85: The People Behind the Products: Dreaming Big and Building Smart Partnerships with James Citron

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“A byproduct of what we built actually was truly helping and saving lives. So I said at that moment, whatever happens next – because I’m a passionate, crazy, technology entrepreneur – whatever I do next, I’m going to build a Tech For Good company, whose sole mission is to uplift and do better. And so that’s what led me to pledge and part of why I’m here.”

– James Citron
Episode #85


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

In this episode of What The Fundraising, James Citron, Founder and CEO of Pledge, shares his top advice for nonprofits wanting to dream big and launch partnerships with companies. Having founded and/or led the growth of three of the largest mobile messaging and engagement companies in the United States and the world, James took a leap of faith eight years ago when he decided to dedicate his life to helping the world on a bigger scale: by creating Pledge, a fundraising platform powered by the generosity of humans. 

In this conversation, he reveals how he strengthened Pledge’s professional partnerships – expanding with Zoom, Cameo, and even celebrity e-commerce brands. Despite the pandemic having threatened 1/3rd of the nonprofits to go out of business, Pledge helped meet donors and nonprofits where they were so fundraising could happen more seamlessly. From James’ vantage point, the key to nonprofit success – among other things like risk-taking, resilience, faith, and grit – is transparency. When your donors know where their money is going, you strengthen your impact, says James. he also shares his perspective on nonprofit failure, his faith in the goodness of humanity, and his thoughts on enabling people to help others. There is a lot of great advice for nonprofits inside this episode, plus we know you’ll love hearing their exciting 3% announcement too!  

Please note: 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. There is no sponsorship or industry money behind the production of this series and the editorial content was at the sole discretion of the What the Fundraising team.


James Citron


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Get to know James:

James Citron is the Founder of Pledge, an award-winning fundraising platform that makes it easy for businesses, nonprofits and individuals to make a positive impact in their communities and around the globe. He has founded and/or have led the growth of three of the largest mobile messaging and engagement companies in the United States and the world, serving as CRO of mGage (a portfolio company of Blackstone), President of Outspoken (a portfolio company of Silver Lake Sumeru) and Co-Founder and CEO of Mogreet. James is also actively involved with leadership at the wireless carriers, industry trade organizations (CTIA, MMA), a frequent speaker at digital conferences and lecturer at universities on social entrepreneurship and mobility.


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episode transcript

Mallory Erickson  01:42

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

James Citron  01:49

Thank you so much for inviting me to be here. As you know, I’m a super fan. And I love this podcast.

Mallory Erickson  01:54

Thank you, I have been so appreciative of all your support from the very beginning. Tell everyone a little bit about you, and what brings you to your work today and our conversation.

James Citron  02:03

I’ll share a little bit about my journey and why I do what I do. So I like to joke that I’m a serial entrepreneur that for many, many years, was trying to build for profit Tech companies. And two things just changed my whole worldview several years ago. At the time, that we’re talking about seven, eight years ago, almost eight years ago, to this day, my wife and I had our first baby. And before it was okay and acceptable to do so I told my wife, I’m going to take a month paternity and just spend as much time as I can with our son. And during that time was just a period of incredible introspection, obviously a life changing moment, as every parent can attest to. I started that moment thinking about like, what is my future? What really matters to me, my company at the time was a big text messaging company, we were sending billions and billions of text messages company, billions of text messages had hundreds of employees, one of the biggest text messaging companies in our industry. 

And so President Obama, when he wanted to send out a text message to millions of people, they would use our platform, but this little tiny nonprofit emailed me and said, James, I need a text messaging platform, to save lives. And I’m like, What are you talking about? I don’t know if you know the story, Mallory, do you know what happens if you’re a kid in crisis and you text 911 from your cell phone? 

Mallory Erickson  03:16

What happens? 

James Citron  03:17

The sad story is at the time, absolutely nothing. So there’s a story of a young girl who is being abused. And because text messaging is the language of today’s youth, they don’t pick up the phone and dial 911. This young girl texted 911 for help and no one was on the other end to help her. So this incredible nonprofit leader heard the story and said, I have to go solve this. But she wasn’t a tech person. She knew that she could go solve this but she needed a technology platform to go help her, that nonprofit leader was Nancy Lublin, who was the founder of Do Something, and then started Crisis Text Line, and she chose my text messaging platform. So here I am cradling my son, thinking about what my legacy was. And this little nonprofit, we’re sending billions of text messages through my company. But I saw this little nonprofit launch on us. And literally 1 message, 10 messages, 100 messages go out. And I realized it wasn’t the reason that we started the text messaging platform, grown and gotten big, but a byproduct of what we built, actually was truly helping and saving lives. So I said at that moment, because I’m a passion, crazy, technology entrepreneur. Whatever I do next, I’m going to build a tech for a good company whose sole mission is to uplift and do better. And so that’s what led me to Pledge.

