The sauce is going to make Planned Parenthood a lot of money. That’s the idea on this Thursday morning in late September, when a small camera crew from the startup Omaze arrives at the Burbank production studios of the Adult Swim show Rick and Morty. The Los Angeles–based company fundraises for charities by organizing online sweepstakes with fantastical, celebrity-centric prizes — an afternoon of wine tasting with Jennifer Lawrence, a bit part in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, detonating explosives with Arnold Schwarzenegger — and today, the Omaze team has arranged a particularly internet-friendly experience: the chance to film the show’s Season 3 DVD commentary with creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland over some nuggets and McDonald’s Szechuan sauce. Yes, this is the same 1990s limited-run promotional Mulan Szechuan sauce that Rick reveals as his “driving motivation” in Season 3. The sauce that McDonald’s somehow unearthed and sent to Roiland as a savvy publicity stunt in July. The sauce that Roiland would later film the Rick and Morty staff taste-testing to much fanfare. The sauce that, a couple of months later, the fast food chain would promise to fans in limited quantities. The sauce that, when it ran out too quickly, was the cause for bizarre protests at McDonald’s restaurants across the nation. Yes, that sauce is the linchpin of this fundraiser for women’s health care.
As the camera and sound guys set up their equipment in an empty writer’s room, three eager-eyed Omaze employees begin scouting memorabilia that fans might want to see. A producer spots an illustration of the infamous condiment on the wall, just above a cabinet holding a Furby and a makeshift Mr. Meeseeks punching bag, and declares that’s where they’ll have Harmon and Roiland film a quick promo on his phone “for social.” Later he stakes out a space on the whiteboard directly behind where Harmon and Roiland will sit for the scripted video, and writes “Season 4 Secrets” with the intent of inserting an Easter egg promo code below the text.
When Harmon and Roiland arrive in the lobby, the shoot’s director, Justin Lazernik, introduces himself and hands them two blank poster boards to pose with for photos that will be later disseminated to Twitter and Facebook. “We add some motivation language to the posters, like, ‘Donate now. Come hang out with us,’” Lazernik says in a calm voice befitting a yoga instructor. “So … if you guys could maybe hold it and do a variety of different poses?” “Oh, you’re just going to Photoshop that in?” Harmon asks, clearly aware of the fact that anyone who poses on the internet with a sign next to his face — let alone a blank one — runs the risk of becoming an instant meme. The Omaze staff answers with nervous laughter, and then Lazernik provides further explanation of the “motivation language.” (This is standard procedure for Omaze campaigns, and as a result the company’s celebrity sign-holding photo has become ubiquitous on social media.) Harmon goes along with it, but continues to express his discomfort. “This could say anything here,” he says as he smiles and points to the sign. “We just want women to be able to go get health care,” he adds, after he and Roiland are directed to pose next to a life-size blow-up doll of Gwendolyn, the sex robot that Rick buys for Morty at a space pawn shop in Season 1.
Next up is the scripted video, the most important promotional tool in an Omaze campaign, because it advertises how fun it will be to hang out with the star (or stars) in question. Harmon and Roiland are ushered into the conference room, hooked up with microphones, and instructed to read a few lines off the prompter. The script is written as a generalized but personal invitation, so naturally it contains a line in which Roiland promises to hook viewers up “with some of that delicious, tasty Szechuan sauce.” Harmon guarantees nuggets to go with the sauce, so the winner doesn’t have to, you know, just drink it. After a few different takes, they begin the final segment of the promotion blitz, and the reason Omaze’s fundraising videos are typically so highly trafficked: the part where a famous person exhibits a highly concentrated, lovable version of his or her persona. Jennifer Lawrence played a trivia game in which she demonstrated her quick wit and humor by guessing whether she was reading reviews of wines or her movies; Arnold Schwarzenegger peacocked as a timeless action hero while discussing the life benefits of “blowing shit up.” Today, Harmon and Roiland improvise a live preview of their DVD commentary process, with only a set of Rick and Morty action figures to help them.
