In October, and before an audience of 800 Chicago Ideas Week attendees, Norton announced, "My name is Edward, and I’m a philanthropy addict." He’s not kidding: The two-time Academy Award nominated actor also serves on the Boards of President Obama’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities; Enterprise Community Partners; Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust; the Signature Theater Company; the Friends of the High Line; and the Conservation Lands Foundation. And he’s not an in-name-only kind of board member; he really gets in there and works. When he’s not indulging his philanthropy issues, he writes, produces, directs and runs marathons but most recently he’s launched a crazy popular grassroots, peer-to-peer crowdfunding platform, called Crowdrise. It’s a platform to allow anyone to fundraise for a cause, and it does it with a laid-back and funny attitude that undermines the self-seriousness of a lot of philanthropy. It’s also raised a ridiculous amount of money and cultivated a new generation of young activists who manage not to take themselves too seriously in the process.
Crowdrise is based on an idea of "sponsored volunteerism." Are you finding that activist volunteers are branching out from the marathon/walkathon model of sponsorship to other kinds of volunteerism? What are some other examples?
It’s happening more and more. iMentor, for example, is a New York-based nonprofit that matches students with college-educated mentors through the web. The organization has been successful convincing a large portion of their 2,600 mentors to ask their own friends to support the cause they already donate their time to, resulting in more than $110,000 in small donations raised on CrowdRise. These volunteers are iMentor’s most reliable and convincing ambassadors to the cause.
Crowdrise cracks us up. Why does the Crowdrise brand of irreverence and humor work?
There’s no reason that humor should exist everywhere except philanthropy. I think people like our voice because it’s authentic. We believe giving should be easy and fun. People like engaging with something that is real, not some generic text. Also, the incentives to donate can be really silly and nonsensical. We’ve found the more off the wall the incentives, the higher the engagement. It’s more interesting to email your friends and say, "donate $25 to my fundraiser and you’ll be signed up to win a bag of combs," than it is to tell them they could win a gift certificate. Gift certificates work too, but we embrace the absurd, and our users really like that. And let’s be honest, there’s truth to our saying "If you don’t give, no one will like you."
You have called Crowdrise a "personal narrative platform where you anchor your activist life." Do you envision a future where folks are as closely identified with their "giving back personas" as they are with their "second lives" on Facebook and Twitter?
Absolutely. There’s a new era of social networking that’s taking shape around charitable giving. Younger people are rapidly adopting these new tools, and learning to use them in more and more substantive ways, to go beyond mere socializing and make these tools extremely productive. We’re seeing the sphere of social networking mature in a way that’s very exciting. People who continue to dismiss these social platforms as "a waste of time" or "just social chatter" are missing the boat. This is how people interact with each other and get things done. They share their personal and professional lives online. It should be no different when it comes to their philanthropic lives. More and more, we’re seeing the Crowdrise community share their charitable efforts with their social networks, both as a way to highlight their own commitment to a cause and as a very efficient way to turn their friends and family into new supporters.
Why is giving time different than giving money?
They say "time is money," but time is also an irreplaceable and personal connection to a cause. Whether you donate your time—whether you’re serving people food at a local soup kitchen or lending professional skills to an under-resourced organization—that time binds you to the mission of an organization in a way money cannot. Selfishly, I like to give my time because it feels good to connect personally with a cause. If you’re someone who is fortunate enough to be able to commit both time and money to a cause you care about, well that’s double the happiness.
Was there a moment that you realized your life would be dedicated to giving back, to giving more than you received? What was that moment?
Running the New York City Marathon was a turning point for me because it was when the idea for Crowdrise clicked. I had spent a lot of time raising money and working for an organization called The Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which works to protect the ecosystems and wildlife of East Africa through conservation programs that directly benefit local Maasai communities. I wanted to run the marathon in support of MWCT, and I couldn’t find a platform that let me do it in a way that was intuitive, fun, and creative. So we decided to build our own platform. I realized there needed to be a way for people, including myself, to give and fundraise money for causes in an easy and fun way.
What does generosity mean to you?
I think generosity can take many forms … financial, effort, emotional … but at its core it’s rooted in the realization that you get a good feeling from seeing happiness bloom in someone else. Or from seeing them become more peaceful or more hopeful. Being generous almost always lifts you up as much as the person you’re sharing something with.
Please tell us the names and stories of three individuals who inspire you most with their generosity.
My father, Ed Norton, who has dedicated his career and extraordinary talent to the defense of a healthy environment instead of to making as much money as he can.
Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, who is one of the great heroes of my generation and should win the Nobel Peace Prize.
All the young people I see using Crowdrise every day, putting their creativity and effort into making a positive impact on the world.
How did Crowdrise respond to Sandy?
In the days since the storm, our users raised over $1 million for Sandy relief efforts. United Airlines committed to match every dollar up to $100,000. Since their campaign began, United’s customers have raised nearly $700,000 for Sandy relief efforts. In addition to campaigns started by Craigslist, NYRR, and the ING NYC Marathon, Buzzfeed, and a group of well-known sommeliers and chefs, countless Crowdrise users have started their own campaigns to support relief efforts in affected communities. We’ve seen Crowdrise perform at its very best in the aftermath of natural disasters because the best campaigns are the ones that people put a lot of time into sharing with their friends and families. With the increased urgency that comes in the wake of devastation like that of Sandy, people are looking for the most effective way to raise a lot of money quickly. That tends to be through peer-to-peer fundraising, and Crowdrise enables people to get the word out quickly to their networks and raise as much money as possible in a short period of time.