GiveForward’s biggest ever fundraiser nearly broke the company. Held in honor of Sarah Burke, the X Games champion free skier who died during training, the cause generated so much Facebook traffic in that first 24 hours that it crashed the servers. “I had to tell Sarah’s team that we might not have the capacity to host it,” GiveForward cofounder and COO Ethan Austin tells Fast Company. “But they told us they had faith in us, so we worked around the clock to figure out a solution.”
They did, and the effort brought in over $300,000 in just three days–more than enough to cover Burke’s hospital bills, funeral expenses, and to start a foundation in her memory.
When we checked in with GiveForward last February, the platform had pulled in about $3.5 million for a variety of medical causes. Now, Austin reports, GiveForward has hosted over 15,000 fundraisers and seen more than 200,000 people contribute $16 million to everything from medical expenses (for people and pets) to disaster recovery (fires, floods). The growth has been spurred in part by investor Brad Feld, who hasn’t invested in the company but has been offering a lot more than an infusion of capital.
Inspired by the “extraordinary feeling” that comes from helping a complete stranger in need without expecting anything in return, Feld set up a “random acts of kindness” fundraising marathon. The way it works is this: Feld will run 29 marathons (to bring his lifetime total to 50 by the time he blows out the candles on his 50th birthday cake). Each one is going to be dedicated to a different GiveForward campaign. Feld will donate $5,000 of his own money for each of these fundraisers in hopes that others will follow suit. “Our fundraising efforts will be a complete surprise to these families, and our hope is that we can create a little unexpected joy for the people we support,” Feld writes.
“Creating unexpected joy” is GiveForward’s mantra, Austin says. The hope is that Feld’s efforts will inspire more people to set up their own random acts of kindness pages. The success of Feld’s first campaign should help. “He exceeded the goal of raising $10,000 for the Salcedo family in a matter of days, and more than 100 additional people from around the country left words of support in the form of virtual hugs on the family’s GiveForward page.”
GiveForward’s path to success has not always been paved with virtual hugs. Founded during the depths of the recession in 2008, Austin and cofounder Desiree Vargas Wrigley had to bootstrap before convincing investors to buy-in to their for-profit model. GiveForward currently takes 7 percent of all donations. Austin says, “We keep a little less than 5 percent to cover the credit card fees. For comparison Kickstarter takes 5 percent and charges an additional 3.5 percent for credit card fees for a total of 8.5 percent.” GiveForward is also using the revenue to hire fundraising coaches to maximize the impact of amateur do-gooders.
Although GiveForward is up for two of Built In Chicago’s Moxie Awards, including Best Consumer Web Startup and Tech Woman of the Year, Austin has his sights on loftier goals. He estimates they’ll double the staff by the end of the year, the aim is to work with more hospitals to get patients connected with potential fundraisers. Over the past year GiveForward has become a resource to some 200 hospitals including MD Anderson in Houston and City of Hope in Los Angeles. “But there are over 6,000 hospitals around the country,” says Austin. “In the next few years, we want to get into all of them.”
[Image: Flickr user Danilo Fanchi]