Roiland grabs figurines of the characters Rick, Morty, Mr. Meeseeks, and Mr. Poopybutthole and rotates among each of their voices, jumping from one disturbing scenario to the next. Meanwhile, Harmon begins sprinkling in a handful of deadpan anecdotes: They wanted to draw Rick not walking because it’s less expensive. … The voice of Mr. Meeseeks was Wesley Snipes. … All government is a lie. Somewhere around the second take, Roiland decides that Rick and Morty will go to the school dance, and Harmon — circling back to the true purpose of the shoot — adds: “The school dance is a metaphor for women’s health care.” The Omaze crew bursts out laughing, holding their faces so as not to interrupt taping. Harmon is famous for highlighting the oddities of human existence, and in one joke he had inadvertently pinpointed the absurdity of his current situation: He was filming a video for a cause that, in order to be successful, had nothing to do with the cause.
Needless to say, the women’s health line didn’t make the video.
In the internet age, he who panders to the fickle attention span of the masses wins the most clicks. With the help of a slick online marketing operation and the cooperation of famous people, Omaze has amassed over $60 million in online donations in its five years of existence, and — on the investment end — secured $10 million to date. The company’s ultimate goal, according to cofounder Matthew Pohlson, is to raise $1 billion for charities every year. Some tech companies are disrupting socks, or transportation, or mattresses, but with Omaze, cofounders Ryan Cummins and Pohlson have sought to disrupt the idea of charity. That requires reimagining a long-established culture built by causes and their celebrity allies: galas where fabulous, wealthy people bid on auction items like tickets to Hamilton or lunch dates with Larry David, telethons featuring major stars, benefit concerts stacked with big headliners, highly publicized global ambassadorships, and foundations intertwined with the personal brands of the actors and musicians that started them. Like many other startups, Omaze’s approach translates these pricey analog fixtures to something that’s much more efficiently mass produced online. Rather than organize an event or publicity tour, Omaze films a relatively low-budget, shareable video in which a celebrity plugs a cause and a chance to hang out with them. Anyone who comes across a campaign — which typically runs for a little over a month — can enter the sweepstakes with a $10 donation; incentives to give more comes in the form of T-shirts, autographed swag, and other charity-themed tchotchkes. Unlike your average crowdfunding campaign, the company picks and chooses whether it will disclose the final sum of money it has raised, often at the behest of the charity it’s working with. Omaze’s end product is decidedly more efficient than your average star-studded bash: It costs significantly less and draws more participants than you can fit into most venues. “That’s the beauty of the internet,” Pohlson told me. “It’s peeled away so much of the showmanship of stuff and made things real.”
Even as Omaze has eliminated many of the luxuries built into charitable events, they have managed to consolidate an impressive amount of star power. Its campaigns have featured a long lineup of A-list athletes, musicians, actors, and influencers, including George Clooney, Kim Kardashian, Steph Curry, John Legend, Meryl Streep, and Tom Brady. (They’re still holding out hope for Beyoncé and the Obamas.) As the company has charmed Hollywood, it has also become an influential partner to over 100 nonprofits, including major players like Red, Global Citizen, Planned Parenthood, UNICEF, PETA, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“It’s a net-net win for everybody,” Cummins recently said in an interview with Michael Schneider, the CEO of the travel startup Service, who hosts a video series in which he speaks to founders. “The celebrity gets more awareness for the causes they care about. And the donors — even if they come on initially for an experience — they end up learning about the beneficiaries.”
Offering everyone the chance to win otherwise exclusive opportunities wasn’t done simply to — in Pohlson’s words — “democratize” cool experiences. It turned out to be a savvy way to make money, too. Individual giving is on the rise: Americans donated more than $389 billion in 2016, a 4.2 percent increase from the previous year, according to the National Philanthropic Trust. As more and more consumers become creatures of the web, charities have struggled to pull together the resources and the staff required to recruit online donors. To tap into this market, for-profit companies like Omaze, Charity Network, and GoFundMe have begun facilitating the giving process, acting as Kickstarter-esque crowdfunding platforms that help charities with fewer digital resources enter the new generation of giving.
“Our goal is not to take all those people who were giving at those galas and then bring them over to us,” Pohlson told me. “Our goal is: Take people who would never have thought about giving. You know, Arnold Schwarzenegger fans who are not about to go to this gala, but when they have the opportunity to ride with him in a tank, all of a sudden they give an incredible amount of money. So we view it as using creativity to unlock friction by making giving fun and easy.”
