Fans attend Comic Con in New York City. Sam Aronov/shutterstock

Fandom has become huge in recent years. Once an unfamiliar word, fandom—a term that refers to a community of fans—entered the mainstream vernacular about a decade or so ago. While the history of fandom is a long one, with some claiming its origins began with Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes, the internet has only amplified fandom’s reach. It’s especially popular on social media sites where fans interact with one another, share information, participate in cosplay, create fan fiction and fan art, and more.

There are few limits to what fandom encompasses. While traditionally, a fandom emerged around entertainment media such as books, television shows or films, nowadays, fandoms can form around anything from tech companies like Tesla and Apple to sports teams and celebrities. Taylor Swift fans, for example, refer to themselves as “Swifties” and Beyoncé’s fans call themselves the “Beyhive.”

At first glance, fandom and philanthropy appear to have little in common. One funder, however, is looking to harness the power of fandom to inspire social change. Its goal is simple: to make good famous.

“Most people in the mainstream can only name a Malala [Yousafzai], a Greta [Thunberg]…and why? Because they’re huge on social media, and if not social media, they’re just huge in media in general. They’re very visible,” said Elevate Prize’s executive director Carolina Garcia-Jayaram.

“It’s not because their cause is more important than another cause,” she said, “but they’ve been able to garner that kind of attention over a period of time, not just a one-off story. So building that capability within the person and the organization so that it’s sustainable is really important.”

The Elevate Prize Foundation was founded in 2019 by business leader, author and philanthropist Joseph Deitch. The vision? Building the “first-ever fanbase for good” to shine a light on social leaders and issues around the world that deserve more recognition. Elevate Prize hopes that this will inspire others to do good themselves. Deitch is founder and chairman of Commonwealth Financial Network, a Massachusetts-based financial services firm. He also won a Tony Award as co-producer of “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” in 2012 and authored a book titled “Elevate: An Essential Guide to Life.” Aside from the Elevate Prize, Deitch participates in giving through Commonwealth Cares, a nonprofit associated with his firm.

So what does the Elevate Prize involve? The goal is to provide activists and social entrepreneurs with resources that raise the visibility of their work, helping them to better mobilize support for their causes. Winners receive approximately $300,000 in unrestricted funding. The prize also includes two years of resources, including professional and leadership development, mentorship, social media training and the means to expand platforms to reach a wider audience.

Last month, the foundation announced the 10 winners of its second annual prize. They include Amanda Alexander from the Detroit Justice Center, which works alongside communities to transform the justice system and promote equitable and fair cities; Tony Weaver from Weird Enough Productions, which runs a national education program that combines inclusive comic books with an anti-racist and equity-based learning curricula; and Krista Donaldson from Equalize Health, which provides access to medical care and addresses the leading causes of maternal and newborn mortality through innovative tech.

Winners were chosen from a pool of over 1,200 applicants for their innovative approaches to global causes, such as LBGTQIA+ rights, access to healthcare, social justice reform and sustainability.

The Elevate Prize is funded by Deitch himself. The foundation has also partnered with MIT Solve—a social entrepreneurship initiative based at the research university—to build the infrastructure of the prize, including outreach, the application and selection processes, and vetting. The foundation does not receive any funding for the prize from MIT Solve.

The panel of judges for this year’s prize included Diane von Fustenberg, Maria Elena Salinas and Natalie Tran.

A unique approach to fostering change

So why fandoms? For starters, fandoms typically inspire enormous enthusiasm and participation. The Elevate Prize Foundation in turn asked a simple question: What if we harness that enthusiasm and community for change?

“We recognize that there were these organized fan bases around the world, whether you were a fan of the NBA or a fan of the Kardashians,” said Garcia-Jayaram. These fandoms, she added, were only getting bigger and stronger.

At the same time, many of the major social movements were “really beginning and taking shape on social media, whether it was Black Lives Matter or the response to COVID or #MeToo,” said Garcia-Jayaram.

Fandoms have already proven capable of doing big things. As Inside Philanthropy has written before, the popular South Korean pop (K-pop) group BTS donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter, which in turn led to their fans to raise more than $1.3 million to match BTS’s contribution. Additionally, last year, K-pop fans and TikTok users reserved tickets to a Donald Trump rally but did not attend the event, cutting into its overall attendance.

Businesses and marketers have learned to tap into that enthusiasm to help sell their products, whether that’s teasing an upcoming slate of movies at Comic Con or introducing a new iPhone at an Apple event. For better or worse, this is part of the zeitgeist of online life.

For the Elevate Prize Foundation, this convergence of fanbase and social media movement building represents a new opportunity and space for philanthropy, one that not many foundations have taken note of.

As Garcia-Jayaram pointed out, most social leaders and nonprofit organizations have “little to no visibility in social media.” As such, the training and professional development that Elevate Prize winners receive is invaluable to their success.

Although some elements of this training are more traditional, such as board building and enterprise developments, perhaps more importantly, winners receive other perks to which smaller nonprofits are usually not privy.

