, part of my plan was they would do that in person, so I would get to know people as well as learning from their expertise about the company.
Then we had to shift to a virtual mechanism, but it was a good way of getting to know people in this new way in somewhat smaller groups. And it sort of shifted the power dynamic as well. It’s like, look, I’m the student, you know what you’re doing, help me understand what you do, how it works, what challenges you faced and how maybe I can help.
The other thing we talked about was learning to do the things that you knew you would have to do, but in a completely new way. For example, I’m starting to change some elements of the organization. Typically when you do that in a company, you take the time to get to know people, you identify the issues you have to work on, and then you work through those situations in a room where you can kind of read people’s body language. You can understand what’s setting them off, and navigate that using both verbal communication and nonverbal communication, which is incredibly important for humans.
This format isn’t so great at nonverbal communication. It meant that I found you had to go a bit slower, and you had to communicate more clearly and more explicitly than ever before. And I actually think that’s a benefit.
Were there any other things you did to root yourself into the culture?
A couple of things. I mean, really the main thing you’re trying to do, as in so many aspects of life, is you’re trying to build a relationship of trust. Doing a weekly town hall, which was much more than we’d done before. It was just a chance to be together and to talk through whatever was hot that week. Normally I would have done a more traditional once a month. And then just setting up a lot of these introductory meetings as I’m here to learn.
And then, how can I help? Versus, I need you to do this. So adjusting the approach and the tone and positioning any of the folks in leadership has had. Because again, not only were we dealing with a difference in how we worked, but also everyone was dealing with a lot of emotional stress. This is a pandemic. What’s going to happen? Am I going to get sick? All of these things are going on in people’s lives. So we got very flexible. If you’re a parent and you had particularly smaller kids, where it’s much tougher to navigate their schooling at home, just do what you need to do. We quickly created a set of policies that addressed and accommodated the very unusual and stressful situation with people.
Something a lot of people are contemplating now is going back to the office. How are you preparing your team for it? And how are you doing that globally?
Yeah, we do. Just so people know, we have offices in San Diego, LA, in the bay area, but also in Dublin. We also have team members in the UK, Germany, Australia. We’re running 19 markets.
First, the fundamentals in terms of safety. Several months ago we made it clear that if you wanted to come back to work you needed to be vaccinated in the U.S. So that’s in place. There are also a set of tools that we’ve put in place that we are not yet using, cause we’re not yet back to the physical work environment, that will allow you to check in, to give a health status, and to reserve desks.
We’re going to be a little bit more fluid with the team. What I’m candidly more worried about is, people call it “going back to work,” which is not what it is. It’s not really going back. I think we are going forward to something that is different from anything we’ve seen to date, which is a hybrid work environment. I don’t think we’re ever, probably, going back to that situation where everyone’s in the office every day, five days a week. I just don’t see that, not least because we’ve had, and I’m sure many other companies have had, a bunch of people move to other places.
So I’m actually quite worried about how we’re going to navigate to a hybrid environment. It’s going to get a lot more complicated. This situation where everyone has got one screen, in a sense, it’s been a great leveler. Everyone’s got a screen, everyone’s on the same playing field. Going to a world where there are three people in the room, two people on a call. It’s going to be pretty difficult trying to find that right balance. And I think it’s going to take a lot of experimentation as to what are the best communication methods. What are the sort of clear three or four rules that you’ll have to adopt to make sure that everyone is an equal participant in the conversation? And I don’t know the answer to that yet. We’ve got a bunch of ideas. One is like one screen, one person. You know, even if you’re in the room, you have your own screen. But I’m anxious about it because I think it’s going to be in some ways more challenging than the move to 100% remote where everyone was in the same situation.
You’ve said your management style is very much one where it’s okay to ask for help. How do you do that?
We have drafted a distributed work playbook, which we continue to update, which is sort of, these are our thoughts on how we’re going to work together, how we’re going to pull this off. But we have shared very clearly, as we go back to work, which we’re hoping is early in the new year, that it’s going to be an experiment for the first little bit. And in fact, we’ve asked different teams, hey, if you want to try working this way, please try that and then tell everybody else and we’ll sort of report it back out. How did it go? What was good about that way of communicating and what wasn’t so good? And hopefully we’re going a few different groups, doing things in different ways.
So it’s just being open to the fact that we’ve got to figure this out together. We don’t have all the answers, we have some directions and let’s work the problem.
A large portion of workers now expect CEOs and companies to take a stance on social and political issues. How does that affect how you manage these days, how you think about your role and the company’s role in society? Are there examples of political stances you’ve wrestled with recently?
Look, GoFundMe is a social impact system, right? What we do is, we enable people to ask for help and to give help. Inherently, what we do has social impact and social value. I think that’s a driving reason why every single person who comes to work at GoFundMe does that. So it is perhaps a little bit different than some companies that do something and then want to also have a social impact they sort of wrap around what they do. In our case, that’s the point of the company.
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So what that also leads to is, we can see within our community, what are people asking for help for? And that generally guides us as to what else can we do to provide help and support and maybe amplify those issues? Earlier this year, unsurprisingly, during the third or the fourth wave of COVID in the winter, we saw a real uptick in campaigns related to all the dimensions of COVID. It was pretty clear that a lot of people were suffering. At that point, Congress was debating how much relief do we put into the economy to help people that are struggling with all these consequences. And so it makes sense for us to put our hand up and say, here’s the data that we’re seeing, and could you please take action and get help to people? Which I view as a pretty simple thing.
Also, quite a lot of the fundraisers on GoFundMe are related to medical expenses. And as a lot of people know, in the U.S. medical expenses are very high and a lot of people don’t have adequate coverage. So we have done a number of things just this year to help people avail themselves of the Affordable Care Act. There was a special open enrollment period earlier this year, and we advertised that on our home page, encouraging people to go and get themselves coverage. And in fact, we just recently in the last couple of weeks sent emails to people who would organize medical fundraisers, to be aware that the standard open enrollment period for the ACA is now open.
We saw a series of fundraisers around this horrific spate of AAPI attacks, particularly on elderly Asian people. And so we enabled those fundraisers, but we also put together the AAPI fund, which has raised about $7 million. And that runs through a sister organization of ours called GoFundMe.org that grants out funds to local charities that are helping with various aspects of AAPI support.
Where do you think the future of work is headed? What do you want other CEOs to know?
Stay nimble. It’s very simple. More and more people want very clear purpose on what they’re working on, and then they want flexibility in how they go about that work. As an employer, if you’re providing clear purpose and you’re giving people the support and the means to be effective, people can work in all kinds of ways we don’t expect. Put those two things together and you create a great opportunity for people to do the best work of their lives, which I think is what people are looking for.
Correction: A previous version of this story said GoFundMe’s AAPI fund raised about $7 billion. In fact, the figure was roughly $7 million.
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