Online charity platform used by Pearl Jam, Big Sean and Jack White brings irreverent attitude to fundraising

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Robert Wolfe wants to make the world a better place, and he’s achieving his goal one online charity drive at a time.

Through CrowdRise, the Royal Oak-based website he started in 2010, along with his brother Jeffrey, actor Edward Norton and Norton’s wife, film producer Shauna Robertson, Wolfe has helped raise tens of millions of dollars for charities in the last five years. In 2015, around $150 million was donated through the site, up from $90 million in 2014.

Currently, CrowdRise is hosting several high-profile fundraisers to help aid victims of Flint’s water crisis. Detroit rapper Big Sean, rockers Pearl Jam and Jack White’s Third Man Records are all hosting donation drives through the site, along with Craigslist’s Craig Newmark and several other organizations. So far, the various CrowdRise campaigns have netted more than $500,000 for Flint.

Now Wolfe, who founded the outdoor recreation retailer Moosejaw in the early ’90s with his brother Jeffrey, says CrowdRise is only just beginning.

“I feel like it’s a still a start-up, I really do,” he says, seated in a conference room in the CrowdRise headquarters in Royal Oak on a recent weekday.

CrowdRise is a fundraising platform that draws from aspects of social networking. Anyone can use it, and anyone can donate to anyone else’s drive. Think of it like Facebook with a charity backbone.

Users build profiles and launch charity initiatives, and the site’s functionality and user-friendly interface make starting a campaign — whether you want to raise money for Flint or for a marathon you’re running — only a few clicks away.

Its purpose is to make giving back fun, which is illustrated by its irreverent slogan: If You Don’t Give Back No One Will Like You. (Moosejaw, which Wolfe launched after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1992, was similarly tongue-in-cheek with its marketing. He sold the company in 2007 but remains on its board.

“If we can get people into it and to have fun with it, they’ll raise more money,” says Wolfe, 44, who was raised in West Bloomfield. “When we started researching the charity space, we concluded it’s boring at best, and, in most cases, guilt-ridden and burdensome. The notion of people enjoying giving back, that didn’t exist at all.”

Inside the Royal Oak workspace, a staff of twentysomethings bang away at MacBooks while Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” and Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It” pump from the office stereo system. There’s a pool table and a ping pong table in the front lobby area, along with an all-staff ping pong leaderboard. Wolfe is near the top.

Soon they’ll be moving offices to a new downtown Royal Oak location that will more than double the current space. They need it for all the new bodies: The for-profit company — it takes a cut of 5 to 5.9 percent, though users have the option of covering those fees themselves — just hired its 91st employee, up from less than 40 a year ago. (CrowdRise also has an office in Los Angeles and bodies in Portland, Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Grand Rapids.)

Around 1,000 fundraisers are launched on the site every day, or one every 90 seconds. Not every one sticks, but those that that do raise an average of $900, Wolfe says. Prizes and incentives are often built into the drives: Big Sean, for example, is offering a shot at VIP tickets to an upcoming concert for his Flint drive, and Third Man is giving away a membership to its premium subscription service.

While the company takes its cut, charities net more than $98 out of every $100 raised, according to Wolfe, which is gratifying for the company and its principals.

“Right now I’m particularly proud that we’ve been so relentless about getting the money raised to help so many amazing causes at a far lower cost than any other platform,” Norton said by email last week.

Thanks in part to Norton’s involvement — Wolfe was friends with his wife, which is how the actor came to be involved — other celebrities have used CrowdRise to raise money for charity, including Sean Penn, Lady Gaga, Eminem and Seth Rogen.

“They have been a very good fit for us,” says Big Sean’s mother, Myra Anderson, who is president of the rapper’s Sean Anderson Foundation, which used the site for its Flint drive. She said the CrowdRise team was responsive, able to adapt to changes on the fly and worked fast.

“The process was very quick and seamless,” she says.

CrowdRise also is the fundraising platform for the Boston Marathon, the New York Marathon and the American Red Cross. As the site looks to expand its clientele, they want to broaden the way charities think about raising money, helping them to mobilize donors into becoming cash-raising recruits.

“When we’re talking to charities, we’re saying to them, if you can flip the narrative from driving donations to recruiting fundraisers, you won’t have to drive donations because they’ll do it for you,” Wolfe says.

Through his philanthropic arm, craigcares, Craigslist’s Newmark has used CrowdRise for several drives, including a pair of campaigns in the last two years that together raised more than $700,000.

“Crowdfunding platforms like CrowdRise put funding power back into the hands of ordinary people who want to get stuff done,” Newmark said via email. “(They) can use their social networks to crowdsource support to really help charities that they feel will make a real impact.”

Wolfe is committed to making that impact not only felt, but celebrated.

“If we can keep supremely focused on this idea that giving back should be fun, then I think more and more young people will make it a part of their narrative,” he says. “It’s not in addition to your life, it’s just a part of your life.”

agraham@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/grahamorama

About CrowdRise

Founded: 2010

What is it: An online charity platform

Famous users: Pearl Jam, Big Sean, Jack White, Seth Rogen, Lady Gaga, Eminem

Money raised: In 2015, $150 million was donated through the site

Website: crowdrise.com

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