81: The People Behind the Products: Imposter Syndrome & Authentic Relationship Building with Max Friedman

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“When you’re starting something new, you want to focus on the mission. You want to make an impact. But sometimes there’s all this other stuff that gets in the way.”

– Max Friedman
Episode #81


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

The truth is, all limiting beliefs aside, we can make giving fun. And Max Friedman and the team at Givebutter are proving this to be true each and every day. They have created a crowdfunding platform that seeks to raise funds that will empower the next generation of changemakers. In this episode of What the Fundraising I get to talk to Max about his entrepreneurial journey, from starting in his college dorm room, to what it’s like to be a 27 year old leader of a rising tech company. There are so many great fundraising tips in this episode, from automation suggestions to effective prompts to innovative engagement strategies, but my favorite topic that we talk about is Max’s imposter syndrome. Max, like all of us, experiences moments of self-doubt and his vulnerability in this episode is a true gift the sector. He talks to us about how he manages his imposter syndrome and his top tips for nonprofit leaders dealing with similar doubts. You don’t want to miss this episode! 

This episode is a part of a very special series called The People Behind the Products. More than ever, nonprofits care about the company behind their technology and service providers. What’s the underlying mission and vision of the company? What do they stand for? And how are they thinking about the sector and serving nonprofits? This series is an opportunity to get to know some of my favorite nonprofit technology companies so that the next time you’re making a tech decision, you can understand a little bit more about the people behind the product. This series is unsponsored content and editorial decisions came from the What the Fundraising production team.


Max Friedman


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Click here to learn more about Max Friedman and how Givebutter makes fundraising fun.

Getting to Know Max:

Max Friedman is the CEO and Co-Founder of Givebutter, a modern fundraising platform powering online donations, campaigns, and events for more than 35,000 good causes. Max also sits on the board of Humans for Education, non-profit helping schools worldwide become financially independent and is an occasional contributor to Fast Company’s Leadership section.


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episode transcript

Mallory Erickson  02:28

Welcome, everyone, I am so thrilled to be here today with Max Friedman. Max, welcome to What The Fundraising. 

Max Friedman  02:36

Thanks, Mallory, it’s great to be here.

Mallory Erickson  02:37

I’m really excited for our conversation today. And I love your story and Givebutter’s story. So why don’t we just start with you telling everyone a little bit about your journey? And what brings you to our conversation today?

Max Friedman  02:48

Sure. I’m actually the co-founder and CEO at Givebutter. We are a nonprofit fundraising platform, trying to build the operating system for any nonprofit to do their fundraising, donor management and stewardship all in one place all for free. But we definitely did not start with that, we started much smaller as a student crowdfunding site. So I was a college student at George Washington University. And so were my co-founders in Washington, DC. And initially, the idea was how do we engage young people in philanthropy. So we built a kernel of an idea, a crowdfunding site that upload images and GIFs and drawings when you donated, and show why you cared about the cause, and get involved more visually, rather than just punch a donation in like you’re buying something on Amazon. And our first campaign was for a Kosher food truck in DC, it was a huge success. They hit their goal in 24 hours, and we are off to the races. And that was a little over six years ago, in 2016. And it’s been an awesome journey ever since.

Mallory Erickson  03:37

Wow, what were some elements of that initial design that have sort of stayed true to the underlying user experience of Givebutter? Well, I can imagine it’s wildly different than that first ever component. It sounds to me like there’s some overlap in what you guys prioritize today. So tell me a little bit about that.

