GoFundMe Heroes celebrates the everyday people who do extraordinary things on GoFundMe.
As a college freshman, Matt Nelson started a Twitter account dedicated to rating adorable dogs. Three years and several memes later, it has almost eight million followers. But one day, he learned that a dog he had featured was in need of a wheelchair. Rather than sit idly by, Matt rallied his community and started a social media sensation—one that has helped countless dogs and raised over $500k to date. And he’s just getting started.
In Matt’s words, the story of @dog_rates from his interview on GoFundMe’s podcast, True Stories of Good People:
Dogs have always been a part of my life. When I was a bored college freshman and wanted to start a new thing, I knew that most people shared this love of dogs with me, so why not create an account that embraced that?
Basically, the way @dog_rates works is that people send in photos and videos of their dogs and I caption them. The one consistency is that we give them a score out of 10, and they always receive above a 10/10 because they’re all better than perfect.
When I started it, I had a personal account with almost 10k followers. I had that little audience to market @dog_rates to when I made it, but then it passed my personal account in followers within five days. The account grew very quickly but tapered off at around 100k followers. Then, the whole “they’re good dogs Brent” thing happened.
An individual tweeted at the account something negative to the effect of, “Your rating system doesn’t make sense. Why don’t you just change your name to CuteDogs?” That struck a nerve with me because I like to think that the value is not only in the cute dogs but also the captions. So I responded.
It was a private conversation, and I had no intention of it going viral. But still to this day, people respond with some variation of that phrase to our posts. I can easily attribute 200k new followers to that viral interaction alone. That was what skyrocketed us in the beginning. From there, we’ve had little bumps of media attention and viral posts, and it’s just been consistent growth, which I can only attribute to the fact that people like dogs.
I didn’t start internet dog language, but my account was simply swallowed by it. The use of “heck” was something people were attaching to their dog memes, and I took it and censored it. I thought that taking an already censored word and censoring it again would make it very wholesome and pure and fit the type of dog content I’m putting out there.
Now, @dog_rates has 7.9 million followers on Twitter. It’s crazy. I think we have 1/10 of that on Instagram. Across all platforms each day, I get between 800 and 1,000 dog photo submissions. I have someone who sorts through them and condenses them, so I’m only sent 20–30 of those a day, and they are the best of the best of the best. To people who want their dogs featured, I tell them to send in a variety of photos and send them often.
I often have to take a step back and realize the influence the account has. The submissions I receive can be emotional. Dogs have become such a part of people’s families, so for them to send me pictures and tell me more about their dog is an honor.
In mid-2016, there were four dogs—three pugs and an older yellow lab—who always dressed up for the holidays. Their owner would make a whole backdrop and dress them up, and she sent me a photo for every holiday. Then, I learned that one of them needed a doggie wheelchair. I think he was 12 years old and struggling a little bit. It was $400 or $500 for the wheelchair, so his owner started a GoFundMe.
Since I had posted the dogs’ photos before, I figured people would recognize them and maybe be inspired to donate. I shared the GoFundMe, and we ended up raising $700 in a matter of hours. It was an experiment to see how committed my audience was, and they proved that they wanted to help these dogs.
We probably shared five or 10 more GoFundMe campaigns throughout 2016, and we hit every goal. These were dogs that people weren’t familiar with until they read their stories, but they just attached themselves to it and raised the money. In that first year, we shared one with a goal of over $10k. So this was the post where I thought, “If we don’t make it, it’s okay.” But within 24 hours, that goal was hit.
At the beginning of 2017, we committed to sharing GoFundMe campaigns consistently.
This year, we’ve shared a few with lower goals, and it’s almost like a race for readers to see who can donate before the goal is hit. I have so many people who set aside $5 per week to give to that dog. That’s just special to have in people. I have no idea how I fostered this community. I think it’s just people who connect with and love dogs.
I’ve shared 78 campaigns now, and we’ve raised $458,000. (At the time of this article’s posting, WeRateDogs™ has shared 88 campaigns and raised a total of $552,000.) The comments on the posts will make you cry every time. It’s just hundreds of pictures of dogs sending good wishes to other dogs to get better.
On September 26, 2018, Matt received a direct message on Instagram from the friend of an owner whose dog needed help. The dog’s name was Cricket, and he had recently taken a tumble while playing at the park and tore his ACL and meniscus. The surgery bills were overwhelming and the recovery process was daunting, so they created a campaign on GoFundMe with the hopes of softening the financial blow. Less than three hours after posting, Cricket reached his $4,000 goal and was able to schedule the surgery. Now 10 years old and six months out of surgery, Cricket is doing wonderfully.
I’d like to think that if anyone else had this audience, they would do the same. Hopefully I’ve taken it and done the best I’ve could with it, but it’s been wild for sure. This whole journey has been crazy. It’s been a blink. I don’t know how any of this happened.
At the end of the day, I’m just elevating someone’s story by putting my own voice behind it, and everyone can do that. They may not have the same audience I do, but they can still contribute. It doesn’t always have to be dollars. It can be time. It can be effort. It can be a response. I have a follower who writes a poem for every dog. Support is not always monetary.
If you believe in a cause, I’m sure a quick Google search can get you to where that cause is being elevated. And if you’re really invested in it, you can find a way to get it done.
Matt is currently championing GoFundMe.org’s Animal Rescue cause, which allows you to make a single tax-deductible donation that is distributed to multiple fundraisers helping rescue animals.