By playing into the draw of the “experience economy,” charity-adjacent startups like Omaze are exploiting the internet’s virality-wins tendencies to raise money for good causes. In the short time that these internet-based giving platforms have existed, they have been demonstrably effective in earning large sums of cash for organizations in need. But their methods, which aim to optimize human instinct, raise questions about the nature of modern charity. What happens when Silicon Valley, with its ROIs and its A/B testing, invades the charity world? And when giving is so divorced from its cause, what does it even mean to donate our hard-earned dollars in the digital age?
You don’t need to click through every fabulous amfAR slide show to know that part of being a celebrity means using your platform to promote altruistic causes. Long before Schwarzenegger handled explosives in the name of funding after-school programs, Jerry Lewis spent 45 consecutive Labor Day weekends hosting a telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and Audrey Hepburn toured more than 20 countries as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Over the past two decades, it’s become even more common for celebrities to head their own nonprofits, whether that’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s eponymous climate change initiative, the NGO that Matt Damon formed to bring clean water to developing countries, or Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s humanitarian-focused foundation, named after the former couple’s adopted child from Cambodia. And as celebrities have become more social media savvy, they have found ways to integrate their causes into their brands. For her HeForShe initiative last year, Emma Watson shot a video with Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in which she beatboxed and he freestyled about gender equality. Just this month, Beyoncé’s Beygood foundation posted a music video for her song “Freedom” to spread awareness about challenges that young girls face, including human trafficking and barriers to education. After Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was destroyed by Hurricane Maria, the singer also appeared on a remix of J Balvin and Willy William’s hit single “Mi Gente” and dedicated 100 percent of the song’s proceeds to hurricane relief charities.
The most generous explanation for these longtime alliances is that celebrities simply want to use their fame as a platform to do good, and charities are grateful to have these well-known ambassadors. The skeptic’s interpretation might be that fundraising events serve as an opportunity to distract the celebrity-loving public long enough to do some good. The Met Gala has become so seeped in fanfare that its cause — raising money for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute — has become all but eclipsed. In May, a similar distraction occurred when the Red Nose Day fundraiser brought together the Love Actually cast for a reunion clip. (Last year, the U.S.-and-U.K.-based charity that organizes the day discovered through a survey that 60 percent of Americans didn’t understand its purpose, which is to fight child poverty.) Every October since 2009, NFL players have played in pink socks and jerseys in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (this year the initiative was widened to include other forms of cancer). The tradition has been criticized as much more about consumerism than it is about education.
Marketing has and always will be a factor of charitable giving, and Omaze’s viral-video approach might not eliminate the issues of long-term awareness and engagement. But it exists, in part, because of an inherent limitation of more traditional fundraising events. Pohlson and Cummins met while undergraduates at Stanford and, after stints at separate business schools, reunited in L.A. in 2011. That year, they finagled their way into a gala where the Boys & Girls Club of America was auctioning off a chance to go to dinner and a Lakers game with Magic Johnson. As lifelong fans, the two coveted the experience. But as soon as the auction started, it became clear they wouldn’t be able to afford it. The tickets eventually sold for $15,000, and Pohlson and Cummins went home empty-handed, but with an idea: What if everyone had a chance to win the kind of experiences that were featured at these exclusive galas? Beyond their experience, was there a way to dangle the celebrity appeal of benefit concerts and telethons a little bit closer to the donors that they court?
At the same time, the two had found a niche producing promo films featuring celebrities for nonprofit groups. Between the two of them, they’d amassed experience recording concert videos for Live Earth, an Intel-funded documentary called Girl Rising (narrated by Meryl Streep among others), and a concert series for the Clinton Foundation’s 10th anniversary that included everyone from Bill Gates to Jay-Z. It was around then that they began to realize just how willing celebrities were to lend their time for a good cause — and also that turning that cause into a narrative is a skill. “For the Live Earth project, I literally trapped myself in the room for two months, and went through a couple hundred hours of climate change footage and then a couple hundred hours of music footage,” Cummins told Schneider. “I learned a tremendous amount about how to take really dry information and figure out how to message it in an entertaining way that is digestible in small snippets.” At the same time, Cummins observed how the internet was changing the way we consume information. “Post-social-media, An Inconvenient Truth would have to be in little, short, two-minute blocks to get back out there again,” he told Schneider. “I think two minutes is sort of the sweet spot. And now with social media it’s two minutes plus type on the actual screen … because most people are watching on silent.”
