Desiree Vargas Wrigley started her company reluctantly. After graduating from Yale in 2004, she worked at the Kauffman Foundation, helping to support other entrepreneurs. Then came Hurricane Katrina. As New Orleans residents struggled to find aid, Wrigley wondered why there was not a reliable platform for donating directly to people in need. The same question nagged her six months later, when she spotted a donation jar in a café for a couple seeking a heart transplant for their child.
For a while, it seemed that others had already taken up the cause: Change.org, Kickstarter, The Point (which eventually became Groupon). But none of those sites offered what she had in mind. Two years later, she decided to take on the idea herself. “I woke up to this little voice inside my head that said, ‘Get started,’” she says.
She met her co-founder, Ethan Austin, 30, at a friend’s Super Bowl party. He had a similar idea, a fundraising platform for marathoners, and the two immediately hit it off. They determined that GiveForward would be effective only as a for-profit company: If it were to seek designation as a 501(c)3, it would be restricted in its ability to distribute money directly to fundraisers. Plus, Wrigley believed strongly in the concept of the double bottom line, which emphasizes both social and financial returns. “I don't believe that nonprofits have the monopoly on creating value,” she says.
Seven months later, in August 2008, GiveForward launched. Initially, it hosted fundraising drives of all types, but fundraising for medical expenses saw the most activity. A year later, Wrigley and Austin decided to make medical GiveForward’s primary focus. The site has since enabled fundraising for related causes, such as funeral services, veterinary care, and disaster recovery.
Since 2009, GiveForward has helped its users raise some $15 million in donations. This year’s total is expected to eclipse that figure: the company is on track to facilitate $20 million. The company takes a 7% cut of donations from fundraisers; of that cut, it keeps 4.5%, and 2.5% goes to PayPal.
Wrigley describes the site as a rallying point for those in need. “It’s a way to build a community around someone,” she says. “If you live 3,000 miles away, there’s often not an easy, obvious way to help.”
Among the beneficiaries of recent campaigns on GiveForward include Anuradha Mitra, a graduate student from India who was severely injured after being hit by a bus, and Hannah Warren, an infant girl in South Korea who was born with an underdeveloped trachea, restricting her ability to breathe.
Recently, the site has hosted some high-profile fundraising drives. The family of Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who died in January after a training accident, raised more than $250,000 in just one day to cover expenses related to her care.
Wrigley hopes that GiveForward will become a primary resource for those faced with difficult medical circumstances. In April, the company won a gold Edison Award for social innovation. To further raise GiveForward’s profile, Wrigley has begun reaching out to social workers and support organizations about its services. “I hope it takes away the embarrassment of asking, to see that so many are willing to chip in to help people through a difficult time,” she says.