Omaze Turns the Charity Model on Its Head

The non-profit business model is timeless: Celebrities and other well-to-do individuals identify a personal cause and encourage fans and followers to get involved–but the whole venture runs on the large donations of the fortunate few.

While Matt Pohlson and Ryan Cummins were still in business school, they attended a charity event that inspired them to change that equation altogether. The two classmates would have loved the opportunity to play basketball with Magic Johnson, but the price on the play date was a prohibitive $15,000. The incident got them thinking about a new way of running a charity venture–by expanding the playing field to include all interested parties.

Now they bring us Omaze, a project that offers fans “the chance to win once-in-a-lifetime experiences that also support social missions.”

Omaze is no small-time operation: past partners include Lady Gaga, Modern Family, the Broadway musical Rock of Ages, Meet the Press and the cast of Glee. Here’s the kicker: the required donation for participants is only five dollars. That’s right, for five bucks the super-fan can enter to win the chance to hang out with the cast of his/her favorite show…and support a worthwhile charity in the process!

How are they able to run a successful operation on the strength of such tiny donations?

After graduation, the Omaze partners had a unique opportunity to make their mark in the non-profit world: They received an offer to produce all content for the 10th anniversary of the William J. Clinton Foundation, which featured performances by U2, Gaga, Stevie Wonder and Usher. After taking this opportunity to both leverage their talent and meet the most influential celebrities in the charity world, they pitched their idea of a nonprofit project for a much wider audience to super-producer Kevin Wall, who was very receptive.

The premise: choose projects that appeal to the public at large so that Omaze’s partners can make more money than they would at a traditional auction. For a recent real-world parallel, see Obama 2012’s “Dinner with George Clooney” promo: The campaign sold 100 seats at the dinner and raised four million bucks, but the key to the event’s success was the fact that they set two seats aside for contributors who only gave five dollars–that stream of tiny donations brought the campaign a cool ten million.

The Omaze partners take a multi-pronged approach to PR. The celebrities themselves–be they pop stars, actors or politicians, bring a significant amount of attention on their own. The company’s founders then work directly with their nonprofit partners to create tailored email and marketing messages for different demographics. Finally, Omaze creates original content: They do not underestimate the power of shared stories, and their YouTube channel features short videos of contest winners enjoying time spent with their favorite celebs.

The guys behind the project have a truly unique model—and they’ve sponsored an impressive variety of contests. Their biggest event was the Glee experience, but their favorite offered the winning contestant a chance to learn strategy by playing Risk with four-star general/former head of U.S. Central Command Anthony Zinni (proceeds went to Team Rubicon, an organization that applies the skills of U.S. military veterans to disaster relief efforts).

What do we think of the Omaze model, PR pros? Can we get any ideas from their everyman approach to fund raising?

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.