Using what they knew about the digital media landscape, the two established a set of principles to shape the viral videos that Omaze would soon film. They knew their campaigns had to tell stories well and offer a clear, actionable next step for viewers. (The company still A/B tests the order in which they should introduce an experience and its related cause.) But more than anything, they saw that the more they provoked authentic reactions from viewers, the better their content would do. And it’s for that reason that they settled on humor as both the most time-efficient and effective way to reach people. “Where we really broke through is using humor to get things to spread,” Pohlson told me. “We believe that laughter is the shortest distance between two people. It becomes the sugar before you give the medicine of asking people to give.”
Omaze was founded as a four-person team in 2012, and it launched its first sweepstakes that July. It was a modest proposal: a chance to be a backstage judge on the set of Cupcake Wars, a show that Pohlson and Cummins’s friend Justin Willman happened to be hosting at the time. The promotional video for the campaign was a mere 42 seconds long, and it was so devoid of celebrities that the majority of the shots were closeups of cupcake frosting. It earned only 1,005 views on YouTube and raised about $700 for the veterans organization Team Rubicon. But it was a start, and it quickly opened them up to more high-profile opportunities with Parks and Recreation, Jon Stewart, and ESPN.
The company’s big break came the next year in the form of Bryan Cranston. By all standards of Omaze’s internet-first strategy, Cranston was the ideal celebrity ambassador. The final season of his record-breaking AMC series Breaking Bad was approaching, and the show’s popularity had made him something of an internet hero. But Omaze was still relatively unknown — its highest fundraising sum at that point was $20,000 — and Cranston was hesitant to partner with such a young company. Sensing a make-or-break opportunity, Pohlson and Cummins attended a charity poker tournament where Cranston was playing, approached him, and pledged their full resources to the project. He acquiesced, and arranged for the winner of the Omaze contest to ride to Breaking Bad’s season-premiere screening with him, Aaron Paul, and other cast members in the show’s infamous Fleetwood Bounder. The campaign raised over $300,000 for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “They did it efficiently and thoroughly, and in an incredibly short period of time,” Cranston told The Hollywood Reporter at the time. “They were Omazing!” He was so pleased with the results that the show repeated the campaign for the season finale, with Aaron Paul as the ambassador. The second time around, they brought in $1.8 million for the Kind Campaign, an anti-bullying nonprofit founded by Paul’s wife.
Though Omaze’s growth hinged on drawing the right celebrity power at the right time, it also happened to benefit from a separate internet phenomenon. In July 2014, a Sarasota, Florida, resident posted a video in which he doused himself with ice-cold water and challenged others to do the same in the name of raising money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research. The challenge made its way to Facebook, where it went wildly viral, drawing in everyone from Jeff Bezos to Taylor Swift. It would go on to raise over $115 million for the ALS Association — money that eventually helped scientists discover a new gene tied to the disease. But as it ballooned, it also became widely mocked as a wasteful form of slacktivism. A Time editor whose father died from the disease described the structure of the challenge as “almost inherently offensive to those touched by ALS.” A HuffPost contributor questioned the public’s motivation for donating. “I still think we should take a good look at why we are getting involved — is it for ourselves, or for cause? If one organization doesn’t have a catchy viral hook, are they not worth the time?” A Vox piece found that popular targets of giving such as the Ice Bucket Challenge don’t always align with the causes that have the most need. “You’ll notice that large fundraisers can have a pretty significant impact on raising money for causes—and also that there are big gaps between the diseases that affect the most people and those that net the most money and attention.”
For Omaze, the Ice Bucket Challenge hinted at the potential reach of its business and, more importantly, affirmed its strategy for raising money. In Pohlson’s eyes, all the elements necessary for making a piece of content successful existed in the Ice Bucket Challenge. “I’ve learned as an internet user that trying to mimic virality is incredibly hard,” he said. “Form a pure content perspective, authentic reactions do incredibly well. When someone reacts to a bucket of cold ice falling on their head, it’s like we all are the same human beings there. No matter how rich or famous you are, you can’t hide that, you can’t change that feeling, right?” It’s for those same reasons that one of Omaze’s most successful promo genres is that of the celebrity prank. A video in which Channing Tatum disguises himself, embeds in a Magic Mike XXL test audience, and surprises the crowd with his sexy dance moves has racked up over 4.5 million views. Another in which Matt Damon prank-calls innocent bystanders with Bourne Identity–esque spy instructions has earned 4.7 million.
