Raising the Bar

From metro Detroit hails an online fundraising platform that’s been redefining philanthropy on a national scale
Photographs by Josh Scott

For the third year in a row, the principal sponsor of the Boston Marathon will continue to enjoy what eluded them for so long before: the ability to get up close and personal with the fundraising efforts of their charitable runners, many of whom work their butts off for months to collectively raise millions of dollars.

After all, the Boston Marathon, though changed forever by the tragic bombings last year, has always been one of the country’s most elite races. It’s also a vehicle for raising serious cash for various charities. The stories behind those efforts are “very powerful,” says Tom Crohan, assistant vice president and counsel for John Hancock Financial Services, the race’s biggest corporate sponsor.

But before John Hancock found a single place for all these extraordinary efforts to live online, engagement with runners participating in their marathon nonprofit program was “disconnected” and “all over the Internet,” says Crohan. “We’d tell them halfway through their campaigns to let us know how they’re doing. And at the end, we’d ask them to share their stories. What the process lacked was meaningful, real-time updates.”

Crohan works out of his Boston office, but it’s from an office in Royal Oak that John Hancock has been able to realize its dream of a better fundraising game. That’s where its partner, CrowdRise, is headquartered, and since 2010, this social fundraising hybrid, fueled in part by a Hollywood star and the sweetly humble co-founder of Moosejaw, has toiled in relative local obscurity to change the fundraising game on a national level.

“None of us would have bet that in three years we could have raised over $100 million,” says Edward Norton. The actor and activist’s fundraising effort for the 2009 New York City Marathon (with friend and Moosejaw co-founder Robert Wolfe) helped spawn CrowdRise’s claim to fame: a more fun, efficient, and social way to raise money.

Since then some of America’s largest nonprofits, including the American Red Cross and UNICEF, have put their faith in the CrowdRise platform — it’s like Facebook for philanthropy — to customize their cash-raising campaigns. Anyone can set up a profile, create a fundraising goal for a charity, invite friends to join in, and track and report their progress.

In a way Norton, Wolfe, and their CrowdRise business partners (movie producer Shauna Robertson and Wolfe’s brother, Jeffrey) have really just made the act of philanthropy more meaningful and real, Crohan says. With CrowdRise “you get a real sense of the breadth of the fundraising experience.”

“I’ve been surprised and delighted by how much it’s grown,” says Norton, who’s eager to establish a bigger presence here (the Detroit Marathon is using CrowdRise this year). “Our main [CrowdRise] team is in Detroit, and they are brilliant.”

Heading up that team every day is Wolfe, who works on CrowdRise full time since selling Moosejaw (he still sits on the Moosejaw board and meets weekly with its creative team).

Wolfe and brother Jeffrey started Moosejaw in the early 1990s. Having fun was a priority. They would invite customers to play games with them in the parking lot of their first store in Keego Harbor.

The Madison Heights-based clothing and outdoor gear company is now known for its dedication to customer service and its quirkily endearing relationship with the people who buy its stuff. (One of many Moosejaw boards on Pinterest is called “The Things I Have Nightmares About.” Among them: “raccoons with knitting needles.”)

That’s authentically Wolfe — “Moosejaw-esque” as he calls it. He operates CrowdRise with that same off-the-wall sensibility. “If you don’t give back, no one will like you,” is the official CrowdRise slogan.

But make no mistake, though it’s a not-for-profit venture, CrowdRise is serious business, and they’re running it the same way they would a for-profit. Customer service and incentives are a huge deal — a Valentine’s Day promotion vowed to give corsages to the first 500 people who could raise at least $25 for their causes. After all, people need a good reason to give away their money, Wolfe says — and to be personally involved so they’ll keep doing it.

The ultimate impact, Crohan says, seems to be more money raised in a faster amount of time. Since signing on with CrowdRise three years ago, Crohan says, John Hancock’s marathon nonprofit program in Boston has consistently seen its participants raise more and more dollars.

“A lot of what we’re doing at CrowdRise is helping organizations understand how to convert donors” to loyal fundraisers, Wolfe says.

Of course sometimes the cause starts with a single person, and CrowdRise is helping the smallest of small fundraising challenges, too.

That’s what Melissa Winter, a local woman whose niece suffers from a rare form of childhood cancer, thought she had when she set up a CrowdRise profile to help raise money for a foundation that could help little Tessa.

Winter set the goal at $20,000. She, her friends, and family reached it in three days thanks to the social aspect of the CrowdRise platform.

“We were completely floored,” Winter says.