- The Jacob Wolf Report
- Charity for Profit: A Look at the Company that Made Millions off Twitch's Most-Watched Fundraising Streams
Charity for Profit: A Look at the Company that Made Millions off Twitch's Most-Watched Fundraising Streams
The marketing agency behind some of Twitch's most successful fundraising streams quietly collected 42 percent of donations.
Illustration by Wade Malone
It’s March 29, 2021.
Five of Twitch’s most-watched men are sitting in front of a long, white table inside the living room of an Austin, Texas, home. Over the next eight and a half hours, Asmongold, Mizkif, Esfand, Nmp and Rich Campbell will unbox some of the rarest Pokémon cards in the world, worth thousands of dollars. The hundreds of thousands of viewers watching will get a chance to win these cards—if they donate to charity, that is.
“All of the cards from these boxes are going to you guys, and the money for the giveaways is going toward Games for Love,” said the most popular of the bunch, Asmongold.
By the end of the eight and a half hours, the five men raised more than $600,000 for Games for Love, a Washington state-based charity focused on video game distraction therapy for terminally ill children. Before 2020, the charity had never raised more than $50,000 in a single year, according to tax records. But then, when those five members of OTK led more than 37 influencers who ran campaigns for it throughout the next two years, it raised nearly $2 million in donations.
Yet, according to public records, almost half of that money never went to charity.
At first, the idea of an influencer teaming up with a charity to raise money makes sense. Celebrities often speak on behalf of charities, encouraging their fans and admirers to donate money.
But as donors, fans and journalists have started to scrutinize the relationships between internet influencers and the charities they claim to support, they’ve found questionable business practices that threaten to undermine the faith people place in them when clicking the donate button.
Games for Love’s startling rise was anything but organic. Behind the scenes, an Atlanta-based marketing company called Softgiving played middleman between the charity and a who’s who of Twitch and YouTube—the likes of OTK, Ludwig Ahgren, aDrive, JustaMinx and other influencers both big and small. And Games for Love wasn’t the only beneficiary.
In 2020 and 2021, Softgiving and those influencers raised a total of $6.2 million in donations, according to publicly available tax records. Yet $2.6 million of that—roughly 42 percent—went to Softgiving to cover its commission and expenses, including influencer fees, those public records show.
For 18 months during that period, Softgiving did not prominently disclose on donation pages details about payments made to influencers that cut into total funds raised. It also wasn’t clear about what percentage of donations it received as commission.
In the course of this investigation, The Jacob Wolf Report conducted more than a dozen interviews with influencers, their agents and managers, non-profit industry leaders, academics, attorneys, accountants, competing brand marketing agencies and the charities themselves, many of whom spoke on the record. We also examined more than 250 pages of documents, including public tax returns, partnership contracts, correspondence and web archives for many streams that occurred over that two-year period.
What we learned is that Softgiving was not consistently forthcoming with the public, nor the influencers it worked with, about its expenses and how it compensated itself. And in several instances, it told influencers a different story than what occurred in reality.
Softgiving, which renamed itself Brandfluence earlier this year, declined to provide executives for interviews and canceled multiple planned meetings during the reporting of this story.
Instead, it filed a lawsuit against one of the authors of this story, Jacob Wolf, on Dec. 14, prior to the publication of this piece, alleging that he had defamed the company. A letter written by the attorney representing Brandfluence demanded we not publish this piece. We believe in investigative journalism and our First Amendment right to freedom of the press.
Here’s an inside look at how a middleman marketing company capitalized on a niche of a highly-viewed, yet critically underserved industry of influencer-led charity marketing campaigns, and in the process, made itself millions.
Brandfluence CEO and founder Matt Pfaltzgraf, right, gives a speech at Boys & Girls Club of Central Iowa Gala on Nov. 13 (Photo via Boys & Girls Club of Central Iowa)
Softgiving’s pitch entering the charity industry focused on the personal story of its founder and CEO, Matt Pfaltzgraf. In various interviews, Pfaltzgraf credits his charitable aspirations to his childhood, during which he says he spent time at the local Boys & Girls Club in Central Iowa. After graduating from the University of Iowa in 2008, Pfaltzgraf ran for state office, but ultimately lost and found himself working in the payment platform industry.
