Are you in a crappy relationship? Want to break up, but don’t have the guts? Good news, chicken! For just $5, some dude named Gene will handle the awkward conversation for you, and your money will go to a good cause. Everybody wins! Except your significant other.
Look, we can’t in good conscience recommend you take Gene up on his offer. But it’s just one of many services available via Raise 5, the online "micro-volunteering" platform that won Virgin CEO Richard Branson’s inaugural Screw Business As Usual competition this past May. Launched in February 2012 by the Toronto-based team of Mike Tang, Hassan Hassan, and Shayan Nahrvar, Raise 5 takes the concept pioneered by Fiverr—an online marketplace for five-dollar services—and adds a charitable aspect. "People are willing to pay for all sorts of wacky and interesting online services," says Nahrvar. "We wanted to channel these market forces into creating social change."
According to Nahrvar, the rise in online philanthropy has unfortunately been accompanied by one of the biggest problems plaguing fundraising in the traditional realm: the inability to sustain interest. "There’s a tried and true method," he says. "You set something up, and there’s a lot of effort, a lot of investment, and, yes, you fundraise very well. But how do you keep the community engaged?" Nahrvar says those aforementioned "market forces" are the key: Raise 5 counts on the fact that people would purchase these $5 services anyway, so why not put the money towards the greater good? "Microfinance brings down the barriers," explains Hassan. "People don’t want to just hand over a huge amount of money and think they’ve done their part. They want to have a hands-on experience."
Yes, several of the services are a bit out there. In fact, the very first service Raise 5 offered was Hassan dancing in a bear suit to the song of your choice. But the vast majority are actually useful opportunities, from logo and business card design to proofreading, recipe sharing, and mentoring of all sorts. Several Raise 5 users are offering the use of their social networks to promote a message or cause. And some services are just cool, like the "hair portraits" created by a user named Stephanie, benefiting Doctors Without Borders. "We always felt like the creative services would get the most exposure, get the most people excited," says Hassan. "We proved right."
There’s also a terrific side benefit: Raise 5 participants can use the platform to network and grow their portfolios. "One of our intents in running this community is that people could develop their skills and get potential clients," says Nahrvar. "If you’re an art student, you’re getting meaningful exercise, not just tedious homework assignments." And the team has discovered that once people join the Raise 5 community, they tend to stick around. "There’s a lot of cross-pollination," Nahrvar reports. "The people who post services buy other people’s services. People are actively engaged. It’s a great environment."
While none of the partners set out to build a career in philanthropy—Tang and Nahrvar have engineering degrees, and Hassan left his psychology studies to join Raise 5—all three agree that the alternative business model didn’t feel right. "Coming from a big corporation, I realized that a lot of decisions were based on the short term," says Tang, whose last job was at a giant communications company. "They don’t care about the long-term consequences, how it affects customers. We want to base this on how we affect the community around us." To that end, the team recently relocated to Chicago, joining the first class of Impact Engine, an incubator built for businesses built around social change. They’re hoping to learn how to grow—currently, Raise 5 puts about 15 cents of every transaction back into the business, which at the moment does not generate a whole lot of revenue—and develop the contacts and resources necessary to spread the good word.
Most of all, though, they just kind of want to see where this thing goes. "The whole mentality of Raise 5 is that you spend your whole life being told ‘You have to do this, you have to do it this way,’" says Nahrvar. "We want Raise 5 to be a place where you can do what you want and support what you want. We do not want to redirect users into our agenda as to what they should be doing. We just want to give them a platform to express themselves."