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Special Episode: Giving Back in Today's World

Hosted by Julián Duque, with guests Matt Pfaltzgraf and Brian Wetzel.

More and more people are turning towards fundraising platforms as a way of contributing to the causes they care about. Softgiving is one such service which prides itself on working closely with influencers, pairing them with charities that they care about and helping them set up campaigns on their livestreams. Matt Pfaltzgraf, their CEO, and Brian Wetzel, their CTO, talk with Julián Duque about what makes their platform both unique and successful.


Show notes

Julián Duque, is a Lead Developer Advocate at Heroku. He's interviewing Matt Pfaltzgraf, the CEO at Softgiving, and Brian Wetzel, its CTO. Softgiving is fundraising platform that allows influencers—whether on Twitter, Instagram, Twitch, or other live streams—to create custom campaigns to raise funds for causes they care about. This is done through custom overlays, as well as rewards and gamification. They're also very hands-on with the content creators they work with, dealing with everything from the design to fundraising goals to determining the incentives for donators.

Providing this level of customer service has been both their distinguishing factor as well as the most challenging part of their work. As demand for their platform has grown, it's required them to scale up their processes massively. They've been able to do this by keeping the processes lean, allowing them to iterate rapidly. Their close collaboration with streamers and charities has enabled them to be experts in both what people need and which groups need the most help. Similarly, their tech stack and app are kept very lean. Anything not essential to the Softgiving platform is handed over to another service, such as payment processing.

Transcript

Julián: Hello. Welcome to Code[ish]. My name is Julián Duque. I'm a Lead Developer Advocate here at Heroku and today, we have an episode about giving back in today's world. Today, I have two guests from Softgiving. I have Matt Pfaltzgraf, the founder and CEO and Brian Wetzel, CTO at Softgiving. Hello, Matt and Brian. How are you doing today?

Matt: Doing great.

Julián: Thank you for joining us here today at Code[ish]. Please, why don't you introduce yourself and Matt, tell us a little bit more about you.

Matt: Sure. My name is Matt Pfaltzgraf and I'm the founder and CEO of Softgiving. I started Softgiving just a little over four years ago with the mission to improve the way that charities were able to engage the next generation of donors. Having been on the board of a couple of charities myself, I saw the disconnection, and so I left my job in the payments industry to pursue a passion of mine and four years later, still going at it.

Julián: Awesome. What about you, Brian?

Brian: I've been in FinTech for the last decade or so. Most of that has been in the Atlanta startup scene, building a variety of different Ruby on Rails apps. I started at Softgiving about a year and a half ago and for me, it was a nice switch from using that FinTech skill to build stuff for businesses to then apply that to raise funds for charities.

Julián: Let's tell our listeners about Softgiving, what it is, what are you trying to solve, how are you trying to solve it?

Matt: So Softgiving, we're really two things. First and foremost, we're a fundraising platform that allows influencers, whether they influence on Twitter, Instagram, primarily we focus on live stream influencers. We allow them to create custom campaigns to raise funds for their favorite cause and we do that through our fundraising platform that we build custom overlays for live streams, boot building gamification. We build in easy to manage customer interface around reporting and a digital wallets, all the nine yards. So the latest and greatest and fundraising capabilities, and we do so at no cost to the charity and make it widely available. The other part of Softgiving is we go out there on behalf of the charity and activate influencers and brands on their behalf. And so we're a full service agency and that we really connect all the critical elements to make a successful campaign and bring influencers to charities they may have never heard of about. Bringing brands that have an opportunity to support causes and influencers they care about and a great symbiotic system that allows them to raise more money for the causes that they all collectively care about together.

Julián: Very interesting. So me at, well, I don't consider myself an influencer. That would be a lot to say, but I do have an audience I stream on Twitch to Latin American and Hispanic communities. So I do it in Spanish. So I will be able to use Softgiving to start our fundraising to any costs, any costs or want, or do you recommend causes to influencers?

Matt: You could pick nearly any charity in the world that you would like to raise money for on our platform. And it can go to a Softgiving website, create your campaign and just a couple of minutes and begin loading up your overlays through whichever platform you choose to use stream elements, stream labs. And through that, your audience can then start giving to your campaign. The alerts will start popping up on your stream. Total amounts raise will start increasing. You can execute giveaways for your audience so that by donating they can win prizes. All that you can do today, regardless of the size of your audience.

Julián: So I can imagine this, like you're using celebrities, influencers, you are reaching to a lot of people that is interacting with your platform.

