In March 2009 Amy Cowin raised $32,000 through a personal fundraising page to pay for an operation to remove one of her kidneys and donate it to her sister Jessica. This is not Amy and Jessica’s story. It’s the story of GiveForward.org–the idea and technology that enabled this operation and hundreds of others like it.
I spoke with Desiree Vargas, co-founder and president of GiveForward, an online platform that provides free fundraising pages to individuals and non-profits to raise money for loved ones’ medical treatments, volunteer service projects, community initiatives or charitable sporting events. Vargas runs GiveForward with her co-founder Ethan Austin and crew of interns.
Since its launch in August 2008, GiveForward has helped more than 5,000 individuals raise more than $660,000 and has earned praise from the Chicago Tribune as ”the future of medical fundraising in the Internet Age.”
In our conversation Vargas talks about the voice that woke her up at 1 a.m. telling her to “Get Started,” inexpensive resources for getting your startup off the ground and what she does with failure. Click the player to listen.
Key points from our conversation:
- After Hurricane Katrina Vargas wanted to directly donate to affected individuals. She was frustrated that instead, her donation needed to be processed through a larger organization where overhead and administrative costs would dilute it. A year later, she was thinking about how she could raise the money for a different business idea, when the thought of raising capital from friends and family came to her. She conceptualized this as an online platform that would enable people to connect on a individual basis to raise and donate money.
- Vargas threw a handful of mini-launch parties around the country to raise money from friends, usually in $10-$20 increments, to seed GiveForward. Each party raised $1,000-$1,500.
- Many universities have resource centers in their law or business schools that offer free or low-cost legal and business advice to entrepreneurs. Vargas used Northwestern University’s Small Business Opportunity Center to solicit feedback on her business plan and to legally establish the company.
- GiveForward charges a 3% transaction fee, which doesn’t cover Vargas or Austin’s salaries (like most entrepreneurs with young businesses, they pick up additional work) but does cover the company’s minimal operating expenses. 3% is lower than the 5-15% charged by similar sites.
- After the success of people like Amy and Jessica Cowin, medical fundraising on GiveForward has grown exponentially. It now comprises 70% of the site’s fundraising pages, and medical fundraising drives 80% of new users and donations.
- From a mentor, Vargas learned to talk about her idea as much as possible. By doing so, you’ll glean feedback, ideas, contacts and publicity for your business. Outside of high-tech, stealth-mode is overrated.
- Look at failure as an opportunity to learn. In GiveForward’s first months, some donations took too long to go out and sometimes the donate button wouldn’t work. Austin in particular was passionate about seeing these snafus as a means to engage and win-over the customer.
- Be flexible. GiveForward’s original mission had nothing to do with medical fundraising, but this is what people came for and needed. Now, GiveForward can target this sector.
- Give-Forward aims to be ‘the eBay of giving’–the preeminent destination to fundraise for–and fund–personal and non-personal causes.