Max Friedman  03:57

Yeah, it’s so cool, because so much has stayed the same and so much has changed, right. So pillars when we started were build more transparency into fundraising. There are a lot of hidden fees that other sites that existed at the time were not making transparent. So day one was like, how do we say here are the fees, donors have the option to cover them. And from the very beginning, we saw that over 90% of donors, if they were shown the fee when they were given they were willing to cover it. Number two was how do we build modern features into fundraising. The companies had started before the iPhone existed. So it’s like, how do we integrate Venmo into giving and that was one of the first features we launched, which was a hit among college students. But little did we know that nonprofits would also love to use Venmo for their own giving, and we kind of segued into the nonprofit space. And number three was how do we build in the human experience? Like how do we make giving fun and more social? We just have thought a lot about that over the years. It’s a big part of why we’re called Givebutter. It’s like a better way to give and puns are fun and we think giving should be fun, too. So we always prioritize how can we make giving fun, because when it’s fun, you’ll want to do it again. And all those things have stayed completely the same. What’s changed though, is functionally we went from crowdfunding to what we call team fundraising, which is the industry calls peer to peer fundraising. We launched an event platform so you can sell tickets to events and run fundraising events. Platforms like Eventbrite are fantastic for events, but they don’t put as much of an emphasis on the fundraising piece and so we added that. Embeddable donation form, we can be your donate button on your website and integrate more there. And then last year, we launched a CRM and stewardship platform, so you can send emails and texts to your supporters. And today, actually, we are launching auctions. So we just launched the first completely free auction platform that fully integrates with your event ticketing platform, and just so excited to see what our users do with that. A lot of options, a lot of possibilities for what you can do. And if you’ve never run an auction before, our whole goal is to make that as easy as possible for you to do so. 

Mallory Erickson  05:39

Cool. So tell me you kind of got spring boarded into the nonprofit sector in a really intense way. What have been some of the biggest surprises for you, as you started to get to know nonprofit and see their different challenges and possibilities, what’s been happening?

Max Friedman  05:53

Yeah, that’s a great question because you’re totally right. I’ve always been involved in giving in my life. But I’ve never been a nonprofit professional. And so I always had impostor syndrome about that. Who am I to tell a nonprofit professional, like what best practices are with fundraising. This is what they’ve done and oftentimes for their entire career, right? We’re building this innovative solution, but it was sort of how do I bridge that gap and get more familiar. And so actually, one of our very first customers on the platform, a nonprofit called Humans For Education, they signed up for newsletter, and I just saw the.org email. And I reached out and I connected with Daphne, their founder, and I ended up joining their board and getting more involved at that level and understanding what does this look like in their very grassroots founder-led nonprofit. And one of the things that I learned that I think is true, whether you’re starting a for profit company, or you’re starting a nonprofit is when you’re starting something new, especially, you just want to focus on the mission, like you’re starting something because you care about a cause that you want to make a difference in the world, and you want to have that impact. But there’s all this other stuff that gets in the way, all this overhead, and things that you have to deal with. What I realized Givebutter can do for people, it’s not only alleviate that burden, so that people can spend more time focusing on their mission, but we can make it fun, we can make it something that you don’t dread. And so there’s a lot of great data and research out there about giving and fundraising best practices, but it’s been tested and tested and tested and tested and we’re, you know, 2022 like we’re doing everything we can integrate those best practices. But at the end of the day, it’s also got to be fun, people need to have a good experience and enjoy it when they are participating in any cause. And in life we do things because they feel meaningful. And so that’s something that I’ve learned that we can bring to the space and working with so many different nonprofits over the years of all shapes and sizes, small, big, medium, large, in different sectors. People want to spend more time on the mission, but a lot of other things get in the way. And we try to find ways to alleviate that and make it fun.

Mallory Erickson  07:32

Yeah, you can tell me if you don’t want to talk about this. But I just really appreciate the fact that you talked about your own imposter syndrome. And it’s a theme actually, that comes up a lot on this podcast. It’s something that I think nonprofit leaders who are listening to this are really going to resonate with because everybody experiences impostor syndrome in different ways. And I just be curious to know, I mean, you did get then sort of sprung into building this big company fresh out of your dorm room. 

And so I can imagine you have a really unique sort of lens and maybe tools that you use to deal with your own impostor syndrome. And I’d wonder if you would share that with us.

