The three-time Academy Award nominee is trying to improve on the crowdfunding platforms already out there. He's also teaming up with Newman's Own Foundation for a big holiday charity competition.

Staff Writer

I’ve watched over the last several months and thought about the massive damage done by natural disasters across the U.S. My friend’s sister and her family lost their home to the huge fires in Santa Rosa and Napa. A buddy of mine lost his house in Texas when Hurricane Harvey reared its ugly head.

There’s something about the scale of these disasters that just makes me feel like governments around the world can’t keep up.

I started to feel some hope when I interviewed actor and activist Edward Norton about crowdfunding. He’s also an entrepreneur: Norton founded and runs CrowdRise, a software company that helps non-profits raise money through crowdfunding campaigns. He says everyday folks are now picking up the slack. It’s a lesson entrepreneurs can keep in mind as they explore starting social good businesses.

“Increasingly, I feel like something we never anticipated is growing under the whole crowdfunding/charity movement,” Norton says. “It’s becoming a sort of alternative social safety net. It’s becoming a mechanism where people are rallying to support each other within a moment where there’s the sense that other things are becoming less stable.”

Unhappy With Current Crowdfunding Solutions

Norton says it’s been an intense year in terms of collective experiences that have really shaken the country.

“Yet we’re seeing an altogether new level of collective rallying without waiting for permission or waiting for bureaucracies or organizations,” he says. “I think there’s something in that that’s gratifying to be a part of it, you know?”

In addition to providing a service that lets nonprofits raise funds, CrowdRise also helps leverage deals on payment services so charities can collect payments at a lower rate.

“It wasn’t just that we were trying to beat the curve on what the charities themselves can do,” Norton notes. “We were actually pretty disenchanted with what traditional software companies were providing to charities in terms of real expertise on the niche agenda of social fundraising.”

A History of Entrepreneurship

I was a bit surprised at first to learn that the three-time Academy Award nominee is much more than just some kind of placeholder CEO who doesn’t really run the company. He schooled me on different business strategies and took me to task when I claimed actors aren’t known for becoming entrepreneurs.

“I don’t totally agree,” Norton told me. “In the sense that my pantheon of terrific artists is you know, Paul Newman, Robert Redford and the Sundance Film Institute and what that became.”

Norton also pointed to Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre as artists who truly had a sense for how their “artistic disruptions” related to what “people wanted on a business level.”

“It always seemed exciting to me, that process, that early sort of half-baked, high-risk, tilting at windmills phase of things,” Norton says. “It’s exciting. It’s sort of like diving into a creative project when you’re not sure if it’s going to work.”

Norton also grew up around entrepreneurs. Both his grandfather and his father were innovative, forward-thinking business leaders, founding multiple nonprofits. His grandfather created Enterprise Community Partners, one of the largest developers of affordable housing in the U.S. The Grand Canyon Trust is one of the many nonprofits his father founded.

Teaming Up with Newman’s Own Foundation

One of Norton’s biggest influences when it comes to charitable giving is Paul Newman. The legendary actor founded Newman’s Own, which famously gives all its profits after operating expenses to charity.

Norton remembers going to the store with his mom to buy Newman’s Own salad dressing and other items throughout his life. He deeply respects the mission.

For years, CrowdRise has run a “holiday challenge” with its partners, working to raise large amounts of money from supporters. In 2016 the challenge raised $6 million. This year, Norton is partnering with Newman’s Own Foundation. Whichever companies crowdfund the most money get large, additional donations from Newman’s Own. More than 5,000 organizations are participating.

Norton says:

“I met Paul a couple times. To me he was always the most down-in-his-shoes, grounded, kind person. The whole thing is so great. I wish he could see it. I think it would be a tremendous thing to have gotten to celebrate with him but… as the head of Newman’s Foundation said, it’s exactly the kind of creative chaos that Paul loved. I love being a part of something that carries that torch of his inspiring spirit.”

As we get closer to the end of 2017, we can all hope there are no more major disasters like what we saw earlier this year. Also, a few things seem to be clear. If you’re an entrepreneur, crowdfunding looks more viable than ever, and social good businesses matter just as much as they ever have. What’s more, you don’t need to be a famous actor to make them happen.