When he was 21, Robert Wolfe started Moosejaw, an outdoor apparel store, based on one principle: fun. Now, 18 years later, Wolfe and the co-founders of Crowdrise are basing an entire fundraising platform on that very same principle. Speaking on behalf of those co-founders—Shauna Robertson, Edward Norton, and Wolfe's brother Jeffro—Wolfe insists it’s all about "nonsensical marketing. It’s the way we can have impact in the philanthropic space."
Laughs aside, the Crowdrise community has become a serious fundraising force by eschewing the traditional model of philanthropy—no $500 per plate formal fundraising dinners here—and going straight for an easy, engaging way to make micro-donations.
On your mark
Wolfe and his brother sold off most of Moosejaw.com in early 2007. They could have retired, but "wanted to have an impact," Wolfe tells Fast Company. That’s about the time he started following the Obama campaign’s fundraising efforts. "I thought it was genius, regardless of the politics," Wolfe says. "But I didn’t think anyone was doing that and making it fun."
So Wolfe called up his old friend Shauna Roberston to ask if she’d be willing to join a yet-unnamed organization. Serendipity ensued. Robertson, best known for producing comedies 40-Year Old Virgin and Superbad, just happened to be hanging out with actor Edward Norton. And Norton just happened to be gearing up for the New York City Marathon which he was running to raise funds and awareness for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. Wolfe signed on to run with Norton.
The team came up with an interactive Web site to track the runners' progress and fundraising. $1.2 million in donations later, the four knew they’d found something with huge potential.
"The Obama campaign was all about the small donor," says Wolfe. "With Crowdrise we wanted to combine social networking with retail and crowdsourcing. If you have two donors who give $10,000 annually, that’s not a great business model in a tough economy. We built this for organizations to engage small donors and turn a $25 donor into a $100 fundraiser." What’s more, as Robertson points out, "You can fundraise from your couch."
Crowdrise—which is a for-profit business, not a nonprofit 501C3—allows users to create their own fundraising pages for free. It takes less than a minute to sign up, though it may take significantly longer to stop reading the irreverent bits of humor peppered throughout the site. (Sample opener: "Please only read all this if you're super bored or you're writing a paper on ways to give back and you're looking for something to plagiarize.")
Then it’s up to the user to enlist friends, family and other members of the Crowdrise community to get excited about their cause or their volunteer project and rack up donations.
Two decades in the retail business taught Jeffro and Robert a thing or two about customer loyalty. "We didn’t have a large following," says Wolfe, "but they were dedicated." And why not? How often do you walk into a store and hear "Wanna play home run derby in the parking lot?" instead of "How can I help you?"
Taking a page from Moosejaw's nonsensical marketing playbook, Wolfe and company turned fundraising into a game. Users get a Crowdrise point that can be used to win prizes for every dollar raised, "because it’s much more fun to donate if you get points."
Wolfe admits it’s helped to have such Hollywood heavyweights as Norton, Will Ferrell, and Barbra Streisand on his team. However, Wolfe is sanguine about the prospects of scale. "We’ve doubled nearly every month since we started, but I know that is going to slow down sometime," he says. "You have to drive a lot of donations to make it work."
Right now, says Wolfe, Crowdrise is excited to collaborate with other organizations and do even more good work. An upcoming project with his alma mater, the University of Michigan, will help students raise money for volunteer work over spring break.
"That’s what gets us really excited," says Wolfe. "We talk like jokers, but we actually think it’s going to work. We’ll absolutely be in trouble the moment we know what we are doing, but we are incredibly driven to catch up with the madness that accompanied our launch."