Eventually, he quit his job and moved to Atlanta, after receiving an investment from a venture capitalist investor in the area. He started Softgiving in 2017.
In its earliest days, Softgiving worked on a round-up product for debit and credit cards, rounding transactions to the nearest dollar and donating the difference to charities. According to Pfaltzgraf, this made the company almost no money. So, eventually, they pivoted and focused on marketing for charities.
Pfaltzgraf has said he saw an opportunity for charities to grow in their market share—primarily through aggressively focusing on marketing.
He leaned on the ideology of professional fundraiser Dan Pallotta. Two decades earlier, Pallotta started the AIDSRide, a series of nationwide charitable events that raised money for AIDS research.
After several years, Pallotta became the subject of scrutiny in the charitable giving space because, despite the success of his events, which raised millions of dollars, much of those donations never made it to charity. By the end of the event series, the final AIDSRide in Washington, D.C., saw just 14 percent of donations go to charitable causes. According to national watchdog Charity Navigator, nonprofit organizations should not spend more than 10 percent of their revenue on fundraising expenses, including marketing.
In the summer of 2021, Pfaltzgraf shared a link to Pallotta’s 2013 TedTalk, which clapped back at onlookers’ critiques of Pallotta’s methods, to LinkedIn.
“Without charities, there would be no food banks, animal shelters, free health clinics or countless other needs provided for millions of people annually,” Pfaltzgraf wrote in his LinkedIn post. “So why, as a society, do we have a counterproductive moral code that puts them at a disadvantage?”
By the time Pfaltzgraf wrote that post, Softgiving was already a powerhouse in online fundraising. Its business focused on two products: first, HERO, which allowed influencers to easily set up a donations page and begin running a campaign, at no cost to the charity—other than industry-standard transaction fees, usually in the low single digits, assessed by payment processors.
The second product was EVENTS. On that side of Softgiving’s business, the company signed some charities to exclusive contracts where the company seemingly took over their marketing, according to contracts provided by several charities to The Jacob Wolf Report. In service of those marketing contracts, Softgiving would leverage its extensive rolodex of influencers both big and small, to raise millions of dollars.
“In the scenario where a third party manages the funds without the charity's oversight, there's far more likelihood of misuse and profiteering.”
Softgiving didn’t just take a cut of funds raised, though. In some cases, charities that signed up to work with Softgiving on events would agree to cover influencers’ fees, including some above tens of thousands of dollars. But when the charities couldn't afford to cover those costs, Softgiving would step in, by paying the influencers and then reimbursing itself from the donation pool, according to accounting provided by Softgiving to certain charities and public records.
To go alongside its campaigns, Softgiving set up individual donation websites for each influencer to share.
When a contributor made a donation, the money would not be sent to the charity directly. Instead, it went to a Massachusetts-based tech company, Givinga, and its foundation, the Givinga Foundation. On its end, the Givinga Foundation set up a donor-advised fund in the donors’ name and immediately issued a tax-deductible receipt. From there, the Givinga Foundation split the funds, paying Softgiving for expenses and any earned commission, and later issued a grant from its foundation to the intended charity. In a statement made to The Jacob Wolf Report, a spokesperson for Givinga said the company “plays no role” in determining a partner’s distributions.
Compared to Softgiving’s competitors, like Tiltify and DonorDrive—both of which Twitch recommends to streamers—the process of donation funds passing through another charity before making their way to their intended destination is unusual. “In the scenario where a third party manages the funds without the charity's oversight, there's far more likelihood of misuse and profiteering,” said Zach Wigal, the CEO of charity Gamers Outreach.
On those other services, charities sign up and pay a monthly or annual service fee to allow influencers to set up their campaigns. As a part of that process, those charities authorize Tiltify and DonorDrive to assess a pre-agreed-upon administration fee after a donation has been received. The money is never held by a third party—Tiltify and DonorDrive simply connect to the charity’s Stripe, PayPal, Amazon Pay or other payment accounts and deduct the administration fee.
On top of its service fees, Tiltify, for example, charges anywhere from a 3.5 to 5 percent fee, according to its CEO Michael Wasserman, making the sum of fees that cut into the total donation approximately 10 percent for most charities.
