When Edward Norton crossed the finish line at the New York City Marathon last year, not only had he huffed and puffed his way to a personal best of 26 miles, he also helped the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust raise more than $1 million in a short two months, with Norton himself hauling in nearly half the total amount.
The micro-donation model used by the Maasai Marathon website turned into a prototype for Norton’s innovative new site Crowdrise, which merges volunteerism and social networking in the hopes of making charitable causes go viral. Even its slogan is hard to ignore—“If you don’t give back, no one will like you.”
The Fight Club and American History X star, who is typically reluctant to embrace his celebrity status, is eager to promote his new project, which launched quietly in February but which Norton has been talking up since its unveiling in May. Norton’s fellow founders include Shauna Robertson, who produced Superbad and Knocked Up, and brothers Robert and Jeffrey Wolfe, the creators behind the online retailer Moosejaw, known for its quirky approach to making shopping more than just another transaction.
When the Wolfe brothers stepped down from Moosejaw after selling off their successful venture, it happened to be during the heart of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which was getting attention for the amount of money contributed by small donors. “We couldn’t believe the genius of it,” Robert Wolfe said. That spark combined with “wanting to do something impactful” led to collaborating with Norton as he was gearing up for his Maasai Marathon campaign.
The Maasai website featured personal messages from runners on Norton’s team, photos, videos, and a rolling ticker of contributors and the amounts they had donated—in other words, a virtual community much like MySpace or Facebook where users could click around and learn about the runners and the cause, and then decide to become a sponsor.
The allure of social networking—and admittedly a dose of celebrity—worked. Rather than having to knock on doors to get people to donate, it was the other way around. “We didn’t expect people to be writing in and wanting to join” the effort, Norton said during a phone conversation. He credits the “really dynamic site” for people’s piqued curiosity.
Now any do-gooder can go to Crowdrise, build a fundraising page for their charity of choice (“If it takes you more than a minute to create your Page, you’re probably just a really slow typist,” the site teases in its signature irreverent voice), and take the project viral. People interested in a particular cause who want to participate beyond a simple donation can join a team (“It’s like communism but more fun.”) and spread the word to their own network. The web platform’s ease—and its A-list founder—has attracted a host of celebrity members, including Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, and Kristen Bell, who have all joined to promote their own causes.
The main focus of Crowdrise is to “make it fun,” Wolfe says. “When we were researching the platform, we talked to a lot of high school students who volunteer... They hated it because they were being forced to do it.” With a combination of social networking, crowdsourcing, a point system, and prize incentives, the site isn’t just fun, but “addicting,” Wolfe says.
Ed Norton gives a speech at a Crowdrise event to raise money for the Maasai Villagers Need a Truck fund.
The more active a user is, by posting photos or commenting on other people’s projects, the more likely they are to be rewarded with votes and points, which can be cashed in for prizes that include anything from Crowdrise schwag to a laptop. And active donors can earn titles such as Doctor, Tsar, Sir, or Dame. With more than 200,000 points, Norton, as the second-highest point earner on the entire site, has earned himself Tsar status.
By doing little more than creating a page and tapping out a few paragraphs about his causes, Norton has currently raised more than $20,000 for the five projects he’s sponsoring, which range from theater to affordable housing to conservation, a cause he practically inherited. His father, Edward Norton Sr., is a career environmental advocate and founder of the Grand Canyon Trust and Rails-To-Trails Conservancy.
“I grew up learning an enormous amount from him,” Norton says of his father, “and found my own kind of roots into engagement.”
After enduring the aches and pains of last year’s marathon, Norton won’t be pounding the pavement again this year. But he hopes to work closely with the marathon’s organizers to help bring the fundraising power of Crowdrise to the marathon.
“This year, if someone runs the New York marathon, anyone else running the marathon can join their team with two clicks of a button. There’s the ability to phone tree out and create a really fast virtual community,” Norton said.
In its short lifespan, Crowdrise has already exceeded expectations. Organizations have surpassed their fundraising goals, and celebrities are engaging their own community of fans.
“It’s gone viral to the degree that we’re not even aware of people who’ve signed on,” Norton says. “That to me is the ultimate testament that it’s working—it’s not requiring our direct involvement.”
Joyce Tang is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Double X, and The Miami Herald.