Before Kickstarter and before GoFundMe, there was GiveForward, a crowdfunding platform created in response to Hurricane Katrina. The company quickly evolved to focus specifically on medical-related expenses, assisting people with bills not covered by insurance. Since August 2008, GiveForward has helped thousands of people raise millions of dollars for cancer treatment, funeral costs, disaster relief, and more by directly connecting donors with individuals in need of assistance.

Meet IVY member Ariana Vargas, GiveForward’s head of Business Development, who was amazed to see how many people benefited from the platform, yet troubled by how few people seemed to know about all the resources available to help them through their illnesses. Ariana founded MyHealthSensei, which assists patients, caregivers, and health professionals in finding everything from support groups to diet and exercise tips.

Read her story, and connect with her on IVY to collaborate!

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 IVY: What is the story behind GiveForward?

GiveForward was started by my older sister, who initially came up with the idea during Hurricane Katrina. She saw that donors didn’t have any feedback loop, so they didn’t really know where there money was going. What happens if you see someone on the news and think: “I want my five dollars to go to that guy.” Her idea was to let donors control where their money went and to give individual people a chance to fundraise online. At that point, it was 2008 and Kickstarter didn’t exist. The term “crowd funding” was not used very often. It was called “peer-to-peer lending.”

After we started GiveForward, we noticed that all the people who wrote to us and told us that our site literally saved their lives were the people who used it for medical-related expenses. So, within a year of operating, we decided to make a shift and focus primarily on medical expenses.

People assume that we’re helping people who don’t have medical insurance. But the reality is this: 62% of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S. are caused by medical debt, and in 79% of those cases the person filing for bankruptcy has health insurance. The problem is not insurance. The problem is that there are a huge amount of costs outside of insurance. When you take a baby home who needs a ventilator, you have to keep that machine running all the time. It can be difficult to afford the extra $200 a month in electrical expenses. No matter how good your health care plan is, it won’t be able to cover something like that.

People think the Affordable Care act will change everything. It won’t, because there are so many things that don’t fall under insurance. Things just cost too much in health care, and that starts in the hospital. It’s passed onto the average patient.

IVY: How are you disrupting the world of social impact?

Everyone assumes we’re non-profit, but we’re for-profit! There’s a misconception that a for-profit company can’t make a positive difference, and our goal is to change that. You’re limited as a non-profit because so much of your time has to be dedicated to financing from the very beginning. My sister was working at a non-profit when she came up with this idea, and she knew for sure her company was not going to be a non-profit. She wanted to focus her energy on making this a viable tech product and solving a problem. She didn’t want to just create a do-good project that happened to have a website. We are a tech company. When things need to change on a dime, we have the resources to do that.

IVY: What are the biggest changes you’re seeing in the way people give?

People don’t give to causes; they give to people. Even if you’re giving money for cancer research, you’re probably donating to a type of cancer that someone you love has had. That’s the big difference. People are happy to open their wallet and impact the lives of people they care about.

IVY: What are the most successful campaigns you see on GiveForward?

The successful campaigns are the ones with the best story. You need to give someone an incentive to give. But it also has to be the right audience.

I’ll digress to tell a quick aside. When Reading Rainbow was cancelled, the guy who hosted the show called the network and asked if he could buy the rights to the show. So he bought the rights and spent years trying to get private equity and venture capital firms to invest in it so he could continue. Everyone refused, saying that the show was over. Then, a nineteen year old from college told him to try Kickstarter. He raised $1 million in eleven hours, and $5 million in a month. He told the exact same exact story, but the second time around he told the right story to the right audience. People in the younger generation had a ton of nostalgia about the show.

When it comes to anything relating to fundraising, the story is crucial.

IVY: What led you to then start MyHealthSensei?

I was doing business development for GiveForward, working on improving brand awareness. I started going to conferences for patient advocates and started to talk to lots of people who worked in hospitals. I would tell them about GiveForward, and I would say ask them how they learned about and shared resources with patients. Almost all of them said that they just picked up brochures at conferences. This was 2011. I though it was such a terrible system.

I soon became a speaker at one of these conferences and pulled together a ton of different patient resources myself. By the end of the talk, I had people lining up to talk to me. They all wanted me to send them my PowerPoint. There is simply no source out there for patient advocates. The burden is on the patient stay on top of the latest non-profits or websites. I decided to create a Craigslist of resources. If someone has cancer, wouldn’t it be great if she or he had a platform on which every single resource was easily available?

We live in a world where it’s easier to figure out where to eat dinner than it is to get resources about your diseases. You can become a pizza expert in ten minutes by browsing the web. But Google isn’t optimized for mom-and-pop non-profits, who are doing great things but don’t show up in the queue. I decided to create a place on the Internet where people could go and find help for problems they actually had.

IVY: How can IVY Members help support you?

If you hear about someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, just turn that person to our homepage. They’ll find support from other patients and they’ll find services they may not have known about—for example, free services to clean their houses. The most important thing would just be for everyone to know that this resource exists!

When it comes to GiveForward, we’re really trying to help people in their time of need. Although we’ve had a medical focus for a long time, we want to be the crowd-funding platform for compassion. When someone is facing a difficult time, we want to help that person.

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