What helped put Softgiving on the map was that when it first started pitching charities in 2019, it didn’t charge anything, instead offering a free competitor to Tiltify and DonorDrive. The company relied solely on optional tips from donors, determined when they made a donation.
For smaller charities such as Rise Above the Disorder, regaining 10 percent of their donations presented a big opportunity to put that money toward more of the mission. “I was pretty excited about that idea,” Jason Docton, CEO of Rise Above the Disorder, told The Jacob Wolf Report.
The most-watched streamer group, OTK, raised more than $600,000 for Games for Love in March 2021 (OTK/YouTube)
Fewer online figures have as much influence as livestreamers on Twitch—which became particularly evident during the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.
Separated from their social lives, hundreds of millions of viewers looked to the Amazon-owned livestreaming platform for human connection, forming what many call “parasocial relationships” with their favorite entertainers. For charities, the 2020 pandemic saw a huge boom in fundraising online, particularly on Twitch, where livestreamers raised more than $83 million for charity that year, according to a report from Forbes.
Many of those streamers did not charge the charities and used the likes of Tiltify to set up their own campaigns. One of them, Benjamin “DrLupo” Lupo, raised more than $2.3 million for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in 24 hours during his annual charity stream that December.
But many streamers did not provide their services for free, and for donors contributing to charity campaigns, distinguishing between which streamers got paid and who didn’t at the time was not exactly easy.
Pay-for-play charitable fundraising is by no means new, but commission-based structures are often frowned upon in the charitable sector. “It is not appropriate for a nonprofit to compensate a fundraising professional based on a percentage of the money raised,” Washington-based charity network the National Council of Nonprofits writes on its website.
For about 18 months from the beginning of 2020 to mid-2021, some streamers who worked with Softgiving—many of whom were paid to do so—did not disclose if they were being compensated. Donation pages built by the Atlanta-based marketing agency did not contain prominently displayed disclosures outlining that Softgiving paid influencers, or that in some cases, it took a commission, according to web archives.
Softgiving compensated itself with roughly $2.6 million of the donations—or approximately 42 percent of the money raised—according to public tax records. The company declined to comment on how much of that went to its bottom line, versus how much of it went to the influencers when asked.
This story was reported and edited over two and half years by independent investigative journalists. If you want to support the work we do, subscribe to the Jacob Wolf & Mikhail Klimentov Patreon.
Following a 2020 scandal involving former Tottenham Hotspur F.C. manager Harry Redknapp and U.S. celebrity Caitlyn Jenner, where neither disclosed a charity they promoted had paid them to do so, British news organization Channel 4 polled more than 2,100 adults about their views on nonprofits and their relationships with celebrities. Seven in 10 respondents said they would be off-put if they were aware of a celebrity taking a fee to fundraise, with four in five saying they don’t believe celebrities should charge nonprofits a fee.
Softgiving’s pitch to charity partners was enticing, offering access to high-profile influencers who otherwise would be unlikely to work with Softgiving’s prospective clients. It made certain charities, like Games for Love, near-overnight powerhouses.
In just three charity streams in 2020, popular Pokémon YouTuber Daniel “aDrive” Clap raised $388,000 for the nonprofit, according to press releases and his stream archives. Another stream, in which Ludwig Ahgren organized a last-minute online Super Smash Bros. Melee event in response to Nintendo forcing a tournament organizer to cancel its event, raised more than $261,000, Ahgren announced at the end of the event.
In a span of just three events, Games for Love had more than quintupled donations raised in its past year or every other year prior in its history. Yet public records show it received just a fraction of that money.
All U.S. charities are required to publicize their tax records. Tax records for the Givinga Foundation, which Softgiving used as a passthrough to manage donations, show that Games for Love received a grant just shy of $180,000 in 2020.
In 2021, when Games for Love raised nearly $2 million in donations from Softgiving-organized events—according to publicly available tweets and archived donation pages—the charity received just $1.02 million after Softgiving and influencers’ cuts, according to tax records.
“If you say you’re donating $1, but 50 cents of it is going to keep the lights on of this organization or going into this streamer's pocket, that's where you start getting into the icky feeling of this is getting a little out of control.”