Mallory Erickson  04:33

I love hearing that story and tell everyone a little bit about what Pledge does and some of the elements of pledges infrastructure that you’re the most excited about.

James Citron  04:43

I like to always start with our mission. Our mission is to power the world’s generosity. And the way we do that is by building what we believe is the world’s best charitable donation platform. What we love about our platform is there’s all these different products that you can use if you’re an individual, your company or a nonprofit. So some of the big innovations in my old tech pedigree and by the way, a bunch of our engineers from my past two companies, which we fortunately built and grew and sold, have all come here to join me on this mission to build a Tech for Good platform. So we were the first people to launch Apple Pay for charity, we launched Text to Donate so every single nonprofit out there can actually literally make it simple and accessible for people to text in and donate. During the pandemic, probably the thing that we were most excited about and become fairly well known for is 1/3 of nonprofits were literally rumored to go or threatened to go out of business, because what do you do when you can’t raise money in person anymore, the gala is over during the pandemic. So we reached out to our good friends at zoom, who we had no idea who they were. And by the way, for everyone listening be big, bold, audacious, because you never know who’s on the other end of the receiving end of your email, your outreach. We reached out to our friends at zoom, they had a competition, the beginning of that pandemic to go, what’s the next billion dollar idea built on top of zoom? And we were like, in a world where we can’t fundraise in person, why isn’t there a donate button built on Zoom? Fast forward a few weeks after submitting this application, not hearing anything, board member literally reached out and says you guys are in the finals. We’re like, oh my gosh, fast forward a few more weeks they said we love this. And this was literally the number one customer request that we got during the pandemic, as religious institutions started streaming, as schools all went virtual, as celebrities said, How do I mobilize my communities, there was no donate button built on Zoom. So we launched the first donate button built on Zoom. Zoom, fell in love with it so much, they actually made a strategic investment in the company, we share a core value of care. They want zoom to do the most good in the world. And obviously, our mission is to power generosity. So there’s been a great partnership there. That’s a little bit about Pledge, but we work with many companies who want to embed impact in what they do. eBUY donations, Shopify, and I’ll share one really, really exciting announcement, we’re going to probably announce this first with you Mallory to your community, I can’t be more excited and honored to do, which is when we looked at nonprofit fundraising, and we looked at all the money going to nonprofits, and last year $480 billion, was intended to go to nonprofits, of which about 360 billion was given by individuals. We saw one thing that was really broken. Do you know what that is, Mallory?

Mallory Erickson  07:31

No, I mean, I see a lot of things. But tell me what you’re thinking.

James Citron  07:35

When you give $50 to your local animal shelter, or $100, to your PTA, at least 3% of that donation goes to the credit card companies. And all told each year billions, if not 10, plus billion dollars from our calculations goes to credit card companies. So I’m a donor and at least 3% of my funds actually are going not to the mission, the nonprofit who desperately needs it, it’s going to the credit card companies who do not need it. So at Pledge we’ve had an incredible run of growing the company, we’re a social enterprise purpose comes up here, profit is way down here. So we’ve decided officially, we’re going to cover all the credit card fees of donations to our platform, on zoom, on our website, every single nonprofit who puts the Pledge Donate button there, we’re gonna cover the credit card fees. Because that 3% can be the difference between a new staffer, a thousand new trees, closer to achieve their mission.

Mallory Erickson  08:34

Wow, that is tremendous. I mean, I remember when I was an executive director, dealing with decision making around different types of fee structures, and even how to project that out a little bit. And when you’re thinking about different tech implementation, so I think that is really going to open up the opportunity for nonprofits, particularly some of those smaller nonprofits. 

3% makes a difference for everyone. But I think about when I was trying to grow an organization from 200,000 to 2 million, some of that bit of buffer, it really would have been game changing for me, as you said, making some of those strategic decisions. So I really appreciate that. And I’m curious, like one of the things before we clicked record that you told me is that because I was like, Well, how on earth do you make money? And so you shared with me about the tipping option that donors can tip Pledge. So there are a number of different platforms that have that option, but they have the transaction fee component as well, of course. And so what’s really amazing to me about you making that decision is that you’re betting on generosity for nonprofits, but you’re betting on generosity for your business. So can you talk to me about how you view generosity and the abundance of that in our world?

