The New Math Of Giving: How $5 Does More Than A $40,000-Per-Plate Fundraiser

Matt Pohlson and Ryan Cummins, the founders of Omaze, bring high-end charity to the masses. Their business is doing well by doing a lot of good.

The New Math Of Giving: How $5 Does More Than A $40,000-Per-Plate Fundraiser

Charity used to be limited to those that could give large amounts–those that can afford the $40,000 dinner plate at a gala or auction. This model still exists of course, and it isn’t without merit. It can still raise a lot of money—but that “lot” is provided by very few.


It would seem though, according to some recent data, that there’s a new way to think about giving, one that is responding to our increasingly digital world and our more willing–but less able–cultural and economic climate. Blackbaud is a research organization that tracks over $8 billion in charitable giving to produce a report each year that analyzes trends within the sector. In their 2012 Charitable Giving Report, they reported that online giving is the fastest growing sector–up 11% from last year.

Matt Pohlson and Ryan Cummins, the founders of, were inspired by a certain celebrity auction with their lifelong hero, Magic Johnson. These diehard Lakers fans credited Magic as their childhood hero, so you can imagine the look of excitement that washed over their faces when he announced during a benefit for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America that he was going to auction off the chance to sit with him courtside at a Lakers game and join him for dinner after. Their lifelong dream experience was being dangled right in front of their eyes.

The bidding began and their hearts crashed as the offers escalated to $15,000. As it goes, their grad school budgets simply couldn’t afford their dreams this time. But the whole encounter fired them up and on the drive home, they couldn’t let go of the question: “Why should life’s most amazing experiences only be available to a select few? And worse, how could a prize which, in their minds, was priceless only raise $15,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs?” And that evening car ride home was precisely when Omaze was born.

Ryan and Matt realized that if they took those same opportunities, posted them online, and priced them at $5, they would open the experience up to millions of individuals nationwide. Everyone would have a chance to live out their dream experience and, better yet, they could raise substantially more than $15,000 for deserving causes.

Their idea was proven effective during the presidential election. Obama’s campaign included a “Dinner with Barack” fundraiser, that commanded $40,000 a plate–save for one. This one seat was auctioned off using a crowdfunding model that asked for $5 entries. The result? He raised $10.5 million for that seat–substantially more than all of the $40,000 seats combined.

Fast-forward to today and these gentlemen are nearly one year into a business that has worked with the likes of Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Adam Levine, Seth Rogen, Admiral Mullen, George Stephanopoulos, John Stewart, Vicente Fox, Tyra Banks, and the casts of Modern Family, Glee, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and more to raise money for causes like The Mission Continues, Tie The Knot, Hilarity for Charity, American Red Cross, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, American Indian College Fund, Architecture for Humanity , and more.


I always find it fascinating to see the wide range of ways that social entrepreneurs use their skills and expertise to create new business models to positively impact those in need and, equally, how organizations are grasping at technology to find new ways of raising money and tapping into new audiences. In the event a $40,000 dinner plate is outside your means, you might try your hand at an Omaze donation and, perhaps, make one of your dreams come true in the process.

[Image: Flickr user Liz West]

About the author

Shawn Parr is the Guvner & CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego whose clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, Ideo, Sony, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie’s Homegrown, Kashi, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, The Honest Kitchen, and World Vision.