Omaze now has 70 employees, a network of nonprofits that spans in cause from political corruption to child hospice centers, and a direct competitor called Charity Network. It employs a handful of people whose job is to track the constantly shifting content preferences of internet users. A group within the company called the Tiger Team follows trends in video, music, and social media to determine who’s becoming popular and why, and a handful of data scientists use social crawlers to see how to maximize impact with specific partners. Part of the reason the company made Idris Elba’s experience a Valentine’s Day date was because, according to the demographic statistics of his followers on Facebook, 80 percent of his fans are women. “First and foremost, we’re going for those fans, because they’re the first stage of people that are going to share it,” Omaze’s director of content, Brent Pritchett, told me when I visited the company in September. “If it’s resonating with them, then it’s resonating with the zeitgeist opinion of this celebrity. So as long as you’re leaning into everyone’s dream of the celebrity, they’ll tend to respond to that and share it.”
But even with all the data and trend-tracking that Omaze integrates into its operations, some of the ideas simply come from fans on the staff. When the company received word that Harmon and Roiland were open to partnering with Omaze on a campaign this summer, it was a no-brainer to pitch an experience that included Szechuan sauce. Similar to the McRib, McDonald’s sold the condiment for a brief time in the 1990s. It was all but forgotten until the third-season premiere of Rick and Morty, when the show’s protagonist, Rick, revealed it as the reason he’s into time travel. The sauce quickly became an inside joke among the show’s passionate online fan base, inspiring McDonald’s to “open a portal” and send two jugs of it to Roiland. Perhaps astonished by his power to resurrect an obscure fast food artifact, Roiland in turn tweeted photos of the gift with the words “Holy shit.” Suddenly the sauce wasn’t just a joke, it was a real, edible concoction you could dip a nugget into. And a chance to consume it hit at the heart of Omaze’s promotion strategy: It was an SEO-friendly, otherwise-unattainable experience that appealed to most dedicated fans of the show. From there, Omaze head writer Mike Prochaska was tasked with outlining potential videos. Because he’d worked with the Rick and Morty team on a previous campaign, he knew the best way to capture Roiland and Harmon’s internetty essence was to just let them interact on screen.
“You get to really see them, and as much fun as they’re having, you, the viewer, are always reminded that this is something I could actually win,” Prochaska said. “I could actually meet these guys, and I could sit down and do this and partake in the Szechuan sauce, which is kind of a dream come true for people.”
The transformational experiences that Omaze advertises in its videos are rooted in true stories. When winners of past campaigns described their experiences to me, they did so in the tone of someone who’d witnessed an act of God. Gregg Anderson, a 45-year-old British Columbia resident who sang onstage with Paul McCartney, told me that he’d won shortly after his father had died, and the experience was transformative for him and his mourning family. “I’m not a spiritual guy, really, and I’ve said this before, I believe Dad had something to do with this to make us all smile again,” he said. “It’s made me realize that good things can happen to people. I didn’t used to believe it, but now I do.” In some cases, winners themselves have become figures of adoration in highly specific fan circles. Jonas Briedis, who won Omaze’s first Rick and Morty campaign, voiced the role of a minor character on the show and became a minor celebrity in Lithuania. “My name is very Lithuanian-sounding, apparently,” he told me. “I’ve had a lot of people from Lithuania either message me in Lithuanian or in English saying, ‘Hey, are you by any chance Lithuanian? It’s really exciting to see a Lithuanian credit for Rick and Morty. Way to go, man!’”
There are few ventures, aside from Disneyland and the lottery, that can promise to make a person’s dreams come true. So it’s not hard to see why Omaze’s branding tends to highlight the feelings of hope and unimaginable wonder that are frequently expressed by their winners. The Omaze logo is a wistful bright blue, the color of crystalline Caribbean ocean water. The website is filled with big, splashy photos of grinning celebrities and life-affirming language like: “Good things come to those who give,” and “dream experiences.” That wholesome attitude was apparent the day I stopped by the Culver City headquarters for a tour. Walking into Omaze’s airy, white-walled open office, I encountered a shelf display that contained enlarged, framed photos of every Omaze employee as a child. The space’s corners were dotted with succulents in colorful pots that extended out to a sunny garage-door patio, where employees sat on benches with their laptops and dogs. Conference rooms lining the communal workspace were given names like “All Stars,” after charities for which they crowdfunded. A wall overlooking everyone’s desks functioned as a makeshift shrine to Omaze’s famous collaborators, displaying framed photos of everyone from Seth Rogen to Lady Gaga. The office even had a communal bookshelf that every employee was required to contribute to when they were hired. Selections included Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the ubiquitous startup novel Atlas Shrugged.
