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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. Cadogan, who joined the non-profit crowdfunding platform in March 2020 for the purpose of learning more about the company, sought out employees to help him. “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 was a McKinsey consulting veteran who ran OpenX, an advertising-tech provider, for nearly a dozen year as its chief executive. Cadogan joined GoFundMe shortly before COVID-19 was officially declared a worldwide pandemic. The platform saw a surge in activity as more people searched for assistance to pay rent, food and their medical bills. Next came 2020’s summer, which saw GoFundMe surpassing all previous records for raising the most donations for a single campaign. More than 500,000 individuals raised $15 million to support the Official George Floyd Memorial Fund.
Cadogan was part of the recent TIME Charter Workplace Summit. I talked to him about shaping social impact, managing remote teams, and concerns about new hybrid work.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
GoFundMe was founded in March 2020 at an interesting moment when the pandemic was transforming everything around work. You can tell us how that transition was 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. We were going through that process of transitioning in the work we did, but there was an even bigger transition regarding the use of the platform.
Our job was: Let’s figure out as fast as possible, how do we get used to working together in this new way? What can we do to assist the increasing number of people seeking help through our platform? In a sense, the internal issues became secondary. 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 need to be willing to try new things. We did. It was not difficult to figure out quickly how we could take care of people as they came onto the platform.
And to navigate that time personally, I’m wondering whether you learned anything new about how you manage people and processes?
It was. You know, it’s the best part about being adaptable. It was intimidating for me to start a new business. Coming from another sector, I had to learn about a brand new business and a company. This was at a crucial time when the demand for that product or system was increasing dramatically. It was an intense learning experience. Before I started the company, I created what I refer to as an open-source curriculum. It is basically a list of subjects that I would like the company experts to cover. Their students would take me on as their student. My plan included that they would meet with me personally to teach me, which would allow me to get acquainted with people and gain knowledge from them about their company.
It was necessary to move to a virtual system, but this allowed for a more intimate way to meet people. This also changed the power dynamic. 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.
We also discussed learning how to accomplish the tasks you thought you’d have to perform in a 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. This meant you needed to be a little slower and communicate clearly, more specifically than you ever have before. And I actually think that’s a benefit.
What other ways did you get to be a part of the culture?
Here are a few 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. This was a time to get together, share our thoughts and discuss the week. Normaly I would do it once per month. And then just setting up a lot of these introductory meetings as I’m here to learn.
Then, What can you do to help me? Versus, This is what I require.Therefore, it was necessary to change the way that people in leadership approach things. Again, we were not just dealing with a change in our work methods, but everyone was also dealing with an abundance of emotional stress. It’s a pandemic. What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen? All of these things are going on in people’s lives. We were able to be 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. The policies were quickly adapted to the unique and often stressful circumstances.
Many people think about going back to work. Is your team ready for this? How do you go about doing this globally?
Yes, indeed. Our offices are located in San Diego, LA and the Bay Area. We also have offices in Dublin. Our team also includes people in Australia, Germany and the UK. We’re running 19 markets.
The safety basics are the first. The U.S. government required that all employees returning to work be immunized several months back. 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. Imagine a world with three people, and two on a phone 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. A single screen is 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. What can you do to do this?
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. It worked out well. 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.
Many employees expect companies and CEOs to have a social or political stance. 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?
GoFundMe can be described as a social impact platform. We enable people to request help, and we also help them to provide it. We do something that has social benefit and social value. I think that’s a driving reason why every single person who comes to work at GoFundMe does that. It is a bit more different from other companies who do something, then try to make a positive impact on society. In our case, that’s the point of the company.
What does this mean? It means we can look within the community and see who is asking for our help. This helps us to determine what we can do to help, support, and perhaps amplify those problems. We saw significant increases in all dimensions of COVID-related campaigns earlier this year. It became clear that many people were in pain. Congress debated how much aid should be given to people who were suffering from all of these effects. 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? It’s a very simple concept.
Many of the GoFundMe fundraisers relate 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. We have made a variety of efforts to assist people in utilizing the Affordable Care Act. An earlier open enrollment period was held, which we posted on our website, encouraging everyone to apply for insurance. We have sent out emails in the past few weeks to anyone who might organize fundraising events for the ACA, informing them of the opening period.
There were a number of fundraising events around the terrible AAPI attack, especially on older Asians. So we allowed those fundraisers. But we also set up the AAPI fund which raised $7 billion. This fund is managed by GoFundMe.org, a sister organisation of ours that provides funds for local charities who are supporting AAPI in various ways.
Which direction do you see the future of work going? What are your top tips for CEOs?
Keep agile. 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. Combining these two elements creates a wonderful opportunity for employees to achieve the highest level of performance in their work lives. This is exactly what I believe people want.