Max Friedman  08:10

100%, one of my very first published articles was on this topic, super passionate about it. I’m 27 years old, I lead a company of 40 people, I deal with this every day. I’m asking myself, am I the best person to lead this company, I don’t have necessarily the experience that other people might have as a professional in my career, like I wanted to start a company. I knew I wanted to do that my first freshman year of college, I did one political internship and I dove headfirst into startups and I did a lot of other jobs. I was an assistant Hebrew school teacher, I made sandwiches and pizzas back in my hometown, I was a sales associate at Brookstone with the massage chairs. And I loved that job, I got all these sorts of odd jobs all growing up. But my first like professional experience is really in startups every step of the way, whether I’m talking to customers, or investors, or hiring and recruiting, I’m constantly fighting this, and I’ve leaned on a few things. So the first is friends and family, they know who you are. 

And whatever I’m feeling this being open and honest with them and leaning on them and not being afraid to be honest about these feelings and kind of acknowledging I’m not sure about this or that and having that base of support has always been a cornerstone for me. Calling my parents, talking to my fiancé, talking to my best friend about hey, you know, my best friend who’s going to med school right now. And you know, no idea about the ins and outs of my world but just being able to go back to my roots and talk about these things has actually been really helpful for me. The second is realizing that if I’m feeling like an imposter, that’s a really good thing, because it means I’m growing. It means I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone. And that reminder always makes me say, Okay, this is something that’s new for me, but it is a good thing. I’m pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. And the last is mentors. Mentors have been just huge for me and I’ve always treated mentors like friendships. So all my best mentors are friends, too. So those have been relationships that I’ve built up over a long time, but it’s really looking at who do I already know or asking about people who are in positions where I want to be, that I look up to and I aspire to be in their shoes one day or I see elements of how they go about their lives. And I’m like that is inspiring to me. And so leaning on them, whenever I have those moments, that’s kind of the distinction is like, for me, it’s mentors are great but if you have to like schedule 30 minute zooms like two weeks out, that’s a different kind of relationship. I’m talking about people, I can text and they’ll get back to me and I can kind of work through things in real time with that’s been really huge. And one more thing on this is just like, this is just so common. Like we’re all figuring it out. And learning that and realizing that and kind of meeting your heroes too you realize they’re also sort of figuring it out. And they’re not so different from me and you. And yeah, that’s kind of a longer answer but those are all things that have helped me a lot as I’ve dealt with this in my career.

Mallory Erickson  10:30

No, I really appreciate that. And I think you know, at the end of the day, so much of the actions that we take, or don’t take come back to those narratives in our head and how we deal with them. And so I think the Tech is important, and the optimization of our processes are important, and being able to tackle that impostor syndrome so that we send out the campaign, when we say we’re gonna send it out, and we send it out to our whole list, not the people that we say, Oh, well, they already gave monthly, so they shouldn’t be included. Because all of those things are like, embedded in those narratives that we hold, and so often don’t talk about. So I really appreciate that transparency. And I agree, I think letting that voice be like, okay, like, here I am at my growth edge. That’s a big strategy for me to like, when it shows up. I’m like, of course, you’re here. This is new. And this is scary. I expected to see you. Thanks so much, and then sort of being able to move on. So I really appreciate you sharing that. I’m curious, like, as you think about the sector as a whole sort of beyond Givebutter, what are some of the things that you’re the most excited to be seeing happening in our space, and where do you feel like our growth edges are, where we as a sector need to sort of step into more of our power and possibility?

Max Friedman  11:43

Yeah, so I have a potentially a weird take on this, which is, there was a lot of buzz around crypto and AI and like VR, AR was a big trend for a while. And there are so many cool things happening in technology. Now you’ve got AI art is like a whole thing. And NFTs, right where you can give it a prompt and it spits out three beautiful Monet paintings with slices of butter skiing down a mountain, like there’s so many like cool things happening in Tech, and I love Tech so I’m following all of this. But I think for nonprofits, especially small nonprofits, I think there needs to be a little bit of a push back to the basics. And we’ve been in this virtual world during COVID for the last two years, two plus years, I don’t even know I’ve lost track of time, I’m super excited to see people getting back together in person, we’re seeing a lot of fall fundraising events coming around the corner. 

