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Hollywood Harnesses Crowdfunding Potential to Raise Resources for Charity

Brad Pitt Aint It Cool News Special Screening Of World War Z - H 2013
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Brad Pitt

Nonprofits like Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation are benefiting from the power of millions of engaged web surfers.

When Samuel L. Jackson was looking to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association, he turned to Prizeo.com to create a sticky message. In a bid to lift the "please give" plea above the din, the website and the notoriously foul-mouthed actor launched an accompanying video post of Jackson reading a Breaking Bad monologue. 

The video went viral, and the effort raised $170,000 for Alzheimer's disease.

Similarly, Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation teamed up with eBay last year, looking for an untapped way to raise money by harnessing the actor’s famous connections and the online auctioning giant’s massive community.

For their first collaboration, they gathered a bounty of celebrity-themed items to be auctioned off, including a set of scrubs from ER signed by Pitt’s buddy George Clooney and a Bottega Veneta gown worn by Charlize Theron on the red carpet. The endeavor raised more than $145,000 for the nonprofit that builds sustainable, affordable homes in disadvantaged communities like New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

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"This partnership offered a great opportunity to bring unique, one-of-a-kind items and experiences to the eBay community," says eBay chief marketing officer Richelle Parham. "And it really opened a new path to help nonprofits reach their fundraising goals."

The Prizeo-Jackson and the eBay-Make It Right pairings are just two examples of how Hollywood is exploiting the potential of crowdfunding to raise needed resources for charity. With droves of directors and producers Kickstarting their way to finished films, it’s no surprise that industry-friendly nonprofits also are benefiting from the power of millions of engaged web surfers.

Loose change quickly adds up. The Crowdfunding Industry Report estimates that $2.7 billion was raised via crowdfunding in 2012, with a significant chunk of that representing charitable donations. That figure is projected to balloon to $5.1 billion in 2013.

Among the most popular sites in the charitable-giving sphere are Crowdrise.com, founded by Edward Norton and three partners in 2010; Firstgiving.com, a site that boasts 13 million online donors; and DonorsChoose.org, a favorite with Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Colbert that specifically targets classrooms and schools in need. Other emerging players in the field include Omaze.com and Rally.org.

And like eBay, Facebook can marshal its mammoth base for social good. Facebook Causes offers a way for the social networking site’s 153 million users to organize boycotts, create petitions or raise money. Most sites charge a fee -- typically less than 5 percent -- to process the transactions.

In addition to the now-established players, new niche sites are popping up with novel models. Nine-month-old RYOT.org, which was founded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, brings together the news dissemination process and giving by offering news articles with embedded options to donate or take action.

"We wanted it to be a platform for responding quickly to breaking events,” co-founder David Darg explains, citing the recent Oklahoma tornados and the Boston Marathon bombing. “We (thought) it’s strange that the news reports the news but doesn't make it easy to help.”

To date, RYOT has raised about $115,000 for charities.

Meanwhile, James Franco is spearheading a program that melds crowdfunding, volunteerism and support for emerging artists. The longtime advocate of The Art of Elysium is working closely with AofE founder Jennifer Howell on the nonprofit’s offshoot Elysium Industry, which offers a self-sustaining model for philanthropic filmmaking. Franco wrote three short stories, part of his book Palo Alto Stories, that will be adapted and directed by a trio of first-timers. 

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Franco is raising the film’s microbudgets via Indiegogo.com, and in exchange, the three filmmakers will enlist in the nonprofit, which encourages actors, artists and musicians to dedicate their time and talent to children who are battling serious medical conditions. The nonprofit will also reap 100 percent of any sales should the finished products find buyers on the festival circuit.

“It was very important that there be a charity aspect to it,” says Franco. “It was important that nobody make a profit off of (these films), and that was entirely new. These filmmakers get to make a movie and help some children who need it. It's sort of the best of both worlds.”

E-mail: Tatiana.Siegel@THR.com
Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27