To the average user, Omaze may look like a charity and act like a charity but — much like its successful viral videos — this is simply a successful form of branding. For every giant sum of money the business raises, the company gives 80 percent to a charity and pockets the remaining 20. That portion automatically absorbs the hotel and flight costs of the campaign’s winner and any overhead costs incurred by video shoots. (According to Pohlson, those can cost from $2,000 to $50,000, depending on the concept, but it tends to stay at the lower end of that spectrum.) Any remaining spoils go to the company. As it has secured more exclusive celebrity experiences, those spoils have grown more bountiful. With the Star Wars sweepstakes it ran this May — which offered three winners separate behind-the-scenes experiences and, for the grand prize, all those activities and an appearance in the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story — the company raised $6.3 million, leaving Omaze with a $1.26 million cut. Separately, Omaze has raised $10 million from private investors, $9 million of which came in a 2015 series-A funding round that included investors like Dave Gilboa, the cofounder and CEO of Warby Parker, and FirstMark Capital, a venture fund whose portfolio includes Airbnb, Dashlane, and DraftKings. It was a vote of confidence in the company’s ability to scale up.
While Omaze might not readily advertise the money it makes from every campaign, neither Pohlson nor Cummins is shy about discussing why they avoided nonprofit status. They argue that being a privately owned company is just another way they’re disrupting the charity world. “The nonprofit sector is really hamstrung by a bunch of factors,” Pohlson said. “Their ability to invest in scale, their ability to attract the best talent, their ability to leverage marketing to drive more awareness and more net fundraising. The reason we decided to do for-profit company is because we thought we could solve these challenges for all the people doing good on the ground much more effectively in that way. In our view, for-profit is another word for sustainable.” Charity Network runs on a similar profit percentage model, although sometimes it runs campaigns in exchange for a flat fee. Over the past decade, a handful of states have recognized the gray area between nonprofits and charitable for-profit companies by introducing hybrid corporate structures like benefit corporations and low-profit limited liability companies. Though these new company structures can be taxed on their profits, they exist for the dual purpose of making money and doing social good, as opposed to simply benefiting stakeholders.
The idea that for-profit companies could disrupt the nonprofit industry sounds like a lazy Silicon Valley plotline, but Omaze’s strategies aren’t so much new as they are traditionally controversial. In his book Uncharitable, entrepreneur Dan Pallotta offers his for-profit marketing firm, Pallotta TeamWorks, as a case study. Similar to Omaze, the business organized events and handled marketing for a variety of health-related charities, earning them significantly more donations than the groups had fundraised in the past. But after the high cost of Pallotta’s services were reported in the media, charities began to distance themselves from the firm — even if that meant they would earn less money for their cause. Pallotta was forced to shutter his business in 2001, and the charities he had serviced were forced to cut programs and lay off staff. Seven years later, Pallotta wrote the book to argue that the public opinion that charities should function prudishly was hurting the very issues they set out to tackle.
By traditional logic, nonprofits exist because they are more trustworthy than those driven by profit, and less likely to lower the quality of their services for the sake of making more money. (And on the more practical side, they don’t have to pay high corporate income taxes.) They also tend to be fueled by people with a higher moral purpose. “Nonprofits happen because people come together to do things,” said Thad Calabrese, an associate professor at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “They do it voluntarily. The sector is organic in that organizations built around a particular issue or the desire for some sort of service happen naturally.” Still, recent conversations about their impact — spurred, in part, by a 2015 ProPublica report that the Red Cross translated the half a billion dollars it raised for Haitian earthquake relief into only six homes — have called that thinking into question. According to Calabrese, the nonprofit sector’s cultural aversion to spending money on its own structural needs can be the cause of its failure. “Marketing is about generating sales and, for whatever reason, many in parts of the nonprofit community feel uncomfortable with that concept,” he said, later adding: “As things become more competitive there’s going to have to be a recognition of where organizations are going to earn their money, and whether they’re going to partner with a for-profit entity. It’s been shown to work. I’m not sure what people who can’t get on board with it are going to do.”
