Philanthropy’s Next Wave

Powered by social media and a spirit of entrepreneurship, a new generation is reinventing philanthropy for the digital age. here, five organizations helping to rewrite the rules of doing good
Not that long ago, philanthropy often took a backseat to business—you made your fortune first, then you started your foundation. And while that model is still alive and well—as witnessed by the organization that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, recently set up to give away his billions—a new approach to doing good has taken hold. Fueled by social media, business savvy, and the social conscience that seems to be hard-coded into the millennial generation, a new crop of organizations is reinventing philanthropy, infusing a formerly sleepy field with fresh energy and innovative approaches to solving the world’s problems. In 2007, when then 23-year-old Lauren Bush Lauren started FEED, the mindful fashion brand that uses proceeds to fight hunger through partnerships with the UN, Unicef, and Feeding America, social entrepreneurship was a revolutionary idea. Now it’s virtually the new normal, and its principles are inspiring a new wave of solutions-oriented, digitally savvy organizations. Here, five who embody the next wave of social good.

watsi

In Costa Rica in 2010, a Peace Corps volunteer sat on a bus. He watched as a woman got on and asked passengers for money to fund her son’s medical procedure. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary about that, except the woman happened to have her son’s medical records, which inspired even the most hardened passengers to donate.
Watsi founder Chase Adam

The volunteer’s name was Chase Adam, and he used the experience as inspiration for Watsi, a charitable crowdfunding startup named for the town where he was riding the bus. (And you thought it was one of those made-up-sounding dot-com names.)

The company uses a Kickstarter-style interface to let people raise money for health care around the world, and since its founding in 2012, it has helped fund procedures for more than 5,700 patients in 21 countries, working with NGOs and private hospitals to fill gaps in funding and reduce the number of patients turned away. Watsi tends to focus on essential surgeries like cataracts, cleft lips, and hydrocephalus. Adam expected to fund 10 procedures over six months when the site launched. Instead, he had 16,000 visitors and was able to fund those 10 procedures on the first day.

Adam’s latest step is taking Watsi to China, where a partnership with the Chinese social network WeChat led to 200,000 people donating through the platform. (More than 14,000 people have donated on Watsi.org.) “Philanthropy is very nascent here,” he told us from China. “There’s a lot of recently accumulated wealth, and young people are starting to think about philanthropy, but they’re distrustful of nonprofits they think of as corrupt or inefficient.” Prime territory for Watsi.

charity: water

For his first decade in New York, Scott Harrison was the least likely person to start a charity. A successful nightclub promoter, he was also a self-described “stereotypical selfish guy running around chasing models and bottles.” All that changed in 2004, when Harrison turned 30 and decided that he wanted his legacy to be about more than “getting people drunk.”

He paid his own way on a trip to Liberia with Mercy Ships, a charity that sends floating “hospital ships” to impoverished areas. On the trip, Harrison discovered what he believed was a single common denominator for problems in the region: water. (Statistics show that 663 million people live without access to clean water and that 60 percent of all disease in the developing world is caused by bad water or lack of sanitation.)

So Harrison decided to start his own charity, tapping into his rolodex of nightlife influencers to found charity: water—which provides clean drinking water to people in developing nations—in 2006. A hit out of the gate, charity: water raised $27.9 million last year alone. In a move typical of the new generation of philanthropists, Harrison has embraced transparency via new social tools. Donors can use GPS to track their specific water donation, and a crowdfunded water drill now tweets when it strikes a well.

“Stopping people in the street, that was just annoying,” Harrison said, of early ideas to promote the charity. “A sad black-and-white ad at midnight with the kid’s face in slow motion and the 800 number, that wouldn’t work, either. We built the charity and said what would we respond to, how would we want the organization to grow.”

His latest idea? The Birthday Project, where people can ask their friends to donate to charity: water in lieu of giving them a present.
Scott Harrison of Charity: Water in NYC
Scott Harrison of Charity: Water in NYC

Omaze

Omaze co-founders Matt Pohlson and Ryan Cummins
Omaze co-founders Matt Pohlson and Ryan Cummins

A few years back, Matt Pohlson and Ryan Cummins, two friends from Stanford, found themselves at an auction benefitting the Boys and Girls Club of America. One of the prizes available was the chance to shoot hoops with Magic Johnson. While both agreed that, as Pohlson recalls, “there’s basically nothing we would rather do than play basketball with Magic Johnson,” they lacked the financial wherewithal to keep up with the room full of wealthy patrons, who drove the bidding to $15,000. They may have lost out on Magic, but in the process they cooked up a way to broaden the opportunity to bid—and raise significantly more funds. “If you made this available to everyone as a raffle, for 10 bucks, you could make so much more [money],” Pohlson recalls telling Cummins.