Winners go through an intense six-month social media bootcamp with a Los Angeles agency called Shareability. They also receive a complete brand audit and are exposed to” Fresh Speakers” to help them sell and pitch their work.

“So all of these steps that we take [them] through, prepare them and help them build their presence in the public realm so they can build their audience,” said Garcia-Jayaram. “If they’re looking to enact policy change, if they’re looking to just bring more attention to their sector and their cause, that’s where we feel we can really make a difference, so that’s how the program is designed.”

Winning organizations have progressed beyond the idea stage, and can demonstrate a proven model, a proven leader and a position of growth. Typically, prize winners have already received support from major institutions and foundations. Where Elevate Prize wants to make a difference is in helping winners garner more support so they can scale up.

As with fandom in general, Elevate Prize recognizes the importance of the storytelling aspect of the work. “That’s what gets people to really care,” said Garcia-Jayaram. “This is a content-driven world, and so [we want to be] able to give our winners the tools… that allows them to connect to the world through the channels that are everywhere today, whether it’s social media or streaming services or whatever the case.”

“We see the foundation at the intersection of entertainment, culture and philanthropy,” she said. “So one of my main goals and the goal of the foundation is to open up philanthropy to the world a bit, you know, make it more accessible to people, break down the barriers a bit.”

A campaign against hatred

One of last year’s winners, Amanda Nguyen, offers a prime example of just how much of a difference the Elevate Prize can make. Nguyen is the founder and CEO of Rise, a civil rights accelerator dedicated to advancing the rights of sexual violence survivors throughout the world. According to Nguyen, Rise trains organizers, activists and everyday people how to “navigate our democracy, specifically by penning their own civil rights into existence.”

One of Rise’s major goals is for all 50 states to pass their Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights, which include the right to informative rape kit procedures and notification, the right to survivors’ advocacy, and the right to terminate all legal ties with the assailant.

To be clear, Nguyen and Rise were already successful before the Elevate Prize. Nguyen has made the Forbes 30 under 30 list, she was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, and she was appointed by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Department of State as deputy White House liaison.

The prize is meant to help an organization scale up and increase its visibility, said Garcia-Jayaram. Such was the case with Nguyen.

According to Nguyen, the Elevate Prize believed in Rise’s model of creating change. “So often, foundations in philanthropy are risk-averse and that’s why we’ll see this enormous economic stratification within who gets allocated money within the philanthropy world,” she said. “But what Elevate Prize does is, it helps bridge that gap by resourcing, by funding changemakers who are on the ground, who have lived experiences, and who are creating innovative models for changemaking.” 

Undoubtedly, we would not be where we are without the support of the Elevate Prize,” said Nguyen.

Thanks to the Elevate Prize, Rise was able to train more organizers. Rise also played a crucial role in creating the enormously successful Stop Asian Hate campaign.

“February of this year, I turned on my camera and I asked people to stop Asian hate, and specifically, the call to action was to get the stories of violence toward the AAPI community into the mainstream media,” said Nguyen. The video went viral, racking up more than 11 million views on TikTok.

“It was because of Elevate Prize’s resources that we were able to set up a rapid-response infrastructure and create out of these Stop Asian Hate viral videos… a movement that focused on addressing the roots of systemic racism towards the AAPI community,” said Nguyen.

Elevate Prize was able to provide funding and direct resources to bring trusted AAPI voices into the fold and to organize communities. It also helped amplify the work that Nguyen had been doing.

“I’m so deeply grateful to Elevate for believing in this vision, and a future for Rise looks like a world where people speak with empathy, that they learn and are educated about AAPI history and that everyday citizens have the ability to feel like America is a country of the people, by the people and for the people,” added Nguyen.

A different kind of fandom

In the end, it’s doubtful that many social movement leaders will be able to inspire the kind of fervor that fandom does. There likely won’t be people cosplaying as social change leaders anytime soon. And I don’t think we’ll see much in the way of nonprofit-themed fan fiction (though here’s to hoping).

However, this convergence of fandom and social change draws attention not only to some of society’s biggest problems, but to those who are working to find the solutions.

As the Stop Asian Hate campaign showed, the internet, and social media in particular, is a powerful tool to effect change. In its first 18 months, the Elevate Prize Foundation has reached more than 16 million people and has an engagement rate of over 16%. On average, engagement rates vary depending on the social network. For Facebook, a good engagement rate is about 2%. For Twitter, it’s between 0.02% and 0.09%. For Instagram, a good rate is between 1% and 5%.

The Elevate Prize Foundation also has a number of other programs. They include sponsoring MIT Solve’s Antiracist Technology in the U.S. Challenge—according to the foundation, a spot in the challenge is reserved for one of the Elevate Prize recipients. This year’s chosen recipient was Tony Weaver. The inaugural Elevate Prize Catalyst Award went to Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” for using his platform to spread awareness, inspire change and mobilize others around some of the biggest issues of today.

“Like it or not, that’s the way the world is working right now,” said Garcia-Jayaram. “If you can get the eyeballs on what you’re doing through the media, through entertainment, you’re much more likely to have sustainability and be able to build much more quickly support for your cause.”