Whether or not they’re comfortable with it, nonprofits face the increasing challenge of competing for online attention on a shoestring budget. In this sense, Planned Parenthood Los Angeles public affairs director Dinah Stephens says she is grateful to have Omaze as a collaborator. The two organizations have launched eight projects, and they meet regularly to discuss other potential partnerships or talent that could be worth pursuing. “Planned Parenthood would not have the means to film those kinds of videos, manage those kinds of experiences, to juggle all of the moving parts that come along with this, both online and off,” she said. “We’re a health care provider first and foremost. We see a quarter million patients every year, and that’s our primary job. So partnering with an organization like Omaze does allow us to tap into something.” In some cases, Omaze has been able to facilitate quick merchandise fundraisers for the organization, like the Samantha Bee–endorsed “Nasty Woman” T-shirts that popped up after Donald Trump used the phrase in a presidential debate last year. Experience-wise, it also helped the organization pair up with relevant celebrity ambassadors to crowdfund for its cause. A current Omaze campaign, for instance, offers a chance to join Elisabeth Moss on the set of The Handmaid’s Tale. And in the case of the Rick and Morty fundraiser, Omaze introduced Planned Parenthood to celebrities whom the organization hadn’t previously worked with.
“The majority of fundraising comes from individuals, but what has changed is how we communicate with people,” Stephens said. “Everyone is getting their information online. That’s how people want to be communicated with, and that’s how people are giving. Omaze allows us to tap into where people are today, which is very much online.”
Represent.Us, the anti-corruption nonprofit that benefited from the recent campaign offering wine-tasting with Jennifer Lawrence, was similarly grateful for the manpower that Omaze brought to the table. The Massachusetts-based organization frequently produces videos for its Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube channels that range from sober tales about how lobbyists’ influence affects people on an individual level to satirical campaign ads poking fun at corrupt politicians. The group even filmed a video in which it asks Martin Sheen to answer the question “What’s the problem with money and politics?” (The YouTube description reads: “His unscripted response shocked us.”) According to associate communications director Tzipora Lederman, the team is careful to balance attention-grabbing efforts with content that serves the organization’s objectives. “We want to avoid clickbait and other gimmicks,” she wrote in an email. “We are nonpartisan so we are careful to avoid content that is unfairly targeting one side of the aisle, all of which are ways of driving traffic.” But even with a capable content marketing team, coordinating the logistics of a large and far-reaching sweepstakes for an experience with Jennifer Lawrence would’ve been overwhelming without Omaze. “It became clear over the course of the campaign that they have an incredibly robust organizational structure to oversee every detail of the campaign from start to finish,” Nora Gilbert, director of strategic projects and partnerships, wrote in an email. “In the last few months, we’ve interacted with a range of teams from business development to legal to partnerships to video production to merchandise to experience and more.”
For organizations that have coveted their independence from outside fundraising platforms, adapting to the whims of online marketing has been a challenge. When I reached out to Tracey Mueller, the digital marketing director of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, to ask how she was reaching online audiences, she turned the question back to me. “I want to know all the great stuff that you find out,” she said. About 7 percent of the breast cancer charity’s funding is donated online, Mueller said, but she’s seeing that number grow, especially on social platforms. Though she’s aware of organizations like Omaze, she has yet to partner with them. But because she has fewer resources for glossy campaigns than your average media outfit, she leans on Facebook’s nonprofit division to test certain media strategies and see whether they’d be worth executing. “I have a for-profit background, and the resources and the technology and the analytics that supported our strategies were a completely different ball game. So we have to almost spin straw into gold, and it’s almost like we don’t have a wheel.” She has seen some traction with a recent Facebook feature that allows people to donate to charities on their birthday. And recently her foundation launched a crowdfunding platform that tells the stories of four breast cancer researchers. Visitors can get to know the scientists, read about their areas of specialty, and choose to whom they’d like to donate. It’s an exciting step for the nonprofit, but Mueller is still concerned about its lasting power. “We’re constantly in a beta-testing approach, and as soon as we’ve got something figured out and have some momentum, it changes.”
