After selling their online outdoor retailer, Moosejaw, in 2007, brothers Robert and Jeffrey Wolfe wanted to make a positive social impact but weren’t exactly sure how to go about it. At the time, however, the Obama fund-raising machine was in full gear. “Forgetting the politics of it, we couldn’t believe the genius,” says Robert. By functioning more like an e-tailer than a classic political organization—sourcing sales (or microdonations) through millions of supporters via various social networking apparatus—Obama’s team brought campaigning into the modern age. They’d even made it fun.
At the same time, the Wolfe brothers noticed something that wasn’t so fun: online philanthropic drives. After researching pioneering sites like Causes.com and FirstGiving.com, they discovered there was still “plenty of space” for growth in this arena if they added a truly interactive social networking aspect to the equation.
As such, Robert called up his old friend Shauna Robertson, a Hollywood producer (Superbad, Anchorman) with a passion for philanthropy. He told her about their idea to create a site that utilized a crowd-sourcing, Facebook-like application—every fund-raiser would have a profile wall detailing their story, what they’re raising money for, who will benefit, and how much money they’ve brought in—that potential donors (the equivalent of Facebook friends or Twitter followers) could follow in real time. In other words, it would allow any person off the street to raise money—through small donations encouraged by videos, blogs, and outside social media—for various charities, the same way Kickstarter allows everyday people to fund large-scale art projects.
“Robert used to call me every other day with crazy requests for Moosejaw,” says Robertson, recalling one for 500 Superbad DVDs to be given away with every snowboard they sold. “So basically I do whatever he asks me to, because it has always proved to be a good time.”
In the room with her during the call was her boyfriend, now fiancé, Edward Norton, who was getting ready to run the New York Marathon—alongside Kenya’s Masai warriors—to raise money for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust.
“Edward got on the phone and said, ‘Do you guys want to do this? It would be a great case study,’” explains Robert. He and Jeffrey immediately took Norton up on the offer and partnered with the actor-producer couple on the idea. By sourcing the philanthropic power of Norton’s fans (or crowd) they raised an amazing $1.2 million in forty-three days mainly through microdonations.
“I like to call it philanthropy from the couch,” says Robertson. “Celebrities are busy, everyone is busy, so if you can raise money from the comfort of your home by reaching out to your friends or fans, it’s a powerful tool.”
So powerful, in fact, that Crowdrise has become a veritable weigh station for celebrities looking to avoid the black-tie dinner circuit—and, to be fair, they’re just a small sliver of the Crowdrise pie, which is now empowering thousands of people across the globe to raise money for some 1.5 million charities, all of which are vetted by the IRS’s GuideStar database—and harness the power of the Internet for good.
For instance, Will Ferrell has two efforts—both logged under his Charitable Life profile, Crowdrise’s version of a Facebook wall—on behalf of Cancer for College. (Give $26 to one and you could win a round of golf with him; give $13 to another and he’ll send you a bottle of his “Super Sexy Hot Tan Sunscreen”.) Meanwhile, Sophia Bush recently went on a Twitter binge to help raise money for the Nature Conservancy. Through Crowdrise’s platform she brought in $52,000 in just four weeks, with average contributions of $25.
“When we initially connected with Crowdrise, our goal was to reach that next generation of supporter, not just move our existing donor audience over to another platform,” says Susan Citro, director of new media member strategies for the Nature Conservancy. “For us, the Sophia Bush campaign was a win-win: It allowed us to communicate effectively with many different audiences at the same time and do so in a way that had a tone appropriate for each.”
Tone is the key. When Robert Wolfe started Moosejaw with a friend, it was a brick-and-mortar store in Detroit. As novice retailers, they didn’t feel comfortable conversing with the customers about the product; instead, they relied on what he calls “nonsensical marketing.” That meant some days they’d ask customers to join in on impromptu parking-lot Wiffle ball games or offer 20 percent discounts in Chinese food delivery (if you bought a $200 jacket, they sent $40 in takeout to your house).
“We make giving a blast, throw in a little competition, and at the end, no matter what each person raised, everybody scores big.”
– Edward Norton
While the Wolfe brothers aren’t sending Chinese takeout to fund-raisers these days, they’re still employing the principles of that marketing strategy at Crowdrise. And they’ve made philanthropy fun. In addition to its cheeky home-page slogan (“If you don’t give back, no one will like you”), Crowdrise takes cues from the loyalty programs of airlines and other online retailers, incentivizing its members’ efforts. Each fund-raiser can get votes, earns points, and even acquire silly, but fun “Royalty” titles—100,000 points makes you a “Doctor,” while 750,000 gets you the “DJ” moniker, which allows you to “choose the music at the always magical Crowdrise Prom, and if we ever have a Crowdrise Airlines, DJs get to fly first class.” They can also score Crowdrise merch, Moosejaw gift certificates, or wacky gifts like “a cool hair thing” valued at $14.
Going forward, the Crowdrise team is looking to get a bit more serious in one realm: partnerships with philanthropically minded companies like Patagonia, which cuts Moosejaw a $5,000 check each year to give to a charity of its choosing. This year, they turned that donation into a Crowdrise contest, where the money went to the highest-earning charity.
“Nine charities raised $42,000 between them,” says Robert. “The winner got the $5,000 [on top of the money they raised], but the great thing is that the charity that came in second still got the $9,000 they raised. You start from a place of $5,000 for one charity; now we’ve raised $47,000 for a bunch of charities and thousands of people got involved.”
While this unvarnished competitive streak might strike the gala set as gauche, the Wolfe boys aren’t too concerned about shocking anyone’s delicate sensibilities. Neither is Norton.
“We make giving a blast, throw in a little competition, and at the end, no matter what each person raised, everybody scores big by realizing that we can really have impact,” says the Oscar-nominated actor. “The power of the crowd is real.” Just ask the Masai warriors.
Michael Slenske writes regularly for RL about art and culture.