Matt: Millions. And so what we enable the influencer to do typically, influencers, they create content daily, but they don't raise money daily. And so when it comes to activating their audience or to raise money for a cause, they're kind of going into it for the first time, or they're not quite sure what they're doing, or they might have some hesitancy just around wanting to raise money, but wanting it to be a successful campaign. And so that's where we come in and help them through the entire process. If they would like our help to make sure that their campaign is set up in a way that's going to be authentic to their audience and really connect and also create great content that helps them grow their audience all at the same time, raising funds for great causes.

Julián: Everything is online. You're adding all of the different tooling for influencers and charities to start a working online. How is the current situation, like the current events, have impacted Softgiving? Are you seeing like way more activity lately? Like more people raising money for different activities right now? What's it looking like in today's world.

Matt: The events of this year through the Australian wildfires that were only six months ago and in COVID starting in March and the Black Lives Matter movement, all of these events, really, everybody can probably agree, it's been a pretty chaotic year for everybody. And so what that did was it triggered a lot of influencers to, to really think for the first time like, "Hey, this is a cause I care about, I want to get involved. I can't put out wildfires myself. I can't go and help patients infected with COVID. I might not be able to participate in the protest or I want to do more than just participate in the protest." And so that's when they get the passion to want to go out and help these causes. And the next thing they think is like, "Okay, well, what do I need to do next? And how do I do it?"

Matt: And that's when they come to us and say, hey, these things aren't important to me and my audience, how can I make this as effective as possible? And that's when we work with them and really make sure that we tailor that to their audience in a meaningful and impactful way that really speaks to the cause that they're trying to raise funds for. And over the last couple of months, that's expanded to brands that have seen the work that we've done, and they want to get engaged as well. It's really important for them to support causes that their customers care about. And so that's when they've been engaging and reaching to us and we've been activating their philanthropy through our charity streams.

Matt: And so additional funds are being raised and additional items are being given away for those that donate, the gamification has increased. And so it's really been this great relationship where the influencers and the brands have really leaned on each other to raise money for great causes and with everything that's been happening in the world, it just has kept pushing people to do more, which is then just led to more philanthropy and more online fundraising.

Brian: Yeah. I'd also say that it's been affected by the lack of in person event, right. And charity streams, I think have proven to be a fantastic way for charities to be able to raise funds when they couldn't otherwise. And, I don't think it's temporary. I think that what we're really seeing is that it's providing a level of engagement and fundraising that you really can't get in another way.

Julián: I think it's a fantastic that this is a possibility and an opportunity for a lot of people. I have seen like gaming groups and other people jumping into starting doing more charity online. I mean, they have a great reach, a great audience, and normally people are giving money to these influencers just for entertainment. Why not use that space for, "Okay, it's time to give back. I've been on their spotlight for a while and I have built a community." Why don't you use the power of that community to help the people that really needs it. And especially these in this present times. So you mentioned that it's any charity in the world. So if I want to do a fundraising with, let's say a group in Colombia where I'm originally from, can I do it? How can I do the connection between that charity and Softgiving?

Matt: So we partner with a US-based charity called The Givinga Foundation, and what they serve is a connection to charities all over the world. And so if there's a charity that's not currently on our platform and somebody is interested in raising funds for them, we would then reach out to our partner, Givinga Foundation, and provide them the prerequisite information. They would then do the due diligence on that charity, make sure that they're legitimate, that they're registered properly, that the funds are being used how they're supposed to and go through a pretty thorough validation process. And then once that is, has been cleared, then we put them on our platform and the influencer or user can select them to raise funds.

Julián: What has been the biggest challenge specifically in these times that you have seen an increase in people running charities? And I'm not talking right now on at a technical level, because obviously there is a technical challenge involved that we want to discuss later, but besides that technical aspect, what has been the most difficult or challenging part of the current events that we are experiencing?

Matt: I would say for Softgiving the most challenging, the biggest challenges that we've run into is you have a lot of people doing it for the first time. And so there's a significant amount of effort that goes into getting somebody properly trained and getting their campaign set up. And with a lot of these events that had triggered this kind of, really rush of need and demand. And so for us, we've been forced to scale up our operations very quickly, make our processes more efficient and making sure that we are providing great customer service to every influencer charity brand that comes through our door. Because when a world event occurs, everybody rushes at the same time to want to get involved. And with that, it just causes just a significant spike in demand. And we, when you haven't had a year like 2020 with all the different events, it takes a lot of flexibility and creativity to be able to respond quickly to those challenges.

Brian: Yeah, I think it's, we have to be really wise as we interpret the growing demand. As new folks are getting engaged, understanding what to build, what not to build. I think it's really important for us to keep. You think of it as like a rocket ship that's taking off, we're sort of building it as it's taking off. We have to keep it lean and so a lot of times it's harder to figure out what not to build than it is to come up with things to build. And so I would say that, that also has been part of the challenge, no shortage of ideas and opportunities. It's just a matter, it has been a challenge to try and stay focused and take advantage of those opportunities.

