2016-06-03

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.

What inspires you, professionally as an actor and personally as an activist?

They're two slightly different things. I think the only thing I would say that connects them is that I like things that engage me in what I feel like is going on at the moment that we're living in. So not everything I work on creatively will fulfill that in the sense that some things you do for a different reason. But I definitely find myself drawn toward pieces of work that I feel like reflect the times we're living in and the challenges of them.

I think that applies to other stuff as well. When you feel like you're somehow wrestling with the struggles of the moment, then there's something compelling in that to me. When you get a growing generational sense that environmental sustainability might be the defining issue for our generation, you don't really want to sit that conversation out.

I am drawn to the things that feel like they are the issues that are going to end up defining our moment. It's in some ways more satisfying to me to get engaged in stuff like that, than just in movies for their own sake.

The website is well done and funny but seems to target a younger audience. Was that your intention, to try to get young people involved?

To some degree, yes. It's natural to aim it that way because obviously younger people are more familiar and comfortable with these kind of mechanisms [social networks] and how easy they are. They're not scary to them.

But very specifically—totally not commenting on politics—but as an example, the Obama Campaign to me had an incredibly eye opening component to it. Enormous numbers of young people who really didn't have a lot of money to give were engaged by being asked not to just give $25, but to raise $250. And that campaign was incredibly successful at getting grassroots supporters to become grassroots fundraisers.

It made me think a lot about organizations that I care about that are doing great charity work. If you could get existing donor bases to raise by a factor of 10 more than they're donating just by reaching to their near circles of friends and family and making it really easy for them to do that, that would have an enormous impact for so many organizations. It pulls people together in an interesting way when you build it in a way where people are joining each other. It's like when we were kids and everybody did a bake sale.

You've managed to get a lot of your celebrity friends on board to promote their causes. Have you heard any positive feedback from them so far? Are they enjoying the website? What's their reaction to it?

Some of them called us--some of them aren't even friends of ours, per se. They're people we knew, but we didn't know them. They called us because they saw the site and they said "Can you help me set this up?" We said, "We don't even really have to help you. You can set it up in 10 minutes?" Some people have come in and done some really cool stuff. But my test case for the ease of this whole thing was some of my friends like [actors] Seth Rogan and Jonah Hill.

Seth was basically like "Is this going to be easy or is this gonna take a lot of work for me? He's said "I am really involved with this Alzheimer's thing and I really want to [create a profile on Crowdrise] for it but what's it going to take?" I ran into him last night and he said "That was ridiculously easy. It's really good for someone like me."

He set up his own project called "Kick Alzheimer's in the Ass." He's raising money for the Alzheimer's Disease Related Disorders Association. If Seth Rogan can manage it and you can't, then you've got a problem. No, I'm kidding. Seth's really awesome. But, I do think he's a great test case for sort of thing.

We often hear about celebrities being involved with different causes and charities, but some people may think that it's all for show or publicity. What have you found in your experience working and socializing with these people? Does Hollywood really care?

I always pushback a little bit against the notion that there's a Hollywood. That would be like saying "Do you think it's true that reporters really don't believe in the stories they write?" You'd go, "There's good ones, there's bad ones, there's muckrakers, there's Pulitzer Prize winners." There's no way to link everybody by association of the profession you work in. Imagine the things you could say about lawyers. Of course, there are people who give enormous, substantive time and effort who work in this industry, and then there's—like anywhere else in the world, or any other profession you could name—people who do nothing or do it superficially. It runs the gamut.

But I've been as inspired by people in the industry that I work in and the work they do for things outside themselves as I am by people anywhere else. There are people really trying to give back and make a difference—as there are in all fields—and those people are great beacons, not just to other people in their field, but to anyone.

It just blew my mind when I read [about] Newman's Own. Paul Newman sets up a salad dressing label just because people know him as an actor and years later, they've donated [a total of] $250 million. It's mind boggling.

Are people allowed to promote causes or projects that just benefit themselves on Crowdrise like "Help Me Pay Off My Credit Cards" or "Fund My Trip to Hawaii"?

Absolutely not. You can't set up anything that activates the donation mechanism unless it's a registered 501c3 through the IRS database.

So, if you want to do a project, it has to be affiliated with a charity?

Yeah. You can't raise money for a hip replacement for your grandma. As noble as it may be, we want [Crowdrise] to be squeaky clean and sort of unimpeachable in that sense. It has to be a registered non-profit through the IRS database. When you sign up, you can click and search and if it's one of the registered 501c3s and non-profits— they're all in our database—you can raise money for it.

When people make donations through the site, it goes through to the organization. We save the organization the trouble of having to send back to the donor that this is their receipt for a deductible donation. To be able to do that for the organizations, it's got to be a bona fide non-profit.

It seems younger people are more willing to volunteer their time rather than donate money since they may not have money, especially during in today's economy. What would you tell someone who doesn't have the funds to donate to their friends' causes? How can they help?

The way it's constructed is that you can join someone's team by donating, but you can also join by saying, "I'm going to join your team and send this out to my circles of people. " And with one click, you can join someone's team. It creates an immediate project page on your page and then you can basically send that out and say, "My friend Jen is walking for ALS because she lost her sister and I'm backing her and will you--my friends and family--come in behind me?" In this very speedy way people can do much more than just use their own financial ability to donate.

We really wanted to push this idea of sponsor volunteering. There's so many young people specifically who don't have money to donate but who are through national honor societies, through church groups, through this new Year of Service thing that started, they're giving their time, they're giving their skills, they're teaching, they're volunteering. All of us had done things like walkathons and I ran the marathon.

We started sort of saying to each other, we should build this in a way that encourages people who don't give money but give time through volunteering to, if they build a page, say "I'm not running a marathon, I volunteer with my church mission and I do it 10 hours a week and I'd like to raise $1,000 and will you sponsor my volunteerism?"

We're working with some big groups, some education based groups and student based groups and then some faith based that have real armies of volunteers to help turn their volunteer army into an even more productive network.

That's a great idea. Faith-based fundraising groups are usually very dedicated.

Oh, I know. Think about all the like good works that get done through faith based groups. They're already doing a lot of fundraising, but what they're really doing is often just bringing these armies of people together to do great stuff.

There's a faith based organization, Church of God San Jose, their 501C3 non-profit is called 4others.org. They've put together a Crowdrise team and they're doing a 15 mile walkathon through Death Valley to raise money for this African clean water project. They just found the site and 24 people from this church have signed up to do this walk in late June under one team Crowdrise banner.

They said we love [the site] because we are such a strong community and we love the idea of being able to link up under a community team and we love that [the site] is really fun. So we're psyched. We see a lot of people coming to it on their own and doing stuff that's very creative.

Think about like the degree to which the evangelical movement is tuning in to like Africa work and the Billy Graham, Franklin Graham push.

The thing I like about this is the way it's designed. We really tried to make it all roll up into this sense of community so that as people join each others' teams and those people are signed up under an organization, at each level, you can really track what they have all achieved together. Psychologically that is inspiring for people because they say the $300 I was able to raise is not irrelevant. It's a part of this movement and it actually was part of raising $15,000.

Being able to look at it and see yourself as part of this power in numbers phenomenon is a lot of what Obama achieved with his own political movement. He created this sense of ownership—that your small individual engagement meant a lot. I just think wouldn't it be awesome if one day we looked at the whole thing and see that like $100 million has been donated through Crowdrise. That would be incredible.