Windfall: Lessons From an NFL Star's Remarkable Crowdfunding Campaign

photo:  MDay Photography/shutterstock

photo:  MDay Photography/shutterstock

In hindsight, it isn’t surprising to see J.J. Watt’s Hurricane Harvey crowdfunding campaign exceed its goal. It had all the right ingredients: a traumatic event dominating national headlines, local urgency in a big city and backing from an NFL star. But what’s striking about the campaign, conducted on YouCaring, was just how phenomenally successful it turned out to be.

What lessons can be learned from this episode at a time when crowdfunding shows such extraordinary promise—and yet, in so many instances, falls short of expectations? 

Watt, a defensive end for the Houston Texans, initiated the campaign on August 27, shortly after Hurricane Harvey deluged Texas. By September 15, the effort had pulled in over $37 million, far surpassing its initial goal of a respectable $200,000. In fact, the campaign currently reports 209,000 individual donors

Just two days after Watt started his fundraiser, it had already surpassed $1 million. Things spiraled up from there, and the campaign soon found itself accepting six- and seven-figure gifts. Some of the most generous supporters included figures from the sports world like Amy Adam Strunk and the Tennessee Titans, celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Drake and Jimmy Fallon, and businesses like Walmart and Aspire Commodities. Charles Butt, the billionaire CEO of H-E-B supermarkets, put in a cool $5 million. Butt, as we've seen, has waded into Texas K-12 funding in a big way this year.

We've often discussed the ingredients of crowdfunding success. In the wake of major calamities, whether wrought by nature or humans, such campaigns give just about anyone an immediate, social media-friendly way to help out. It’s also a means for people to register their strong feelings about an event, tied closely to how much media coverage (and social virality) the event conjures up. Watt’s fundraising success showcases all of these elements. 


Celebrity wattage isn't required for a successful crowdfunding campaign, but it can help a lot, and J.J. Watt has plenty of juice in Texas. He also knows a thing or two about how to leverage his high profile to do some good and is no stranger to philanthropy. Rather than partner with a bigger, more established charity, Watt conducted the fundraiser through his own J.J. Watt Foundation. Established in 2011, the foundation’s recent annual giving hovers around the $1 million mark, mainly benefitting school-based athletic programs. Before Harvey, the J.J. Watt Foundation was a fairly modest family-oriented operation. J.J.’s mother Connie Watt is its vice president.

Obviously, Watt wasn’t expecting to pull in $37 million when he started the campaign, but the question now is how to disburse that money effectively. Other organizers of windfall crowdfunding campaigns, which can be a bit like winning the nonprofit lottery, have confronted the same challenge.  

Of course, as we know, lottery winners don't always make the best choices about how to use their newfound wealth. And what makes this situation especially tricky is that it's not always clear how to effectively deploy charitable funds in the wake of a disaster. As we’ve recently reported, finding the right approach can be harder than it appears. Long after the initial wave of donations tapers off, communities affected by the flooding will still require support. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) is one organization trying to iron out the disparity between disaster giving, which comes in spurts, and the long-term need for recovery funding. CDP’s Disaster Philanthropy Playbook contains useful information for funders responding to calamity.

While it wouldn’t be prudent for the J.J. Watt Foundation to sit on the money for too long, CDP cautions against haste in distributing funds. Instead, smart giving can mean holding off until funding gaps and emergent needs are identified by government agencies and nonprofits on the ground. It’s promising, then, that Watt reports that he’s meeting with Houston organizations, “trying to make sure the money stays in Houston and the surrounding areas and it goes directly to the people, not to overhead cost."

J.J. Watt’s unexpected windfall is a striking case in sudden philanthropic responsibility. Of course, other more seasoned philanthropists have also pitched in. Among them, the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation gave $5 million to the Greater Houston Charity Foundation, while the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation pledged $36 million to establish the Rebuild Texas Fund. As of September 19, Rebuild Texas has raised $66.8 million of its $100 million goal.