Because winning attention often requires having high-quality content, smaller charities struggle to compete within the realm of social media. “One of the hardest things of online giving is that there’s so much noise,” said Leslie Granger, president of the New York–based pet welfare nonprofit Bideawee. “With something like Giving Tuesday, for example, every charity is out there asking for donations. You want to be careful that you really pay attention to your constituents and your donors so you cultivate them for more than just a onetime gift.” Bideawee hasn’t worked with Omaze, and Granger said her organization doesn’t have a budget to produce high-quality videos on its own. Part of its marketing strategy is to invite New York–based media outlets like Mashable to film clips for their own stories. These assets can then be included in email fundraising campaigns, which typically tell the story of single animals in need of care. Granger also uses a nonprofit crowdfunding platform called Classy to encourage peer-to-peer fundraising efforts among Bideawee’s more dedicated members. About 30 percent of its donated funding comes from online sources, and the organization relies on its annual gala, paper-mail donation forms, and estate donations from the deceased for the rest. “Online still isn’t quite up there for us as it is in other ways, like direct mail and major gifts,” Granger said. “Whether somebody starts as a $5 donor online or not, every relationship is important to us, but we need to be careful to cultivate those relationships all the way through, and make someone a lifelong donor.”
Omaze released Harmon and Roiland’s improv video in mid-October, with just 21 days left in the sweepstakes. It was immediately written up by a handful of pop culture blogs as something fun to watch, though not for the originally intended sauce-centric reason. After witnessing fans’ real-life fury at McDonald’s Szechuan sauce shortage, Harmon and Roiland backed away from the debacle. Omaze — which closely monitors the news around its campaign subjects — cut all mention of the sauce from the final campaign video. (According to an Omaze spokesperson, the winner of the sweepstakes will still get to have some.) In no less than a month, the internet had transformed the campaign’s alluring sticking point into something oddly toxic. “In the next season can Rick be mad he can’t get universal healthcare please,” one observer of the controversy tweeted.
By virtue of Omaze’s content production structure, having to dodge outlandish internet controversies comes with the territory. But the fact that its team needed to prioritize the world’s fast-changing opinions about a rare condiment — as opposed to, say, Americans’ winnowing access to abortions — speaks to a tension within its mission statement. Though Omaze pledges to do good in the world, it is also vague about how to accomplish that good in its most high-profile marketing material. Its strategy resurrects the same questions that the Ice Bucket Challenge posed: Is it kosher for people to throw their money at a cause without truly knowing or caring why it’s important?
When I brought that question to Pohlson, he said that where Omaze can affect the most change is via the bottom line. “The Ice Bucket Challenge raised [about] $120 million for ALS,” he said. “If those people who gave $120 million didn’t know the full ramifications of what that was about, they still set up a bunch of really brilliant researchers to go do great work.” He argued that the educational groundwork required to understand these issues wasn’t something that naturally fit into your average internet user’s everyday life. “We believe people are inherently good; they’re just busy with their careers and their family lives, and their social lives. You need a prompting sometimes. And we can use a funny video with a famous person, or a sporting event, or a television premiere, or a concert to generate attention and then harness that for impact.” Pohlson is also encouraged that Omaze is seeing repeat donors on the site, similar to the “daily active users” of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The more involved they become in Omaze’s campaigns, he reasons, the more likely they’ll be to engage with information about the causes on its site.
“We do work hard to make sure that people feel connected to the cause, but it doesn’t have to happen in that first interaction,” he said. Based on how the final Rick and Morty video was edited, Omaze would prefer that that first interaction does not include Harmon describing a recently murdered Rick as a representation of “democracy, equal rights,” a recently murdered Morty as our “national psyche or soul,” and their killer — a suicidal Mr. Poopybutthole — as a metaphor for “a self-destructive Handmaid’s Tale-esque autocracy.”
In the meantime, the money is there. Omaze projects that it will reach its goal of raising $100 million for charity by the end of the year. Since it started five years ago, its videos have garnered more than 500 million views. The Rick and Morty improv clip has already been viewed more than 96,000 times over the past week. The campaign’s voicemail option — $2,500 in exchange for 25,000 entries to win, plus a personalized outgoing message recorded by Roiland — is already sold out, and Omaze is adding more. With 14 days left, it’s only a matter of time before the sauce comes through.