Crowdrise.com is not your typical charity site.
Its slogan is "If you don't give back, no one will like you." Dollars raised earn donors such titles as Doctor, Tsar, Sir and Dame.
And donating $17 toward scholarships for cancer survivors earns you a bottle of Will Ferrell's "Sexy Hot Tan" sunscreen, emblazoned with the likeness of his Speedo-clad body.
Created by actor and activist Edward Norton, producer Shauna Robertson ("Superbad," "Knocked Up") and Robert and Jeffrey Wolfe (founders of the quirky online retailer Moosejaw), Crowdrise is harnessing the appeal of social networking to make giving go viral.
It's "about getting people who are not sure their little bit makes a difference to feel persuaded that they can make a difference," Norton says, and this "micro-giving" is the backbone of Crowdrise. The charity, which has been operating unpublicized since February, officially launched in May.
Users build a profile (called a "Charitable Life"), create project pages linked to their favorite registered non-profit organizations, encourage their social networks to donate and get other users to join them and raise money of their own, amplifying small amounts into bigger checks that Crowdrise cuts to the charities each month.
The site also gives those with little money to donate the chance to get others to sponsor their volunteer work — much like marathon runners get family and friends to back them, Norton says.
"One of the things we're suggesting is that people should totally think of the ways that volunteering can be productive," Norton says. "You say to your friends and family: 'I'm giving my time and my skills, and I want to raise this much for this organization. Will you sponsor my volunteering?' "
Meanwhile, non-profit groups can create their own pages, gain followers and then mobilize them to quickly make fundraising goals for specific projects.
"The way the site flows, it can go person, project, charity," says Robert Wolfe. "Or it can also go the opposite way: charity, project, person."
Wolfe and his "shorter, smarter" brother Jeffrey, began working on the concept for Crowdrise after being inspired by President Obama's fundraising campaign. They took their ideas for a test run during the New York City Marathon in November, helping Norton and his team of runners build a website that raised $1.2 million for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust.
After the marathon, the Wolfe brothers, Norton and Robertson joined forces to create Crowdrise, which, instead of focusing on a single charity, embraces hundreds of them.
To keep do-gooders coming back for more, Crowdrise gives them incentives to stick around. Dollars raised and votes from others in the community turn into points, which, Wolfe says, users have become "addicted" to. Those points translate into prizes — past giveaways have included MacBook Airs, Kindles and Wiis.
Crowdrise also relies on its irreverent personality and off-the-wall tweets and Facebook posts, "bits of foolishness" that also made Moosejaw effective, Wolfe says.
"We want people to click around and get addicted to the chaos and bits of idiocy that we throw out there," Wolfe says. "So, ultimately, people don't just want to participate in giving back once every two years. It becomes intrinsic in their lives."
A recent post on Crowdrise's Facebook page, for example, offered 2,000 points to the first person to answer the question "Who do you think would win in a fight: Kristen Bell and Alexander Hamilton against Elizabeth Banks and Aaron Burr?"
Bell is just one of the celebrities who have created Crowdrise projects (others include Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen). Norton has accrued more than 208,000 Crowdrise points and achieved the ranking of Tsar.
"There's nothing different between me setting up a project page or Jonah Hill doing it, or anybody else," Norton says. "What's cool about it is not that there are a couple of performers (on the site) who are well known, but that they're in the mix and shuffle with everyone else."