And I’m just so excited about the different types of campaigns and causes and events that are happening. And I’m looking forward to seeing what people are able to do when they get back together and build those relationships, again with their community and do that outreach and meet people again. And it’s why I say it’s a weird take is that there is so many cool things that I am looking forward to. And I’m certain that these things will become easier and more widely accessible not only to nonprofits to be able to like accept donations in more sophisticated ways, but also for donors to give in those ways who have access and crypto and things become more mainstream, I think that’ll be great. But I still think that’s always out. And especially for smaller organizations focusing on the basics, getting technology out of the way and meeting people in person and where they’re at. There’s nothing that replaces that.

Mallory Erickson  13:06

Yeah, you’re bringing up this really sort of interesting concept that I’d like to see sort of where you fall on it. I was just on a webinar where someone was asking about, do you feel like we’re getting to this point where we’re sort of automating too much and we’re losing the sense of authenticity and connection. And my argument and push back and disagree with me. But what I said is that, you know, I think all of us actually could be doing a lot more communication with our donors. And so for me, it’s not actually an either or it’s like, what are you automating so that you can do those other more personalized touch points. And I don’t think that authenticity and automation are at odds, I think there are ways to build authenticity into automation, and that you just have to be really sort of intentional around your voice with that. But I like what you said, because I think I would sort of maybe even caveat what I said on the webinar with the fact that you should be deciding what you’re automating based on your capacity and where your organization is at the moment. And yes, there are a lot of shiny objects and cool ways to do things. But if you’re struggling with some of the basics around individual giving, and or your community is really missing each other because this annual event used to bring a tremendous amount of belonging, then like before you go off and figure out all those other things, not that they’re not cool. But before you go do that sort of how do you bring your organization back to basics. And I’m curious how you would answer that question around sort of automation and authenticity related to all of this.

Max Friedman  14:30

Yeah, I love that question. And I completely agree that they’re not at odds. I think automation is an excellent tool to give you back your time so that you can then spend the time building the authentic relationships. So I think there are absolutely a lot of low hanging fruit in any job. Basically, if you do something twice, you should ask yourself, can I automate this? Is this an automatable thing? But I think the buck stops with relationships like you can’t automate relationships. Relationships, by definition are human and Personal and there’s definitely a limit to where automation can take that. And for any organization, it’s a capacity question too like, where is my threshold of what I’m able to do. Because you can’t go to every single potential donors house and get dinner with them and have that conversation. So there’s nuance to all those conversations. But I definitely think that those things are not at odds. But automation is a tool that gives you back your time to then spend on building those relationships.

Mallory Erickson  15:24

Yeah, I really agree. And it’s making me think about what are the elements of our relationships sort of with each other that become automated and keep a sense of connection, even taking fundraising out of it and thinking about the way that in my relationships with my friends and following them on Instagram and seeing what’s happening in their lives, I feel this sense of connection, and that I’m staying up to date about what’s happening. And it’s giving me these points to check in with them. And so it doesn’t replace my like deep emotional connection with them, or having that one on one conversation. But it’s a way to really keep me sort of engaged along the way in between those touch points, which is what I really hear you saying too, which I really love.