James Citron  09:48

Well, Mallory, thank you for recognizing that. And I think all of us who are in this broader ecosystem just generally believe we’re all optimists who fundamentally believe in the goodness of humanity. And whether it’s that one volunteer who shows up at every single chance they can to volunteer for free, when it’s hard for them to volunteer for their nonprofit, or that generous donor who’s always there for their nonprofit when the nonprofit needs it, we fundamentally and I, fundamentally, everything is about generosity. So when we made this decision, and trust me, we have investors, we have board members, we have employees who go, is it going to be okay, can we do this, to align our incentives with our stakeholders, our donors, our nonprofits, is the only way forward to us. We want to make a decision that the future of our company by aligning all of our incentives, and we think it’s the right thing, when nonprofits do better, when donors actually have radical transparency where their dollars go, that’s going to uplift Pledge ultimately lead to more dollars and more impact, which is our mission. Everything to us isn’t about how do we eke out another margin point. To us, we make decisions by what is going to do best for nonprofits? How do we generate more income for them?

Mallory Erickson  11:06

I really appreciate that. And I want to go back actually to something you said when you were giving the overview of Pledge around the Embed impact. Because you know, one of my favorite elements of Pledge is your given grow app and your API integration. So you mentioned Shopify, but basically where you are the checkout partner, for so many companies, for folks to be able to select organizations that they’re passionate about for customers to be able to select organizations that they’re passionate about. 

For folks who are listening to this, I talk a lot about creating corporate partnership programs and how to sort of get beyond the gala model, and really create longer term strategic partnerships. And to me give And Grow is such a core way that I talk to organizations about starting their relationships with corporate partners, because I feel like one of the things that nonprofits spiral around a little bit is where do we start working together? And to me, especially for companies who have that E-commerce option, it’s such a clear way to build a campaign together and to try out working together and seeing how that goes. Can you just talk to me a little bit about your discovery of that solution? And what it’s been like to watch that grow around us? 

James Citron  12:24

Yeah, thank you for recognizing it from your lens. As both a former executive director, what we’ve seen from all these corporations, we work with thousands, on Shopify, thousands of merchants are using Pledges Give And Grow app when you’re running a Shopify merchant, or you’re running a big brand, they obviously want to do good. It’s just hard. It’s complicated. It’s by in, its technology. It’s how do I slot this in the product roadmap, when it’s not going to generate ROI? It can be very hard for those companies, even when they want to work with your nonprofit partner. What Give and Grow set out to do was, can we just remove all of that friction, whether you’re a giant merchant, we have 200 of the largest merchants on Shopify using it now. Or you’re just a small store and you’re passionate about a certain cause and you want to embed impact. Can we make literally donating a checkout a five minute free process. And so you mentioned earlier, obviously, we’re all about aligning optimism, and aligning the generosity of all of our constituents. So we don’t charge for Give and Grow. It’s totally free, like all of our products, no upfront fees, no monthly costs, none of that stuff, because that levels the playing field that enables any nonprofit to align with any of the million merchants on Shopify. And I’ll give you some great examples that have come up. So one of my favorites is this incredible sustainable cleaning product company called Blue Land, they won Shark Tank and their whole thing is getting rid of plastic at home. And literally the weekend before they went live on Shark Tank they added Give and Grow and it was literally at $1 donation at checkout. And I can tell you a huge percentage of their customers, literally every single time they buy a product just goes, click, it’s one button Add to dollar donation at checkout, and hundreds of thousands of dollars has been raised for causes that align with that business. Hailey Bieber just launched an incredible new brands a skincare line, she picked four different charities use Pledge setup in literally minutes. And she sells out in a day, when she does an Instagram post, sells out in a day and raises hundreds of thousands of dollars. So for us it came back to making it simple, making it free making it accessible. I’m excited to share these numbers all told because these are small individual donations, but all told over $300 million of products has been purchased that have a donation powered by Pledge now.

Mallory Erickson  14:57

Wow. Oh my gosh. That’s amazing. One of the reasons why I think we’ve always gotten along so well is because I think alignment is such a core principle of both of ours, such a value of both of ours. And at the very beginning of this, when you were talking about reaching out to zoom and be bold and be audacious, and you never know who’s at the other end of the line, you’ve demonstrated so many innovative partnerships in our space. I mean, I always tell you this, but if you want to look at sort of creativity in business partnerships, you are who I look to. But what you do is that combination of making sure there is alignment, and then being bold and audacious and disruptive. So what is your advice to nonprofits who are listening to this around how they tap into that dual approach? Like what do you tell yourself maybe before you’re going to do something bold and scary? Or how do you think about alignment? Just talk us through that a little bit.

