Most people know Edward Norton as the Academy Award nominated actor who's starred in such films as "Primal Fear," "American History X," "Fight Club," "Rounders," "The 25th Hour," and "The Incredible Hulk." But even some of his fans don't know that he's also a social activist, working with a variety of charities and non-profits that help low-income families, the environment, and more.
Last week Norton unveiled a new social networking community, Crowdrise.com, to help volunteers and charitable organizations promote their causes and raise funds through micro-donations.
Norton recently spoke to Beliefnet Entertainment Editor Dena Ross about whether volunteering is a path to happiness and what inspires him as an actor and an activist.
What made you decide that a social networking website like Crowdrise was needed?
I've been involved with so many different causes and charitable organizations over the years and fundraising, and always felt that many of the organizations were struggling to figure out how to reach across that generational divide and use these new messaging and communications technologies to enhance their mission and the support that they were getting.
Last year, we did a fundraising drive for an African conservation organization I work with [Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust]. We put a team together for the New York Marathon. A couple of friends were really interested in this idea of a fundraising and philanthropy based site and we said "Let's give it a dry run with the marathon." So we put together this very dynamic campaign sponsoring our marathon team. We did it on Twitter and on a website and it was very interactive. We raised $1.2 million in eight weeks--it was successful beyond what we expected. A lot of people started calling us--a lot of friends of mine who are actors or musicians saying "I really want to do something like that for this thing I'm working on." Then organizations were calling us asking, "Could we pick your brain a little about what you guys did on that?" We ended up saying we could easily build out what we did here into a really user friendly template for individuals or organizations to basically do all the same things.
You always have to decide what are you going to put your effort into, but I started feeling that it was something I would be really excited about if we could pull off something that let the average person, instead of being able to donate $25, raise $2,500 with none of the impediments of cost of building a site like that or the time and the energy. If you could make it something that a person could put together—a really dynamic personal campaign—in less than 15 minutes, you could really empower a lot of people to do more. It would be really exciting if you could create a tool that was being used in a broad based way to get people to engage more directly and actually take actions.
The social networking stuff is fascinating and very compelling. We got around talking about why people are doing Facebook and Twitter. They're sharing their personal narrative, but there's not a lot of action taken out of it. What if you could just extend that in a complementary way—not even in a competitive way--saying to people, "Take pride in what you do, raise a flag, declare what you care about, and share that with people" and make it super easy for them to back you and back your efforts.
We looked at what was out there in that space. It was very dry, very utilitarian. And so we thought this is missing the point. People want this to be fun, something they take pride in, not just "click here and donate to my run" kind of thing.
I was reading an Interview Magazine article on you where you discuss your film "Fight Club," and you were quoted as saying: "I think there's a serious corruption in the idea sold through advertising that you can attain spiritual peace through lifestyle, and the notion of building your happiness from the outside in by acquiring things…This is where I completely agree with Tyler Durden—it's a recipe for spiritual disaster." I'm wondering, do you see volunteering and giving as a path to spiritual peace and happiness?
Everybody's going to have their own words for those experiences and that class. I don't ever want to make up blanket statements about how it works for everybody. But definitely, in my life, I feel like I've observed over and over again that people seem to get a much deeper sense of fulfillment out of the sensation that they've done something as an act of service or that the things they do for others actually give them a deeper fulfillment than the things they do for themselves.
As you grow up or evolve and you get a larger sense of your own spiritual life, you definitely look for things that are bigger than you or give you a sense of being connected to the whole of people. If you're lucky and you have the sort of privilege of enough stability in your own life to not have to just struggle for survival, which many people do, then you start to connect with that more.