Max Friedman  16:02

Absolutely, yeah, authenticity is everything. It’s, I think, why people invest in stories and ideas and people. I think social media is a great example of something that can keep people aware and engaged of what’s happening. But even that is a degree removed, it’s interesting, we’ll get because Givebutter is a very open ended platform, and that we have organizations of all shapes and sizes using us. But some people come in and they’re totally new to fundraising, the first thing they’ll do is they’ll post their campaign on social media and say, I think I only got a few donations like why. So many people all do at the other end of the spectrum, who are super sophisticated and doing all sorts of very interesting things to automate interaction. And this is a very good question. But yeah, it’s like, these are ways to get you in front of people and spark a conversation, I still strongly believe that nothing replaces person to person interactions. And one of the pieces of data I learned when we first started, Givebutter is the number one reason why people give is someone they know, ask them to. It’s like a very simple idea. But when you think about it, it’s like, oh, yeah, that obvious and people don’t realize it. You know, there’s a lot of barriers to making that ask and a lot of things that go into it, creating awareness, using automation to help do that I think it’s great, but then you still need to make the ask or spend that time.

Mallory Erickson  17:15

Yeah, I think it’s such an important point. We know from behavior change and habit and behavior design, that a prompt is necessary for people to get over the action line. So we hear a lot of the time like, well, they know we need money so they would just give because they know we always need money. But actually the science of behavior, that’s not how it works, exactly what you said they have to be asked, there has to be a prompt. And for people who are listening to this who are like, well, this person gave and I didn’t ask them, something else prompted them, something on their calendar, something they saw on the news, their accountant, their partners, something they were prompted. And so, so  much I think of the conversation that we have is like around donors behavior without thinking about the fundraiser behavior that led to the donor behavior. I love what you’re talking about, what are the touch points? What are the prompts that we’re giving people, invitations to really engage them in our work.

Max Friedman  18:07

Definitely. I’m curious about any prompts that you’ve seen be particularly effective, especially as we’re entering year end Giving Tuesday coming up. That’s an amazing prompt. You have end of year, there’s always the debate about donor fatigue on Giving Tuesday, should I ask Should I not? 

Mallory Erickson  18:23

You should ask. 

Max Friedman  18:24

Yes, I agree. Absolutely. That’s a big moment. Non-profit holiday.

Mallory Erickson  18:27

To me, it’s about figuring out what are the right prompts for your organization? So I think a lot about how do you create urgency through relevance? And then how are you creating prompts that are particularly relevant to the moment, so people give when they experience a peak moment. 

And this is something Francesco Amber Jetty wrote Hooked On A Feeling this amazing book that really talks about this. And I think a lot about that, what are the relevant moments in the organization’s life, in the donors life, in the world life around us? And that’s why when COVID first hit or even talk about the recession, there’s this fear based place that we go to a lot of initially around like, oh, it’s inappropriate to ask right now. No, you’re asked right now needs to be relevant to the moment. Why does your community Why do the people you serve need support more than ever right now? How is the recession impacting them right now? Why is this Giving Tuesday particularly important to your people, to your community? Right now? I think when organizations stay focused on answering that question, the prompts they give are authentic and transparent and really meaningful.

Max Friedman  19:35

Yeah. And it’s two sided, right. So in the beginning of COVID, there was a lot of great research that came out that nonprofits who this is a very tumultuous time, a lot of uncertainty, a fear of doing that messaging was totally understandable. But the data showed in retrospect that nonprofits who sent message not only sent messaging during the first three months of COVID, but also stressed the urgency of what was happening, specifically the urgency of what was happening for the nonprofit right now. Being authentic, stressing urgency and using that moment what was happening right now, those nonprofits who did that raise 30% more than those who didn’t. And so you need that prompt and being authentic and using what’s happening right now not only thinking about the donor and being empathetic to what’s going on in their lives, but also being transparent about what’s happening within your own organization or in the world that relates to your organization, I think makes a huge difference.

Mallory Erickson  20:19

Yeah, I totally agree. And I think so much of fundraising is a self-fulfilling prophecy a little bit, when we decide it’s inappropriate to ask right now, or we decide there’s donor fatigue on Giving Tuesday, we prove that to be true, either by sending a really bland message that doesn’t deeply connect to our donors, because we don’t want to be too much. Or we just sort of we make that reality for ourselves. And I think I personally believe that donor fatigue is a myth. I think they might be tired of certain messages and messaging, but people are not tired of being generous. And so I think the more that we give people really meaningful ways to engage like you all do, the better it is for every.

