Starting a Fundraising Website

Interview with Desiree Vargas, Founder of

New to Chicago, Desiree Vargas used her enthusiasm and determination to start her own nonprofit, Today, revenue has grown by over 300%.

Desiree Vargas founded in 2008.

Desiree, tell me what is gives people free, personal fundraising pages to raise money for any cause they care about. Most of our work is focused on helping people raise money for a loved one's medical expenses. In a little over a year, we've helped raise $750K for families around the country.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

My first job out of college was helping to fund entrepreneurship education at colleges and universities around the country with the Kauffman Foundation. After 3 years, I moved to Chicago and worked as an independent consultant for a philanthropic investment advisory group.

Who did you hire to help you? Bookkeeper, Accountants, Lawyers ...? Would you suggest others do the same?

One of the best things I did when starting GiveForward was to reach out to the Small Business Opportunity Center at Northwestern University's law school. Not only did they provide GiveForward with deeply discounted legal advice, but they also helped give us a vote of confidence that the idea would succeed. They were a tremendous resource, and I would recommend anyone starting out to look to their local universities for similar programs in the business or law schools.

Did you have a partner when you started your business? How did you select a partner?

A partner is such a crucial part of the process. When I first started working on the business plan and website, I did not have a partner. But I knew I needed one. As luck would have it, a friend introduced me to Ethan Austin who had an idea for a fundraising site for marathon runners. We talked for several hours on our first call and we just clicked. Within a month, he was in Chicago to meet in person. By May of 2008, he was on board and living in Chicago full time.

With partnership brings compromise, but it also brings amazing ideas and skill sets you don't have.

For women entrepreneurs, what specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become an entrepreneur? Are there specific advantages, disadvantages to being a women business owner?

One of the biggest reasons I was reluctant to start GiveForward was that I was a young woman with no collateral in a big new city without a strong network to connect me with potential investors or partners. I realized that the only way I could be successful was to get out and network and tell as many people as I could about my idea.

Being a woman gives you a distinct advantage in most business networking settings. If you're young and enthusiastic, people want to hear about your idea and what you're trying to accomplish. People like to help people, so don't be intimidated by older, more experienced company. Seasoned business people may see themselves in you and want to help.

The one warning I would give young women is don't let people persuade you that you can't accomplish your goals because of lack of experience or a deficiency in a particular area. I am not a details person. I care about the big picture and long term goals. This can definitely hurt an entrepreneur. In one particularly trying time in the early days, my then boyfriend suggested I "stick to what I was good at," namely cooking and taking care of our golden retriever.

Read between the lines whenever someone tells you can't do something...usually it's because they want you to do something else.

Finding employees to work in a new and growing business can be a challenge. How did you find your employees?

As a social venture with very limited start-up capital, we have not been in a position to hire full-time staff. But what we have found is that this economy is providing a wealth of talented and eager interns who are willing to work for experience and additions to their resume.

Since the beginning, GiveForward has operated almost entirely thanks to interns, with the exception of our website, which was done through an experienced but young firm here in Chicago.

Social marketing is consistently being written about in the small business space. Has it worked generating business for you?

Social marketing is a crucial part of our business. We have a staff position called Social Media Maven who manages everything from our Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr accounts to promoting us with social media content providers. Between 30-40% of our traffic comes from Facebook alone, as most of our users employ Group Pages and Events to promote their fundraising pages.

What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?

Stay nimble; don't be so committed to your idea that you miss a better opportunity. When I came up with the concept for GiveForward, I was actually trying to find creative ways to fund a different business idea. I had an aha moment, realizing that there were very few sites to help people raise money for projects not related to a non-profit. Since launching GiveForward, we've changed our focus from being everything to everyone to embracing the niche our users laid out for us, namely helping people raise money for a loved one's medical expenses. In August, we began focusing all of our energies on this one area of the site and have seen revenue grow 300%.

Your enthusiasm is contagious. I sure the entrepreneurs at will be inspired by your story. Thank you, Desiree.

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