GiveForward is a website that aims to rescue people in their most difficult of times. When people are overcome with sickness and bills, GiveForward steps in to help individuals raise funds for their loved ones suffering from a medical condition and struggling to pay bills.
GiveForward is a unique web based fundraising platform that is exclusively focused on helping people raise money for medical expenses. In the US there are over 400 billion dollars of out-of-pocket medical expenses that are not covered by insurance, 1 out of every 5 Americans (18 – 65 age group) are struggling to pay medical bills – that sums up to a mind boggling number of over 54 million Americans hurting from medical expenses (* Statistics provided by GiveForward)
As of today GiveForward has helped thousands of people raise millions of dollars for things like general medical expenses, cancer treatment, transplants, funeral costs and disaster-relief. We first introduced this amazing social startup to our readers back in 2011. We recently had the opportunity to connect back with the co-founder Ethan Austin to get the back story on how they grew this amazing idea and achieved the success they see today.
Deepa Chaudhary (DC): Tell us about yourself and how did you come up with the idea of GiveForward?
Ethan Austin (EA): In 2007 I was in Law School, having a great time. Around then I got a chance to do a Marathon and I decided to run for a cause. My dad passed away with cancer when I was a kid so I ran for a cancer nonprofit. The nonprofit gave me a fundraising page to raise donations. I wore a banana costume and did a goofy walk around D.C, quickly raising $6000. It was then that I realized the power of online fundraising, I also envisioned a technology that made it easy for people to raise money for any cause.
In 2008, I met Desiree the other co-founder of GiveForward through a common friend, she was in the middle of launching a website that would enable individuals to raise funds for any cause. So I joined her and in August 2008 we launched GiveForward.
DC: How big is the organization, could you share some growth numbers?
EA: GiveForward has helped raise close to $65 million dollars for medical expenses, more than half of that has been raised in the last 8 months. Our platform has powered more than 50,000 fundraising campaigns. As an organization we have seen 3x growth over the last 2 years.
DC: What was it like when you just started and what did it take to grow the idea?
EA: We started GiveForward in 2008 as a crowd-funding platform for everything – individuals and nonprofits could raise money for anything they wanted, kind of like Indiegogo. Things were going very slow in the start, in the first year we only had 385 fundraising campaigns and $6000 in revenue. We also had no money for marketing and no technical talent to iterate quickly on our website. After a year of being at it we noticed there were 2-3 fundraisers that did really well in raising more money. They all happened to be medical fundraisers. The individuals who raised money for medical expenses were just so very grateful of the service we provided. On the other hand nonprofits didn’t seem very excited about our platform, back then they were more used to the enterprise solutions. Seeing how powerful the platform had been for the 2-3 individuals raising funds for medical expenses we quickly changed our focus from being a generic crowd-funding platform to one solely for medical fundraising. We also changed our metrics from revenue to hugs – the thank you emails and letters we receive from people telling us how we’ve touched their lives.
The other thing we did really well early on was our focus on great customer service. As two non-technical, first time founders we realized the one thing we were good at was being nice to people. We got very involved with our customers and talked to them a lot, letting them know we stand with them in their fundraising efforts and that they are not alone. We would send personal notes to let them know that we really care. Our customers were touched by our level of compassion and customer service and realized that we are genuinely there for them.
Another key factor that contributed to our growth was bringing in experts. We got really smart people to join our team who knew what they were doing, they took the organization to the next level. Our biggest competitive advantage is that our entire team is passionate and compassionate.
I would attribute 80% of our success to people and 20% to getting lucky. We were lucky enough to get there early and ride the crowd-funding wave. When we started in 2008, people didn’t know much about crowd-funding and Kickstarter did not exist. We found our niche early and bet on the fact that medical fundraising was going to be big. We were the first and the only website to-date that is dedicated to medical fundraising.
DC: How did you get the word out on GiveForward? What were some of the things you did to draw people to your site?