When reached in September 2021, Games for Love’s CEO Nathan Blair declined to disclose specifics of his working relationship with Softgiving, citing non-disclosure agreements he claimed to have with both it and Givinga. “They’ve really done a great job for everything that we’ve done with them,” Blair said. Givinga, through a spokesperson, emphatically denied signing a non-disclosure agreement with Games for Love, or any other charity that its partners work with.
Ahgren, for his part, told The Jacob Wolf Report that Softgiving wasn’t exactly clear about how its arrangement with Games for Love worked. Another influencer who worked with Softgiving on paid campaigns in 2020 and 2021 and spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Softgiving told him it didn’t take a cut—including to repay itself for his fee. He understood Softgiving’s lack of a cut to be an in-kind donation from the marketing agency.
Ryan Morrison of Evolved Talent, who represents Félix “xQc” Lengyel and sisters Alexandra and Andrea Botez and previously represented AustinShow (all of whom raised money for charities with Softgiving in 2020 and 2021), said he wasn’t told how the company compensated itself or the influencers. “We weren’t aware of this information at the time,” Morrison told The Jacob Wolf Report in summer 2021. “And now that we are, we will not be working with Softgiving anymore.”
Tweets from influencers and archived donation pages show that Softgiving worked with nearly 30 charities over the span of 2020 and 2021. In a media brief sent to one of the authors of this story in the fall of 2021 during his time at Dot Esports, Softgiving said that only two of those charities worked on a performance-based commission model. When reached for comment on Tuesday, Softgiving declined to answer questions about which charities it worked with on a commission basis in 2020 and 2021, but said, “the facts you're reporting are false.”
Many of the charities on that list bring in significant revenue outside of gaming, including CARE, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the American Cancer Society and Boot Campaign. But others are much smaller, such as the Trans Empowerment Project, Rise Above the Disorder and Women in Games International.
In a series of conversations from 2019 through 2022, Softgiving offered one small charity—Stack Up, which benefits active-duty military and veterans—commission-based deals that would split donations after expenses and transactions fees, according to emails and messages provided to The Jacob Wolf Report by that nonprofit’s CEO, Stephen Machuga.
The first deal for Stack Up, offered in 2020, split donations 80-20, with 80 percent going toward the charity, Machuga said. The second, presented in April 2021, split the net proceeds 50-50. The third, presented in 2022, also offered the 50-50 split again. Stack Up did not agree to any of the deals.
Machuga said that with each passing year, the proposed percentage of proceeds that Softgiving would charge for its services continued to increase. “If you say you’re donating $1, but 50 cents of it is going to keep the lights on of this organization or going into this streamer's pocket, that's where you start getting into the icky feeling of this is getting a little out of control,” he said.
Hasan Piker raises millions for CARE via Softgiving in February 2023 (Hasanabi/Twitch)
In February 2023, Softgiving received its most publicity to date.
Following devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, one of Twitch’s most-watched streamers, Hasan Piker, was determined to raise money for disaster victims. Born in the U.S. to Turkish parents but later raised in Istanbul, Piker covered the news of the earthquakes on Feb. 6. One day later, Piker and Softgiving teamed up to launch a campaign to benefit CARE. Donations quickly rushed in.
About halfway through Piker’s eight-and-half-hour stream on Feb. 7, things took a turn.
On Twitter, Joshua Belkin, a former Tiltify software engineer, leaked a seemingly templated version of Softgiving’s commission-based contract—which matched the contract that Machuga provided to The Jacob Wolf Report in 2022. The document showed that Softgiving proposed to receive 50 percent of donations after reimbursement of expenses and transaction fees.
Those on Twitter and in Piker’s Twitch chat became livid, as Piker also grew more and more incensed, confused by what Belkin had posted. “This makes me so frustrated that I donated to Hasan's campaign,” one donor, Joe Landry, wrote on Twitter in response to Belkin. “What a corrupt and dishonest practice.”
Social media quickly turned on Piker. Some alleged that Piker took the money himself. Others called him a hypocrite. Another influencer, Darren “iShowSpeed” Watkins Jr., who had donated $8,000 to Piker’s earthquake relief campaign prior to Belkin’s reveal, called the stream a “scam” on his stream and went back on a pledge to donate another $50,000 to the cause. The backlash further enraged Piker.
