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J.J. Watt’s $30 Million Harvey Haul Is Everything Great About America, The Internet, And Football


J.J. Watt has raised, technically speaking, a mind-blowing amount of money since he started an online fundraising campaign for Hurricane Harvey victims the week the storm hit. Watt has raised so much money so quickly, I’m hesitant to put an exact number in this story as he’ll exceed it by the time it publishes, but it’s around $30 million now.

His original goal was a couple hundred thousand bucks. So, why the eye-popping success? Why is an NFL defensive end the most successful philanthropist and online fundraiser in America right now?

There are a couple of reasons, and they can all make you feel good about America, the Internet, and football.

People Know Watts and Like Him

In the days after his fundraising efforts skyrocketed, Watt was found to be the second-most well-liked player in the NFL by Epoll Research, lagging only Arizona Cardinals Wide Receiver Larry Fitzgerald. New Orleans’ Drew Brees rounded out the top three.

I was struck by several similarities between these popular players. They play at vastly different positions, but each has been with a city’s franchise for most of his career, has a reputation for being nice and hard-working, and does high-profile charity work in that city.

That combo makes someone like Watt a perfect leader for a fundraising effort to bring a city back from disaster, just as Brees became a leader of Hurricane Katrina recovery when he joined the Saints’ organization in 2006. Fitzgerald’s charity work with his First Down Foundation earned him the 2012 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.

Watt ran his own J.J. Watt Foundation, creating recreational after-school programs for children in Texas and his native Wisconsin, before the storm hit, so his reputation and fame made him well-positioned to do something big when the moment presented itself. The infrastructure of that organization is already getting donations into the hands of people who need supplies.

The Moment

Watt said he felt “helpless” before he started raising money to help Harvey victims and recovery. He was sitting in Dallas, where the Houston Texans camped out as the storm bore down on their town.

When he jumped into fundraising, his personality and social media following made him a perfect spokesman for the cause, and the media coverage piled up, bringing new money to the campaign, which then brought more media as the effort stormed through each new goal like, well, Watt through an offensive line. Watt has said he knew his profile and social-media platform had the potential to do a lot of good, which is why he launched the drive with his own $100,000 donation, but he didn’t realize just how much.

Donors are more likely to give to specific disasters, and when disaster strikes, “donors are more likely to consider new giving options.” Like, say, a well-intentioned football player via a crowdfunding site they’ve never used. The flexibility of the Internet and accessibility of online fundraising amplified all these elements.

Online Fundraising

The kind of fundraising Watt is doing matters. Online fundraising hadn’t reached maturity back when Brees was raising money for New Orleans schools, but now that it has, it’s a perfect fit for Watt.

According to online fundraising processors, online giving has risen by 9 to 14 percent annually since 2014 as donors get more comfortable with the idea. Not only is online giving growing, but peer-to-peer giving is up, enabled by online donation sites like the one Watt is using. Peer-to-peer giving is a trending strategy in which individuals raise money for charities based on a specific event, usually something like a marathon or triathlon. In this case, the physical feat in question is watching Watt drive a truck around Houston delivering pallets of supplies.

The concept itself isn’t new— the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s Komen 3-Day and the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life are some of the best-known peer-to-peer events and have been raising money for years. But sites like YouCaring and GoFundMe have lowered the barrier to entry so much that smaller groups and entrepreneurial activists can raise huge amounts of money with very little overhead or experience.

That kind of democratization in charitable giving, akin to what the Internet has brought to other sectors, allows someone like Watt to take hold of the right cause to raise even more than traditional outlets with years of established fundraising experience can.

Watts Embodies the Spirit of His Community

Research shows much of the success of peer-to-peer fundraising comes from something called “relational altruism.” In short, friends want to give to what their friends care about. They care about the charity and its mission, but they are really motivated by a person they care about raising money for the charity.

Watt raised a lot of money because a lot of people care about him and what he cares about (and a lot of the people who care about him have millions to give). When it comes to fundraising, personality matters. The Online Giving Study showed fundraising pages designed with a specific brand can up individual donation amounts by double digits.

It’s no accident that the face of Houston’s NFL franchise would so expertly embody this cause. Watt went from walk-on at the University of Wisconsin to the best defensive player in the NFL for years running. He’s a guy who says things like, “Success isn’t owned. It’s leased and rent is due every day.”

Those who aren’t football fans often underestimate how visceral the connection between fan and team can be. Whether it’s a college or professional team, these are the guys who suit up and fight for you wearing your colors, standing for your tribe. Some denigrate this recreational tribalism, but Watt’s efforts for Houston exemplify that spirit at its best. Watt understands that, as do the many other sports stars who do great philanthropy work all the time. The upcoming football season gives him and all those who want to build on his success plenty of opportunity.

“In a time like this, when things are so difficult, you wouldn’t think that seeing your favorite football player would matter all that much, but something as small as a smile, something like a handshake, a selfie, these people just light up,” Watt told “Good Morning America” this week. “I appreciate it and I also want people to know I take that responsibility extremely seriously. And I’m gonna make sure that what I do is do right by the people who donated and by the people who need the help.”

In Houston, Watt has always been a picture of martial spirit, of hard work, resilience, and protecting his community. It’s no surprise when he asked for help to do just those things in the wake of Harvey, America answered.