EA: At the start we tried a bunch of things but nothing worked, from creating a viral video to distributing flyers to people. As we had no money for marketing we had to do it through word of mouth, by letting our customers speak for us. We focused greatly on customer service, we would call our users, talk to them, give them fundraising tips. We realized if we couldn’t outsmart our competition we could at least outcare them. Some other things that really helped get traction was events, we held 3-4 events in a year in Chicago. We started blogging, giving people fundraising tips, we would do guest posts on heavily trafficked fundraising sites. The press around GiveForward helped in building brand awareness and in keeping the momentum up.
DC: What’s the maximum amount that’s been raised on your platform so far?
EA: We’ve seen someone raise almost a million dollars. It happened after the Boston Marathon, two people were severely injured in the bombing and their friends turned to GiveForward to raise donations to cover their medical bills and out of pocket expenses. As the whole country was grieving and wanted to help the victims, we saw an overwhelming response for the campaign. Others campaigns have raised anywhere between $150 – 200K.
DC: What are some of the tech tools you use in your everyday work?
EA: I use the entire Google Apps suite of services – Gmail, G+ Hangouts, Googletalk and Google Docs. I use Boomerang a plugin for Gmail which allows you to send emails later and to set reminders. And the popular Mailbox App to de-clutter my inbox.
DC: Which are some of the brands you look up to and would like to emulate?
EA: There are a couple, I greatly admire Zappos as we too are very focused on our mission, vision and values. I remember reading Tony Hsieh’s book, ‘ Delivering Happiness’, where he mentions the only thing I would do sooner was to define our values. We defined ours in 2010 – to create unexpected joy for people and users. Every new employee in our organization gets a $500 budget to create joy, to do something special for our users, vendors or anyone else. We live and believe in incorporating a strong sense of values. Another company that I admire that puts a lot of focus on values is Moz, they have a set of values that they refer to as TAGFEE. I remember the MOZ CEO saying that if you believe in the values you’ve defined, you need to make them pervasive. Those values should drive everything you do in your organization be it hiring, firing, weekly meetings, new hire orientation etc.
DC: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are just starting off?
EA: My advice for pre-entrepreneurs, the ones who are excited to make a leap is to go for it. My co-founder Desiree has a magnet on her fridge that says “Leap and the net will appear” that maxim says it all. Desiree started GiveForward without a co-founder and without enough money to finish the website, she just went for it. When you are passionate about something just go for it, as you go along you’ll find ways to make it work. The hardest part is to have the courage to start, once you start it becomes easier.
My advice for entrepreneurs, the one’s who have already taken the leap, you’ll find that the things are a bit slow in the start but if you keep at it they will pick up speed. We stuck around for 2 years before we had our lucky break. For an entrepreneur to succeed there is a lot to be attributed to luck, I would say luck is 25% and hustle 75%.
DC: What advice do you have for people who may want to use your platform for fundraising? If you could share some tips and tricks for meeting fundraising goals.
EA: My advice to them is to follow the 3Ps approach:
Personalization - Tell a compelling story. Include lots of pictures and videos and be authentic in your ask.
Promotion - Use different channels for promotion. Start with your friends and family. Send a personal email or call them. Don’t send out mass emails at first or blast it on twitter, people won’t care. I would suggest to go in concentric circles – reaching out to friends and family first and once your campaign gains momentum to go outwards, reaching out to people on Facebook and other social networks. In such situations Facebook is more effective than Twitter.
Persistence – You have to ask and follow-up. It could take 3-4 times of asking before people actually give, so don’t get disheartened. Keep your chin-up and be creative in you ask. Make it a 2 way street, give them something in return. If it was me, I would give them a laugh like I did when I ran my first fundraising campaign and wore a banana suit while asking people for money.
DC: Why should people fundraise on your platform? What makes GiveForward different from other crowd-funding platforms?
EA: There are number of reasons – firstly we specialize in medical fundraising. GiveForward is the only crowd-funding platform that’s solely for people looking to raise funds for medical expenses. Secondly, people on our website actually raise more money and thirdly our fees are much lower than other crowd-funding platforms. The average fundraising fee on our platform is 2.6%. We charge 7.9% processing fee however two thirds of supporters on our platform offer to donate extra to cover the fundraising fee. Lastly and the most important reason is that we actually care. Quarter of our team is dedicated to help people raise more money. Most people are first time fundraisers and have no idea how to go about it, we have fundraising coaches to assist them with their campaigns on a one on one basis.