In the next three days, Piker raised more than $1 million for CARE. His manager, David Huntzinger of Night Media, told The Jacob Wolf Report that Softgiving provided him receipts showing that 100 percent of the funds, minus normal transaction fees, were donated to CARE. It’s unclear what sort of relationship Softgiving held with CARE.
But after the incident, Softgiving’s reputation faltered.
Publicly, Softgiving did not respond for two days. Internally, it saw the resignation of Brandon Stennis, who for almost two years served as a face for the company and a liaison to many influencers. Stennis later said on Twitter that he wasn’t familiar with how the business operated its relationships with the charities and that he didn’t feel comfortable continuing to work there after Belkin’s leak.
“This makes me so frustrated that I donated to Hasan's campaign. What a corrupt and dishonest practice. Definitely won't be making the mistake of giving through Softgiving again.”
On Feb. 9, Softgiving responded with a series of statements on Twitter.
It said the leaked contract wasn’t for a current partner. It also said that six percent of the charities it worked with paid an upfront fee for its services; 92 percent, it said, paid nothing at all, and just two percent worked on a commission-based structure. On commission-based campaigns, the company said it raised just shy of $150,000 from February 2022 to February 2023, with its take-home accounting for just 10 percent. Eighteen percent went to streamers and 14 went to giveaways prizes, it said. Charities involved with commission-based campaigns took home 58 percent of those donations. Its campaigns, it said, were never profitable. Softgiving’s statement didn’t, however, address 2020 or 2021.
To many behind the scenes of the online charity industry, Belkin’s reveal wasn’t new. Another event almost three years earlier earned Softgiving a black eye among industry insiders.
At the height of the pandemic in July 2020, Softgiving ran an event for the mental health charity Rise Above the Disorder, headlined by Grammy award-winning rapper Wiz Khalifa.
Earlier that year, Softgiving signed a contract with a small esports team, the Pittsburgh Knights, which Khalifa co-owned. The Knights committed to raise $810,000 over three events, and for its services, Softgiving agreed to compensate the Knights $400,000. The first of those events featured Khalifa and his entourage, as well as xQc and AustinShow.
The nine-hour stream saw Khalifa, xQc and AustinShow stream a number of games, like NBA 2K, Call of Duty: Warzone and others. It amassed more than 220,000 viewers, but raised just shy of $61,000, far below its $270,000 goal. “It was a nightmare,” Rise Above the Disorder CEO Docton told The Jacob Wolf Report.
In the ensuing months, Docton found himself in the middle of a legal dispute between Softgiving and the Knights—both seeking to bring them to their side of the dispute.
In accounting Softgiving later gave to Docton, of which he provided a copy to The Jacob Wolf Report, Softgiving withheld more than $46,000 in proceeds prior to the Khalifa event to cover its cost. Then, the event underperformed. By the end of it, the Khalifa event cost more than it raised, cutting more than $12,000 into Rise Above the Disorder’s running balance with Softgiving and Givinga from other events. Throughout the year, Rise Above the Disorder raised $276,000 through Softgiving, according to an internal Softgiving tracking platform that Docton showed The Jacob Wolf Report. His charity only received a little more than $100,000 from Givinga in payments, according to Givinga’s tax records.
Docton said the $176,000 shortfall devastated his nonprofit. “That kind of money was a substantial loss and if it wasn't for some very quick pivoting, we definitely would have collapsed,” he said.
The Rise Above the Disorder situation quickly reverberated around the small, tight-knit influencer fundraising community. Once Twitch’s leadership became aware of the situation, the company blacklisted Softgiving events from the front page of its site, according to multiple sources familiar with internal conversations at the time. When reached for comment in late 2021, Twitch declined to speak specifically on Softgiving, but linked us to a page of its support site that made recommendations to streamers of which platforms to use for charity streams. At the time, that page included Tiltify and DonorDrive, but did not include Softgiving.
After one of the reporters for this piece wrote a story about Softgiving’s lawsuit against the Knights in May 2021, Softgiving sent Rise Above the Disorder’s board a cease-and-desist letter, alleging Docton may be defaming the company for a future story.
“This letter is provided merely as a proactive step because Softgiving holds its reputation to a high bar,” the letter, written by Richmond, Va.-based attorney Jacob Tingen of Tingen Williams. “With regards to any defamatory statements that may be published about Softgiving, especially with regards to how funds are raised for charity in the online fundraising industry, Softgiving will defend itself, its interests and the interests of its charity partners, to the fullest extent of the law.
