Edward Norton: Give or Else

Actor Explains His New Web Platform to Inspire Fundraising

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If you don't give back, Edward Norton won't like you.

OK, maybe that's not entirely true. But the star of "Fight Club" and "American History X" is hoping that playfully confrontational humor and a democratic approach to fundraising will inspire philanthropy in even the least cause-minded or philanthropically inclined. Crowdrise, a new web platform for nonprofit fundraising introduced last month, is aiming to do for philanthropy what Zappos did for shoe-shopping online.

The site was co-founded by the actor and brothers Robert and Jeffrey Wolfe, founders of similarly irreverent online retailer (and 2007 Ad Age Marketing 50 honoree) Moosejaw. The idea for the site originated from Mr. Norton's involvement with New York City Marathons, having turned to the web to raise money for his participation in the Massai Marathon last year. Running to benefit the Massai Wilderness Conservation Trust, Mr. Norton was able to raise $1.2 million in less than eight weeks by connecting with dozens of small donors who found out about the cause through viral web channels and donated more than once.

Edward Norton
Edward Norton
Now Crowdrise is hoping to do the same for causes as diverse as a skate park in Ann Arbor, Chinese orphans, wildlife conservation or, in the case of actor Will Ferrell, sun tan lotion. The site's open-source platform was specifically designed to give equal weight to causes big and small, with the occasional celebrity (Mr. Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, Kristen Bell, the Swell Season's Glen Hansard) integrated into the site among dozens of other digital philanthropists. Everything from Crowdrise's tagline ("If you don't give back, no one will like you") to its How It Works page is written in the same jocular, tongue-in-cheek tone adopted by many of its celebrity users. It also befits the college-male user base that made the Wolfes' Moosejaw such a viral hit in 2007—although Mr. Norton and the Wolfe brothers insist that Crowdrise is intended for donors of all ages.

GoodWorks caught up with Mr. Norton and Robert Wolfe to hear more about the site's genesis, their social-media inspirations and potential "titles" with which they may reward the site's future superdonors.

GoodWorks: You guys come from very different backgrounds. Edward, you're primarily known as an actor and director, and Robert, you and your brother are known for using sophomoric humor to market outdoor products to college kids. How did you get together and decide to develop Crowdrise?

Edward Norton: Robert and Jeffrey really were the ones who initially identified the lack of a really good, dynamic, flexible platform for creating your identity as a philanthropist. They started bouncing it off a few of us who are involved in different charitable efforts.

At the time they first mentioned it to me, I was just setting up this idea of a campaign around a marathon team for a conservation organization I'm on the board of. But as we got talking, we realized that they were working on things that would really apply well to what we were trying to do in terms of creating a web-based grassroots campaign. And they saw our marathon as a great dry run of the things they were starting to work out.

We kind of improvisationally took on this one specific fundraiser together. By the time we were done, we had been so successful and learned so much about what would have worked and what would have made it work even better that ultimately we just decided to partner up because we all came to it with different skill sets. We felt like we had a team of people off that marathon who would collaborate really well together in making something like Crowdrise.

GoodWorks: The site seems to be based on being an open platform where users can crowd-source which causes they choose to make their donations. Is that what inspired the name Crowdrise?

Robert Wolfe: There's definitely a crowd-sourced element to the site. It's a combination of social networking with lots of tools typical of an online retailer sort of enmeshed within the site. That piece contributed to the name with the idea that lots of small donors can rise up to create a giant impact. Certainly the more viral the fundraisers get, the bigger the donations can be; but we went through a whole lot of names before we came up with Crowdrise.

Mr. Norton: From my perspective, not being that involved in social networks type of stuff, what I related to about it more was the idea that a lot of these tools, these social networking tools, are giving a new generation of people who are familiar with them the ability to rally in a new way. I think [about] what our parents did in the '60s with movement politics and new ideas about generational engagement, they had marches and rallies. I think, for our generation, the idea of our potency maybe takes the form of our ability to link with each other very quickly. These tools are the new methodology for rallying and creating power in numbers.

I kind of looked at it with a broader lens—not specifically in a technical reference but more power in movements. I think the Obama campaign—without dissecting the politics of it—as a social phenomenon, it really was a notable moment in which a generation that has kept historically an arm's length from politics congregated in a way that reflected our generation's emerging sense that our generation can affect things. It also showed how the tools we're particularly conversant with give us a power we hadn't really claimed up to now.

GoodWorks:There doesn't seem to be any focus or highlight on one specific cause on the site. Is that the point?

Mr. Norton: There are many things out there that try to be arbiters of what people should care about. We wanted to encourage engagement at face value without comment on what people's priorities ... or their politics should be. We're promoting social engagement that should be very egalitarian. We're excited about the fact that our only defining criterion is that you can only raise money through an IRS-approved nonprofit, as long as it's in the GuideStar database. We're not there to celebrate one cause over another—whatever fires you to get engaged.

Mr. Wolfe: While it is a platform, the way I describe it is we want customer service like Zappos, product like Apple and engagement like Moosejaw. We still want to embrace the community in a meaningful way that I don't think many platforms can.

GoodWorks: Is there a target audience in mind for the site? Certainly the snide sense of humor and the participation of celebrities such as Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd would suggest you're going after young, college-age males. But is it broader than that?

Mr. Norton: If it has that veneer, some of that's just coming from our personalities. Robert is our irrepressible jokesmeister. I think that may be partially true, but it's certainly not intended to exclude anybody of any age. I really take pleasure in seeing that there are definitely people using it in a very youthful and dynamic way who are not young. In some cases, organizations that tend to be a little older maybe are starting to work with us to engineer how to use this to reach to a younger generation. We'd like it to be a bridge.

There are certain things that we're very focused on: pushing this idea of volunteer networks using Crowdrise as a way to get volunteers by getting sponsored for their volunteer work in the same way a marathon runner gets sponsored for a race. Those service networks probably aim at young people who don't have a lot of money to give but are giving their time and energy. We want it to bridge across young and old, big organizations and small organizations. It's a four-quadrant demographic, and there's nothing about it that should limit its appeal.

GoodWorks: The site has been formally live for a little over a month now. Could you share how many registered users you've gotten so far?

Mr. Wolfe: More than we expected, but we're not sharing yet.

Mr. Norton: What's amazing is before we formally launched, we had organizations calling us saying, 'We just had to check what your site is.' We hadn't even publicized it, but people had raised money and gone through to the organizations. People were calling us saying, 'What is this?'

We're in the process right now of finalizing a couple of partnerships with some event-driven fundraisers, some of the bigger nonprofits in the country. We've been able to demonstrate to certain partners, or groups and events that we can do things for them that these kind of more dry, utilitarian platforms can't do for them. We're in the process of building out these more complex and sizable campaigns for them. But those should drop in the next month or two.

GoodWorks: One of the notable features of the site is the tiers of titles donors can achieve—tsar, doctor, sir or dame. Edward, I believe you're a tsar already. What about Robert?

Mr. Norton: Robert's probably been a tsar in his own mind for many years. It's probably an extension of his own self-affirmation. Eventually we'll have people so successful that we'll come up with altogether new ranks—maybe pulling into intergalactic like Starship Commander and Galaxyan Leader.

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