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How We Built a Community With Purpose by Hacking Crowdfunding

Mom Squad's using crowdfunding to build a new network of people affected by a specific kind of suicide.

I didn't want to become one of those people. You know who I mean. Maybe you've been one yourself.

If so, here's your MO: constant social media posts about your exercise routines. Status updates filled with pre-fab facts about the cause. Endless e-mails asking for $10 more. Yes, I'm talking about the charity walker in the age of the web.

I guess I thought I was too cool.

Yet in February 2012, there I was. I had signed up for a fundraising walk—specifically, the Out of the Darkness Overnight held each year by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It was a few months away and I had barely made a dent in the minimum fundraising requirement.

I'd had a perfectly good reason for signing up: my sister, Jen, had asked me to. We lost our mom, Joan, to suicide in July 2011. Jen had done the responsible thing, learning more about suicide and connecting with people committed to understanding and preventing it. Meanwhile, I had coped by throwing myself into work and generally pretending to be a tougher guy than I am.

That February, my gig with Insight Labs happened to bring me to California, where Jen lives. At dinner one night, I confessed how I felt.

I knew that suicide prevention was an important cause, but I didn't feel motivated to get involved. I didn't see myself in it. More importantly, I didn't see my mom in it—a pediatric nurse practitioner, she had access to all the suicide prevention resources in the world, yet still chose to end her life. I dreaded the idea that I would be surrounded by thousands of earnest suicide survivors and their families, only to feel alone all over again.

So Jen and I did what we'd been doing for years. We put our heads together and tried to find a different way.

We realized that what we both wanted from the walk was pretty specific. We wanted to meet other people who had lost their moms to suicide. We had a hunch that this specific population would share our weird mix of feelings: our vast appreciation for the woman who brought us into the world as well as the anguish over not having her around. But the Overnight was the nation's largest suicide prevention event—with thousands of people participating, how were we supposed to find these folks?

Being something of an information geek, I pointed out to Jen that we did have one resource that could change things: the web. All of the fundraising for the walk took place through the Internet, and every walker had a public profile. We could easily find the participants who had lost their moms. Jen, with her characteristic generosity, took it up a notch: it wouldn't be hard to give each of these folks a little money as a way of saying hello.

So we stayed up all night going through the profiles of all the other teams, giving $5 to each one walking in memory of a mom. We decided we needed a place for all these teams to find each other ahead of the event, so we created a page on Facebook and gave them the address. We went to sleep wondering if it would all seem like a crazy dream in the morning.

Instead, it turned out to be a dream come true. Other walkers were astonished that strangers had given them money. Several had already liked the Facebook page and said how eager they were to meet each other. The Mom Squad was born.

Over the next few months, Jen and I discovered a new way to relate to the cause. Instead of advertising our own fundraising pages, we put most of our energy into promoting Mom Squad members who hadn't yet reached the minimum requirement for the walk. In addition to ensuring that these folks could participate, we raised thousands of additional dollars. In the process, we easily garnered enough attention to meet our own fundraising goals. And when the walk finally happened, we were even more motivated because we knew we were part of something bigger than ourselves.

You could call what Jen and I did a "hack." While the term draws its origins from the computing world, it can refer to any use of a system to accomplish a goal for which it was not intended. In one sense, Jen and I hacked the system of individual fundraising. We were using it not just to raise money, but to build a new network of people affected by a specific kind of suicide. We then encouraged others to feel solidarity with the folks in that network—including us.

But more importantly, I also discovered that I could hack the system of my own motivations. I had been reluctant to talk to others about my mom's suicide because I didn't want to seem as if I was playing the victim or asking for help. But when I was doing something on behalf of a specific group of other people, I discovered that I was eager to talk about what happened and how I felt about it. An opportunity to help others was the intervention I never knew I needed.

This year, Mom Squad is going for an even bigger hack. We searched the country to find more folks who had lost their moms to suicide, but who might not be able to attend the Overnight because of the cost of travel and lodging. We launched an Indiegogo campaign to cover those costs. Once they're covered, we'll use what's left over to double down on our effort to raise money on behalf of others, making sure all our teams reach their fundraising goals.

So if you're my friend on Facebook on Twitter—well, yes, you're going to be seeing a lot fundraising posts in the next few weeks. But look closer and you'll see that they're more than what they seem.

If you'd like to help out Mom Squad, visit our website, our Indiegogo page, or our Facebook page. Later this year, Jen will be launching a broader project aimed at helping all those affected by the suicide of a loved one. If you'd like to get involved, reach out to her via Twitter @MomSquaders.

Click here to add supporting the Mom Squad Indiegogo to your GOOD "to-do" list.

This project will be featured in GOOD's Saturday series Push For Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.

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