“If the R.A.D. Board is aware of any potentially defamatory statements that have been made to members of the press, we demand that you cease and desist all such activities and that any such statements be retracted immediately.”
Today, Softgiving is known as Brandfluence.
It rebranded in March after Belkin’s leak, though it says in the Dec. 14 lawsuit that it planned the rebrand prior to that incident.
Brandfluence still works with charities and influencers, including Games for Love and the OTK team. In April, OTK held a weightlifting stream, raising more than $140,000 for Games for Love. Softgiving, the influencers and the charity did not publicize how donations are broken down, though a disclosure is now affixed to the donation page. Softgiving, via its attorney, said it no longer holds performance-based contracts with any nonprofits. OTK, for its part, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The lawsuit Brandfluence filed on Dec. 14 alleges a conspiracy among one of the authors of this piece, Jacob Wolf, and four others—Alyssa Sweetman, who spearheaded Twitch’s relationships with charities during her nearly five years there; the competing fundraising platform Tiltify and its CEO Michael Wasserman; and Belkin, the former software engineer.
The lawsuit alleges that tweets and statements published by Sweetman, Belkin and Wasserman over the past year and a half have caused Brandfluence to lose “745 partners.”
“The individual defendants engaged in published statements designed to intentionally defame Brandfluence for purposes of interfering with its business relationships, engaging in unfair competition, and engaging in deceptive and unfair trade practices,” the company said in its suit, filed on Dec. 14.
Sweetman and Wasserman went on the record for this story, but neither were given access to other sources interviewed for this story, documents relied upon in this investigation or a pre-publication copy of this story. Neither author of this story has ever met Belkin, nor was he contacted for this story.
Softgiving shared how it split donations from February 2022 to February 2023 in a series of statements on Twitter.
In an email sent to The Jacob Wolf Report on Friday, the attorney representing Softgiving in the suit, Larry Kunin of Morris, Manning and Martin, said Softgiving’s fundraising efforts aren’t abnormal.
“Paying to obtain influencers is simply another marketing strategy, and a successful one for the charities,” Kunin wrote. “Your statement implies that paying for services to raise money is improper when it is not.”
Paid fundraising work of this kind is not new, but many experts and third parties interviewed for this piece said how Softgiving structured those relationships is unusual and the lack of prominent and detailed disclosure to the donor is problematic.
Most charities pay marketing companies like Softgiving directly for their services, rather than through donations, meaning that on public tax returns, those fees show up as a professional fundraising expense. Those expenses are used by third parties, like Charity Navigator and Charity Watch, to accurately grade the charity on how effectively it uses donations for its mission.
But on Games for Love’s tax returns, there aren’t any fundraising expenses—despite the millions of dollars in donations being lost to Softgiving, per Givinga’s returns.
For Wigal, the Gamers Outreach CEO, the discrepancies present an issue of public trust. “It's likely to breach trust with donors, and strikes me as a situation where funds could be misappropriated,” he said. “At the least it demonstrates a lack of transparency, and, in my view, is misleading.”
Scholars agree. “This is both an old story and a new story,” said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor at Notre Dame who has spent his life focused on non-profit law. Mayer said that for decades, professional fundraisers have pitched nonprofits on “free money,” where the fundraiser does all the work for a high cost, and even if the net proceeds are just a small portion of the overall donations, it’s money that the nonprofit otherwise wouldn’t be able to raise.
Brandfluence’s donation pages now contain a disclosure that says it may be compensated and that it may compensate the streamers, depending on each agreement with the charity, but it does not specify how much. The public still have questions about where donations go.
“People should know before they donate what percentage of each dollar goes to OTK, Softgiving and the charity itself,” one Reddit user Ghostfoxman wrote in a thread about the April OTK stream. “There’s no excuse not to be transparent ahead of time. It’s slimy to leave everything in the dark.”
Thanks for reading The Jacob Wolf Report. This story was reported and edited by a team of independent investigative journalists over a period of two and a half years. If you want to support the work we do, subscribe to the Jacob Wolf & Mikhail Klimentov Patreon.