With that in mind, they launched Omaze in 2012. The idea took a minute to find its footing—the first opportunity was to be a guest judge on Cupcake Wars, and it pulled in just $900—but things turned around as their ambitions grew. A recent contest offered Breaking Bad fans a chance to watch the finale with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in a Winnebago, in biohazard suits (instead of cooking meth, the father-and-son winners cooked up some eggs). It raised nearly $1.7 million. Not bad, but nothing compared to the $4.6 million Omaze raised by offering the chance for a walk-on part in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Five people on their staff of 50 are now dedicated to dreaming up such concepts. “We have a team to brainstorm. That’s our job,” Pohlson says. “We come up with crazy ideas.” Another secret to their success? Infusing their experiences with a sense of fun, whether it was the opportunity to “blow sh*t up” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, which raised $1.1 million for the charity After-School All-Stars, or the chance to hang out with Robert Downey Jr. at the premiere of Avengers: Age of Ultron, which raised $2.1 million for British charity Julia’s House, and gave the world this hilarious video of RDJ at his charming best.

Girl Be Heard

Ashley Marinaccio and Jessica Greer Morris
Ashley Marinaccio and Jessica Greer Morris

In 2008, theater director Ashley Marinaccio was asked to write a show for a group of 12-year-old girls to perform at the Estrogenius Theatre Festival, a female-centric fest in New York. She intended to collaborate with playwright and activist Jessica Greer Morris on an original play, but instead, the two saw that the group of girls was already remarkable—and more than capable of telling its own stories through theater. And thus the duo founded Girl Be Heard, a theater troupe that lets girls tell their own stories and encourages other young women to do the same.

“Instead of a didactic teaching model, she just sat in the middle of the room and said, ‘Which issues do you care about?’” Greer Morris recalls. “And you could literally see the self-esteem build. That someone was valuing them for what they had in their brains, what they were thinking about, dreaming about, were concerned about...the girls just talked and talked and talked.”

Since then Girl Be Heard has done shows for the White House, the State Department, TED conferences, and the United Nations. The group meets every Sunday to flesh out ideas, with each girl sharing what she’s gone through during the week, be it bullying, sexism, or racism. If her cohort can deal with it, Greer Morris explained, she can, too. “It’s like she’s in a gang,” she says, laughing. “But a positive version of a gang.”
Typical for the new breed of charitable organization, Watsi HQ in San Francisco looks less like a foundation than a dot-com startup—complete with requisite Ping-Pong table
Typical for the new breed of charitable organization, Watsi HQ in San Francisco looks less like a foundation than a dot-com startup—complete with requisite Ping-Pong table

Charity Miles

In 2002, while still in law school, Gene Gurkoff started running marathons to raise money for research into Parkinson’s disease, which his grandfather had recently been diagnosed with.

“I always wanted companies to sponsor me,” he recalls. “But they would never do that because I’m not a celebrity. But I figured that if we got enough people together we would have the clout of a celebrity.” By 2012, with the proliferation of smartphones and fitness trackers, the idea had coalesced: Why not create an app that lets companies sponsor every mile a runner runs?

Gurkoff started with 10 sponsors, and today he has 130,000 active monthly members who either run or walk with his app. This meteoric rise is in part due to the app’s simplicity: download it, pick a charity, and press start to begin tracking miles—and earning donations. (Sponsors donate $0.10 for every mile biked and $0.25 for every mile walked or run.) “It’s just a little bit of purpose, a little intent when I walk out the door, before I put my Spotify on,” Gurkoff says. “It just changes my lens, how I see the world.”
Charity Miles founder Gene Gurkoff
Charity Miles founder Gene Gurkoff
Why the longstanding link between running and charity? “There’s a metaphor of striving, and trying to overcome challenges,” Gurkoff explains. “Setting a goal and trying to dedicate yourself to it.” As for his grandfather, he turns 95 this month.
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DAN DURAY is a writer in New York.
  • Photograph by Tyler Parker
  • Photograph by Ashley Jordan Gordon
  • Photograph by Weston Wells
  • Photograph by Tyler Parker
  • Photograph by Weston Wells
  • Photograph by Ashley Jordan Gordon
  • Photograph by Weston Wells