Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fight Club

Actor Edward Norton today officially launched Crowdrise, a new social media site and for-profit social enterprise that aims to transform the supporters of good causes into their most ardent fundraisers.

The site is the latest entry into what has become a crowded online field for charity fundraising. But uniquely, it offers its most active users "points" for their engagement. For every dollar raised for a cause earns users a Crowdrise point, which can be used to win prizes donated by top brands, such as laptops and iPods from Apple or windbreakers from North Face.

Crowdrise [its motto is if you don't give back, no one will like you] was developed by the 40-year-old star of movies including The Illusionist and Fight Club to give people and organizations "a new way to set up fundraising pages without having to spend great sums" (or having to buy fundraising software). "People use Twitter or Facebook because it's a way to share their personal narrative," Norton said in an interview. "We wanted to give people a chance to also share what they care about in the world, a platform to say, 'These are the causes I care about; I am volunteering. Sponsor me.'"

Each fundraising campaign that is created on the platform sets a fundraising goal and tracks progress in real-time. Once a campaign is created, the "host" then asks for donations using Facebook, Twitter and email to activate his or her social networks into donating any amount, of any size. Each campaign also offers non-members and non-supporters the chance to join the cause and help to fundraise for it using their own social networks.

The site originated out of Norton's Massai Marathon, an effort he kicked off last year to protect wildlife in Kenya and Tanzania, and which raised $1.2 million in less than eight weeks, mostly from small donations. "We want to convert social networking from just being social into substantive, productive communication with action," Norton told The Wall Street Journal earlier this week. "Instead of telling the world what you're eating for breakfast, you can use social networking to do something that's meaningful."

It's not the first celebrity fundraising-site-for-good: actor Kevin Bacon launched some years ago to offer people a new way to leverage celebrity-power for their causes. It's also not the first fundraising site to let anyone create campaigns and leverage their social networks for donations. [Think GlobalGiving, among others.] But Norton's site uniquely offers participants incentives in the form of points and prizes. The first round of prizes will be awarded July 31.

"Technology has allowed for a kind of engagement between people with a public life and the people who are interested in them, which is entirely new and potentially very powerful," Norton said. Organizations already signed up to use the site for fundraising include Oceana, City Year, the Alzheimer's Association, Paul Farmer's Partners in Health, and Malaria No More.

Norton is no celebrity-come-lately when it comes to social advocacy. His father, an environmentalist with the Nature Conservancy, was an attorney for the Wilderness Society when Norton was a boy; his grandfather was an early advocate for affordable housing and set up the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation in Manhattan to help the poor. Norton, himself, is on the board of that foundation and has been working quietly for years on environmental and anti-poverty issues. (In 2006, Norton founded Enterprise Community Partners, Inc.'s Solar Neighbors Program, which negotiated an agreement with BP Solar to provide solar-power technology to low-income homeowners in Los Angeles, helping dozens of families to cut their energy bills by more than half. Each time a celebrity or public figure buys a home solar system, BP donates a full system to a family. so far, the company has donated nearly 75 systems.)

A spokesperson for Crowdrise said Norton set up the site as a for-profit social enterprise, in part to insure its sustainability over time and to encourage other social businesses. "The things that seem monumental or monolithic are the ones that you have to take on, Norton told me in a 2007 interview for Contribute Magazine. "Sometimes, even just the act of beginning something is the integral first step because a good idea has a tendency to snowball."

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Photograph: Courtesy Contribute Magazine)

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