Robert Wolfe, ’92, doesn’t play by the rules. He can’t. He doesn’t even know them.
It’s a point of pride for this entrepreneur, co-founder of the philanthropy-meets-social-networking site CrowdRise. Skillfully melding crowdsourcing and microlending with offbeat humor and blatant self-interest, CrowdRise is carving a wacky (and winning) niche in the burgeoning peer-to-peer fundraising space. The site delivers a vast online catalog of causes linked by a tongue-in-cheek tagline that warns, “If you don’t give back no one will like you.”
“We really think that even if you’re fundraising for a cause that is incredibly serious, it doesn’t have to be miserable, right?” Wolfe says. “There won’t be donor fatigue if you actually like doing it.”
So Wolfe and his team spend all their time thinking of ways to ensure “you actually like doing it.” Back-end tools allow homespun philanthropists to create a compelling profile, spread the word, and start raising funds right away. In the meantime, colorful web copy encourages donors to explore all the available options: support victims of the Aurora, Colo. shooting, stop fracking, save endangered wildlife, and more.
“Instead of donating $100 to one project you may want to consider finding five amazing projects and give $20 to each of ’em,” the copy states. “Or, do what I do and give at least $10 to anyone who doesn’t have a single spelling mistake on their page.”
A points-reward system, contests, merchandise, and seamless interaction with fellow fundraisers inspire consciousness, connection, and friendly competition across the site. All the while CrowdRise feeds that drive to effect change at the micro level.
“We don’t want to be just a platform, we want to be an engaged platform,” Wolfe says. “Ultimately, our vision is not to be a site that drives tons of traffic so we can sell advertising. We have zero interest in that. We want to be a site about people actually caring about giving back. We want to be the first brand about giving back.”
CrowdRise is Wolfe’s second startup since graduating from Michigan with a poli sci degree and the singular goal to be good at Trivial Pursuit. His first enterprise was Moosejaw, an outdoor apparel/lifestyle retailer he co-founded with a friend. An avid hiker and camper who abhorred the mall, Wolfe sought to create a unique shopping experience that traded as much on personality as product.
“At Moosejaw, we knew nothing about retail,” Wolfe says. “When people came into the store, we wouldn’t say, ‘Can I help you?’ We’d say, ‘Do you want to go play Home Run Derby in the parking lot?’ It’s not as though we were consciously breaking the rules. We were just being ourselves. And once we saw this idea of not talking to customers about the product was resonating, we started doing it on purpose.”
Wolfe and his partners (which included his brother and fellow Michigan alum, Jeffro) dubbed their approach “nonsensical marketing” with the idea to make the in-store experience as much fun as possible.
“When we launched our online presence,” Wolfe says, “we tried to make that translate, so we started doing things like blogs and community engagement. We just wanted to connect with people.”
That was way back in 1995. Things like blogs and community engagement barely existed. Today, Moosejaw’s site is rich with humor, customer photos, online games, and promotions that redefine the online shopping experience.In 2007 Wolfe and his brother sold most of their interest in Moosejaw, and started thinking about using their talents in a sector other than retail. The 2008 presidential race was heating up, and Wolfe was intrigued by the way then-Sen. Barack Obama was using social media to motivate micro-fundraising.
“[The Obama campaign] was acting like a retailer, offering incentives and rewards to inspire volunteers,” he says. “And they were trying to make fundraising cool, right?”
Upon researching the philanthropic space, Wolfe concluded the charitable giving arena, as a rule, was not particularly cool—let alone fun. “And we thought we could take the lessons we learned in retail and change the way people felt about giving back.”
Wolfe contacted potential partners to gauge interest in launching a startup in the philanthropic space. He found a kindred spirit in friend Shauna Robertson, a movie producer with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Superbad to her credit. Robertson’s friend, the actor Edward Norton, was training for the 2009 New York City Marathon and raising money to support the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. The timing was ideal. Wolfe joined Norton’s cause and together they set up a website to track their fundraising progress. They launched a social media campaign to spread the word. And they raised $1.2 million.
Validated by this initial success, Wolfe and his brother partnered with Norton and Robertson to launch CrowdRise in 2009. Norton’s celebrity status provided an early boost and other civic-minded actors signed up. That’s the kind of free publicity every entrepreneur dreams of: “No one’s going to follow me on Twitter,” Wolfe says, “but they’ll follow a celebrity.”
And whether a fundraiser is backed by a celebrity or “civilian,” most succumb to peer pressure; most share the passion to succeed. That’s where CrowdRise comes in. Donations to one’s cause earn points that can be redeemed for merchandise and/or publicity. Points earned are tallied and published for all to see; donor names and corresponding amounts scroll by on a constant feed; causes are celebrated as “random cool projects” or “best events ever.” For Wolfe, the greatest reward comes when he receives an email from a fundraiser who says, “A perfect stranger just donated to my cause. Is that a mistake?”
“No!” Wolfe practically cries. “This is how the site works. Unlike a simple tool or an email where you’re just going out to your own friends, there is a good chance that people who play around on the site will find you, see what you’re doing as compelling, and participate.”
The next iteration of fundraising, Wolfe predicts, is sponsored volunteerism. Last spring CrowdRise aligned with University of Michigan students engaged in the Alternative Spring Break program. Students who volunteered at various nonprofits during vacation used CrowdRise to raise money for their respective employers. Other campaign partners to date have included the New York City Marathon, Patagonia, Groupon, and Mozilla Firefox. In addition, CrowdRise just closed a deal with Stand Up To Cancer.
Building the brand
Wolfe does not provide statistics about the privately held CrowdRise—he won’t share data regarding number of users, funds raised, or even total number of employees. What he will offer is the fact that CrowdRise now occupies its fourth office space in just two years.
And while it’s free for a user with a 501c nonprofit to create a fundraising platform on the site, CrowdRise takes a small cut of the donations, which starts at 4.95 percent and includes credit card fees. In addition, donors can leave an optional “tip” on top of each donation to help offset the company’s business costs.
“The more successful the fundraiser, the better everyone does, including CrowdRise,” Wolfe says. “If it’s a bust, everybody loses.”In the end, customer service is the heart of the CrowdRise brand. Ensuring its users feel valued, appreciated, and motivated is the key to active engagement and future fundraising. Feedback is the fuel that drives the entire enterprise.
“We want to be a site about activation,” says Wolfe. “I think, especially for younger people, having this charitable narrative be a part of their lives is really important. Today, you’ve got people posting on Facebook about how many shots they did the night before. Our goal isn’t to replace that. But if we can make people self-interested about their fundraising, then maybe they’ll start posting about that on Facebook too.
“If in a few years,” he continues, “you’re walking down the street and see someone wearing a CrowdRise logo, and you know that person is giving back, we’ll have done something special. As a brand, we want to stand for that premise.”