Julián: Do you offer or do you have any sort of resources on how to successfully run a campaign? Let's say I'm new into this world, I want to run a campaign, but I don't know anything about it. I don't know how to engage with the people, how to run it successfully. Do you offer some sort of service to help people run successful campaigns?

Matt: Absolutely. And so that's a key differentiator between us and other platforms in this space is that we will work with somebody hand in glove to look at the size of the audience and be able to help them size up. What's an appropriate fundraising goal for them? What are proper incentives based on the kind of content they create and the type of audience and personality that they have. And so that they can create fun incentives that will really engage their audience in and encourage them to donate more.

Matt: We'll work with them on like the brands that they partner with to ensure that they are partnering with brands that meet their profile and really resonate with the cause that they're raising money for and who their audience will respond to, to the design of their page and the design of their alerts and overlays every step of the process up into the campaign going live, where we'll provide real time feedback during the length of the campaign, to give them some pointers on things they might want to be able to try differently, or when they might want to trigger a giveaway to start all these different things that can be monumental into the differences and success of a campaign.

Matt: We actually just had a campaign last weekend where this streamer who was also an influencer raised over $94,000 over the course of a couple of days. And just previously in that month, he had done a campaign with a competitor of ours and only raised $2,000. And so there's a staunch difference in like what he was able to achieve with our platform, because we worked with him and really made sure he had the tools he needed to succeed, where, when he used the other platform, it was kind of like given like a blank canvas and told to go figure it out. We actually had a brand component of that campaign as well. And on top of the $94,000 raised, the brand was actually sold about $40,000 in product because there was a donation tied to each product sold. And so they actually gained a thousand new customers that they had not previously activated. And so those are some things that we really feel like distinguish ourselves versus others in the space and things that we pride ourselves on, because it really does make a difference.

Julián: What about those technical challenges? I mean, I can imagine that specifically lately, you have been getting a lot of new traffic, more people contributing to campaigns or more people jumping also to create campaigns. Let's talk a little bit about the technical part of Softgiving.

Brian: Yeah. So certainly there are, there's been some more organic growth lately and sort of the growing based volume has been increasing, but I think it's at a high level it's really important to appreciate the difference between sort of a live experience and an on-demand experience. Right? So in a live experience, you get one chance to get it right. Okay? And then it's over. It's not like you get to come back to it. There could be a dramatic difference in the effect of the campaign if we can't stand up to the traffic, right? It's not like we get another shot at it. That was it. That was the campaign. And so there's a need to one, have a huge emphasis on quality, but then also the challenge has become because it's happened so fast trying to predict where is the pressure going to be in terms of scalability.

Brian: I mean, one way to think about this as the platform has to scale differently, depending on which area of the platform is being exercised. So for instance, you have one streamer which could have five, 10, or even 50,000 concurrent viewers. Okay. We have to support both the streamer and the donor and potential donor, right? So you can see that there could even be the dramatic difference in the amount of traffic coming. And then you see there's, it's very spiky, even in terms of those campaigns for one campaign could have easily 10 times the traffic in an instance, because of a giveaway they're doing. And so we have to be able to support that type of behavior. It has to happen real time, right. Because if it were to go down in that instance, how many donations did we just lose?

Brian: And the other thing is, externally, especially as we're learning to apply these same methodologies outside of the streaming space, if we're working with celebrities or something like that, you get a celebrity tweet. And for instance in the traffic pattern for that is a massive spike and then sort of a teetering off. And so those are the types of things that we have to be able to be ready to support.

Julián: And how are you supporting those types of challenges right now?

Matt: Yeah, I would say primarily having a healthy separation of concerns. So I mentioned sort of the two different types of users. So recognizing that those different user interactions need to scale differently. So this, I would say six months ago is when this really started to become apparent as the Australian wildfires picked up, we began to see some patterns in the experience where the traffic is coming, that type of thing.

Matt: What we ended up doing was trying to optimize the donation experience, such that it's fast, right? So pretty much the entire donation experience. When you go to the donation page, everything is cached, so that it's immediate. That would be one way that we've done that we've separated the code bases for the donation experience and where there're things are hosted versus the influencer experience, which has a lot more real time websocket interaction and that traffic is sort of separated, so that has a lot to do it.

Matt: The other thing that we've done is as we've scaled up to performance boxes, which was sort of a progressive effort for us as we scale up to performance boxes, enabling auto scaling, right? That's one way that we're able to handle these spikes in traffic.

