The Accidental Niche: How GiveForward’s Fundraising Platform Attracted an Untapped Audience–With Desiree Vargas

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–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.

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Leave a comment
  1. Ariana March 5, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    This company is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful tool. Let’s spread the word!

  2. Sakib April 27, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    One of my friend is suffering from kidney damage and he needs transplantation. He needs support from others. Can he use this program for his treatment.

    I am a Bangladeshi and so is he. He needs $50,000 minimum. We have collected $15,000 from our university. Is it possible to fundraise for his treatment. Please help. It will help to save a life.

  3. Olivia Khalili April 27, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    HI Sakib, yes, you should look at where you can create a fundraising page and begin raising funds for his treatment.

  4. Sakib May 4, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

    Thanks Olivia.
    I have seen their program but still i have a little confusion about how can i make it successful.
    Can you tell me the procedure in details? I will create a page soon but what i need to do to get the most out of it? Do i need to give any kind of proof of his illness? How can i make it come to in front of people who will help?

  5. mark richard September 6, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

    The article says, “GiveForward charges a 3% transaction fee. . .”
    As of today, 9/6/14, the charge is 7.9% (over 250% more)+ an additional 50 cents. I find that pretty close to exploitation of people’s grief and anxiety and need to do something in a moment of crisis.

  6. Kyle Peavy November 18, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

    I second Mark’s opinion above.

    Why the jump from 3% to 7.9% ?

    This seems to be an extremely excessive amount of fees … really sad that the fees jumped so much once they got popular.

  7. Julianne Douglas October 26, 2015 at 7:13 pm #

    And I third Mark’s and Kyle’s comments. 3% seems reasonable, but 8%? Rude.

    Here’s a good article about most of the personal crowdsourcing sites out there, and how they all tend to be exploitative with their fees:

    *Skimming Off The Top: Social Giving Sites Take a Huge Cut Of The Check*

    Even the site that claims to be free isn’t remotely free. Nuts.


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