James Citron  15:57

Thank you. And for my team, who we get to spend all this time in person and also remote. We joke about this, but I believe that nothing is impossible. One of my idols Richard Branson, he always says, How can I say yes to everything? Not no, how do I say yes to everything. And so that’s been always a guiding principle for me. And for everyone listening in, when you dream up that incredible partnership, or you think about where your organization is going to go. And if you just had this one, great partner, how could it happen? I think there’s three things. One, be bold and audacious, of course, we talked about that, be creative, be incredibly creative. Sometimes you walk in the door with this great idea and you find out, you know what, that company that seemed perfect isn’t a perfect fit. But they have another idea how they can integrate impact and integrate you into their plans. So be creative and last is be persistent. And I think the last part is really important. We live in an attention starved economy right now, time is the most precious asset we all have. Every single day, every single minute, we’re making trade-offs between our work our home lives, all these kinds of things. And I think persistence, and grit and hustle and all those sometimes overused words really matter. Because when you have mission alignment, and you’re creative and flexible, but you show yourself is really trying to make it happen, that can often be the difference between a partnership that really takes off, and one that never is forged or comes to reality.

Mallory Erickson  17:30

And what do you think about the value of for nonprofits of playing big in how they propose working together kind of out of the gate, because that’s the other thing I’ve noticed about when you launch partnerships or integrations, it’s like you swung for the fences. And I’m sure that you’ve also had plenty of things that haven’t worked or people who haven’t wanted to build partnerships. And I think that’s also important to share with folks that and I try to share that a lot too, that when you see these incredible things, what you’re not seeing are all the things that didn’t pan out sort of behind it. But are you going to these folks and giving them the whole big vision and sort of journey and seeing and then scaling back if they need to, but you’ve laid it all on the field there? Just tell me a little bit about that?

James Citron  18:16

Yeah, I think when you deliver the whole playbook, it can be too much. And sometimes you don’t know what they’re thinking. So if you go too far, here’s my 50 page Impact Report and theory of change about how we should all work together, it’s too much. And the other side is corporate partnerships often start even though they’re big and bold and audacious, they often start with a trial, an initial campaign, a volunteering event with a bunch of executives from that company coming to your place of work and seeing your impact. So oftentimes, they start small and build and I think that’s the legacy of even some of the most successful Tech companies is they start with something that’s working, and then they rapidly build on top of it. Even big partnerships don’t have to start big, my recommendation would be of course, be bold. But you might want to start smaller and grow into it because the champions of that organization once they get a win are going to be your biggest champions going forward.

Mallory Erickson  19:12

I love that advice. Okay, I know we have to wrap up. Is there anything else you want to make sure you get to tell nonprofits, any words of wisdom before we say goodbye and I’ll make sure all the links are below to Pledge and to connect with you on LinkedIn as well.

James Citron  19:28

So a few quick things, my best practices for technology, A as a longtime tech guy, try and don’t be afraid to fail. Please try try try try try whether it’s Pledge or other things. Try have a hacker mentality to try new things. I know it’s scary, but technology truly doesn’t have to be frustrating. It can be an enabler and lead you to incredible growth. Love for you to try Pledge. Love your feedback on our no credit card visa initiative, of course. And if I can be a resource, one of the greatest things that ever has happened to me. He’s I’ve been surrounded by incredible mentors who have guided me through my career. As I got involved in the nonprofit space for the first time, I surrounded myself with incredible board of advisors who’ve really guided me on my impact journey. If I can be a resource, I’m happy to be. But I’d also recommend finding your tribe. That might be listening to Mallory’s podcast because some of the incredible guests you have on it’s just unbelievable. But find your tribe to help uplift you through the good times and the bad times and stay focused on your mission. What you’re doing is so valued, so needed and so appreciated. And thank you.

Mallory Erickson  20:39

Thank you so much for this conversation.

Mallory Erickson  20:49

All right, there is so much in this episode that has me spinning, but here are my top takeaways. Number one, if you’re afraid to hit that send button on your email to someone important. Try to imagine how it can take you one step closer to your dreams. You want to increase hope to get you over the action line. James’s experience reaching out to and striking a partnership with Zoom taught him to always be ready to take that plunge. Because as he said, You never know who’s on the receiving end of it. And there’s a massive possibility that it will lead to a positive response. Number two, I love the way that Pledges decision to cover 3% of processing fees for all donations up to $1,000 aligns their company’s goals with the goals of their nonprofit partners, inspiring generosity. Number three, are you worried about building a strong corporate partnership? Start small start with a trial and error campaign. Even the greatest big bold partnerships likely started with humble beginnings. This was really important learnings for me too. 

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’ll also find more information there about James and Pledge. 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, @whatthefundraising_. Have a great day and I’ll see you next week.

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