Julián: What technologies are you using for the platform?

Brian: Ruby on Rails. Okay. So the main application, the APIs are done in Ruby on Rails. We do all of our front end work in React, but you know, one of the things we did, I mentioned trying to keep the app lean. So we're very ruthless about determining what is core to what is Softgiving and what is not. And the idea is to keep what is core, let the folks that do that well, handle that for us, so that we can focus our development efforts on building out the things that bring value to our customers, raising donations, providing a good experience for influencers. So like I already mentioned that we do caching. So I'll use call it front for that, Web ACL. And so payment processing, we try to push that off of our system. We let someone else handle payment processing for us, those types of things. And as we, as we grow, we continue to try to determine what platforms are best to serve these various needs.

Julián: And with the payment service, I guess it works everywhere?

Brian: Oh yeah. We have done all over the world. Yeah.

Matt: We support, debit, credit card, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Venmo, PayPal. Over half of our transactions are done through digital wallets. I would say probably at least a hundred countries have probably, we probably have received funds from.

Julián: Well, do you have any advice for people that are also looking to build up a solution that scales us, for example, Softgiving? We have seen other applications that has the same issue. For example, one of our customers, they run a non-profit that teach people how to vote and where to vote specifically in United States, they face the same challenge when a celebrity invites people to vote, they get millions of people at the same time consultant information, and they need to scale as well. Do you have any specific advice for people that want to build a platform like this, what to take into account at the beginning and the other type of challenges they might face?

Brian: I would say that a lot of it largely starts with your process. So when we recently tried to keep our footprint small, and I think that is a matter of, in terms of scaling, responding quickly to change, but also reducing complexity in your application.

Brian: So I really do think that's very important. Understanding what's working and what's not working and being willing to pay down that technical debt to change it. And I think that's one thing I appreciate, in our ability to have done that, and obviously we can always do it better. It's a hard line to walk, but then after that, it really is recognizing what needs to be real time, what can be cached and recognizing which areas of your app need to scale and which ones don't. Again, I go back to, we were reluctant to build things. I want to see the manual process work first, then understand how that works and incorporate that into the application. There are a lot of areas that you can predict, scalability problems, but largely you don't know where the leak in the dam is until the water starts coming out.

Julián: Do you have anything else to add how to motivate people to start getting involved with Softgiving and starting campaigns or why not discovering influencers that are like running campaigns right now?

Matt: If you're an influencer or if you're just looking to create a campaign that has a great looking, user interface page that you want to have access to, all the available digital wallets. There's never a bad time to start something and start reaching out to your network and your audience and your friends, family to raise funds and we're available to help you make that be successful. If you're a brand and you're looking to reach a new customer base, our network is dominated by those that are 18 to 35 years old. And so we reach a really hard to reach demographic that charities and brands traditionally can't reach because they don't check their email. They don't watch TV, they have ad blockers on. And so it's a great opportunity to really do some cause marketing, engage in a new audience and bring on new customers in an innovative way through our platform.

Matt: If you're just looking to check out some of our campaigns, we run a lot on Twitch. We also do a lot on Facebook Gaming and YouTube Live, but you can see them, going almost all the time. We have a big event on July 11th with Wiz Khalifa, where he is going to be doing a charity stream for Rise Above The Disorder. It's going to be great. There's going to be a lot of fun games played, a lot of fun interaction with the audience. Rise Above The Disorder provides free mental health to those in need and those that can't afford it. They've served over 35,000 people across the 120 countries. And you can catch that on wizandfriends.com, that'll be the main page and then it also be linked to Twitch.

Julián: So well, Matt, Brian, thank you very much for joining us here at Code[ish]. This is a fantastic story, and I hope a lot of people get inspired and start running campaigns, and why not contribute to other campaigns that are running right now. And I hope all of you out there that are listening to this episode, go to Softgiving, take a look and start getting involved because right now, and especially right now, is the time to give back. Thank you very much again, Matt and Brian and see you on the next episode of Code[ish]. My name is Julián Duque and muchos gracias.

About code[ish]

A podcast brought to you by the developer advocate team at Heroku, exploring code, technology, tools, tips, and the life of the developer.

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Julián Duque

Developer Advocate, Heroku

Developer Advocate, Community Leader, and Educator with experience in Node.js and JavaScript

With guests

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Matt Pfaltzgraf

Founder and CEO, Softgiving

Matt Pfaltzgraf, Founder & CEO of Softgiving, builds alternative fundraising solutions to connect influencers, brands, and charities.

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Brian Wetzel

CTO, Softgiving

Brian has been building software applications in the Atlanta FinTech space for the last decade.

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