"If you don't give back, no one will like you."
That's the tagline for Crowdrise, the social-fundraising platform launched in 2010 by actor Edward Norton, producer Shauna Robertson and Robert and Jeffrey Wolfe, brothers who founded outdoor-apparel retailer Moosejaw. If you find it a little too direct, a little too irreverent, well, that 's the point.
While Mr. Norton's star power has certainly helped Crowdrise gain traction, the company's approach to building relationships with users through a communications technique that the Wolfe brothers previously dubbed "nonsensical marketing" has perhaps been just as responsible for its early success.
"Our goal was to have an impact by making people self-interested about fundraising, which means they actually have to like it," said Robert Wolfe. "So we have a points system on one side and also talk in the same idiotic, foolish voice that we do at Moosejaw."
"I can say with some degree of confidence," he added, "that it's working."
Quantifying that is tough: Crowdrise is private and doesn't report revenue. But it makes money in two ways. First, the company takes a minimum cut of at least 4.95% of each donation. Crowdrise also charges charities annual fees for premium accounts that include perks such as priority support and custom page designs.
The company's "idiotic, foolish" tone permeates just about every correspondence the company places in front of its donors and fundraisers. The "How It Works" section on the home page welcomes visitors with the line: "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 there's the note on the site's community page about donating anonymously that reads: "No one really wants to donate anonymously. We'll leak your anonymous donation so that you look like a full-on hero." If that doesn't make you smile, Crowdrise probably isn't for you.
The organization also sends emails promising wacky prizes such as a bag of marshmallows or a corsage for an imaginary Crowdrise Prom. Totally ridiculous? Sure. But fun. Really fun.
Mr. Wolfe says the approach was born during the time he and his brother were running Moosejaw (they sold the majority of the business in 2007). As he tells it, neither brother was much of a shopper, so they weren't up to speed on the customer-service norms of running a retail business. "We never said, "How can we help you?'" he said. "We would say instead, "Do you want to play home run derby in the parking lot?' It was the idea of connecting with customers on stuff other than what we were selling, and it resonated with them."
The model is resonating with Crowdrise users as well, creating an environment that donors want to tell their friends about, ideally through social networks. And that 's exactly the point: Crowdrise aims to turn donors into fundraisers themselves for charities as varied as Stray Rescue of St. Louis and the Nature Conservancy.
Crowdrise won't say how much money has been raised through its platform, but a look around the site gives some idea of its success to date. Mr. Norton's page says that he has helped raise more than $145,000 to date, while profile pages for celebrities such as Barbra Streisand, Zooey Deschanel and David Cook range in the five figures. Non-celebrity users listed as Crowdrise "royalty" (for earning at least 100,000 Crowdrise points) have also brought in four- and five-figure amounts.
The company looks to strike a balance between the whimsical and the serious respect the charities deserve. As a result, Crowdrise doesn't touch the written copy on individual fundraising pages. The platform also doesn't try to be all things to all people, appealing to a younger-skewing target audience.
"We're not for everyone," Mr. Wolfe said. "My mom, who's 66 or something, doesn't care about the points program or winning pizza for her and 10 friends. But if you're 26 or 16, we think you'll care and want to tell your friends about it."