Max Friedman  20:59

100%. Giving is human nature, I think it’s what makes us human is supporting one another. And if you do it, right, you’re doing a favor even you’re giving someone an opportunity to make a difference. And they appreciate that. And I don’t think there’s a limit to that, limit within your own organization you want to be sensitive to those things. But I do believe that is 100% True.

Mallory Erickson  21:17

Yeah. Is there a story as we wrap that from your time at Givebutter that stays sort of as a Northstar for you or keeps you motivated when you’re having really hard days, something that’s been really meaningful for you on your journey?

Max Friedman  21:32

One of the things that I really love about our mission, which is to empower the change maker in all of us is that it gives us this incredible North star of how can we do that for everybody. How do we empower the changemaker. That belief that we all share that we all want to make the world a better place, Give Butter has that opportunity to help people do so and so we’ve set our vision to impact the next billion changemakers and firm it was a dollar number because we’re a fundraising platform. So we’re like, with a dollar number, we’re just trying to help raise x dollars for good causes. But we flipped that to say we want to impact the next billion changemakers. And it’s created such a unifying thread for our whole team and motivating and the reason why it hits so home for me is because of what we were talking about earlier, where I didn’t come from the nonprofit industry and starting Give Butter, but over the last seven years have learned so much and gotten involved with so many different good causes. And it’s all about the people, the people who we get to work with, it’s the people who we impact through our work, and impacting and empowering and inspiring the next generation of changemakers, it’s just extremely motivating. And so I don’t have a particular story, I’m gonna have to think about that again. But every day when I wake up, and I think about what we do, it’s all about the people.

Mallory Erickson  22:42

I love that. Thank you so much for this amazing conversation, tell folks where they can find you and where they can learn more about Givebutter, and I’ll make sure all the links are below as well.

Max Friedman  22:53

Definitely find me on LinkedIn. I’m always happy to connect with anybody, Givebutter  is @givebutter.com. Givebutter on social media. #spreadthebutter, and check out www.givebutter.com/auctions. If you are interested in running your next auction on a free easy to use and end to end event fundraising platform.

Mallory Erickson  23:11

Awesome. Thank you so much for everything that you’re doing to support this sector and all the changemakers in it.

Max Friedman  23:17

Thank you Mallory right back at you.

Mallory Erickson  23:26

All right, I really loved this conversation and it was jam packed with advice. Here are the top things that I’m taking away. Number one, I love Max’s top tips for impostor syndrome, acknowledging the feeling, reaching out to family, his fiancée, best friend or a mentor, and using the feeling as a reminder of growth. Number two if you’re crowdfunding you need to ensure your platforms are user friendly, and there is transparency. Number three, giving shouldn’t be boring. You want to find fun ways to ensure people are having fun when they’re participating in your campaigns. Number four, if you have any repetitive tasks automate them, but automation shouldn’t be in place of deeper relationship building. Automation should free up your capacity to build deeper relationships with more people. And number five, you need to create urgency in your campaigns by creating relevance, look at what’s happening in the world and choose the best way possible to make your campaign urgent and relevant. 

Okay, there are so many more takeaways and tips inside this episode. So head on over to www.malloryerickson.com/podcast to grab the full show notes and resources now. You will also find more information there about Max and Givebutter. Thank you for spending this time with us today. If you enjoyed this episode, we would love it if you would give it a rating and review and share it with a friend. I am so grateful for all of my listeners and the good hard work you’re doing to make our world a better place. 

And if you miss me between episodes, stop by and say hello on Instagram, under @whatthefundraising_ Have a great day and I’ll see you tomorrow for our next episode of the people behind the products.

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