During Extra Life United, I had the opportunity to sit down with Elijah Powell, the president of the Anchorage Guild, and Cameron Cowles, the vice president of the Guild and creator of the 907 Gamers team. I talked with them about the story of their Guild and their meteoric rise to become one of the most successful fundraising teams in North America with over $200,000 raised for 2015 - a sum which won them and the Providence Children's Hospital the ESA Per Capita check for an additional $30,000. Wondering how they managed to pull off that feat of fundraising and how you can do it, too? Read on!
Jack Gardner: You guys kind of built up this guild up out of nothing and became one of the biggest fundraisers in the United States. You were just holding the comically large $30,000 ESA check for your hospital. How did that happen?
Cameron Cowles: Well, Elijah knew about Extra Life way before I did. He had been following since Sarcastic Gamer-
Elijah Powell: Yeah, back in the Sarcastic Gamer days. So I have been following since ‘06 or ’07 - whenever the first one was, I followed it. And 2014 I just said, “You know, I need to do this. It is something- I’ve got 2 months to raise money I am going to raise $100.” I sat down on my computer and spammed Facebook for a couple months. I had $100 in less than 24 hours and it blew my mind. My goal just kinda went up from there. Before that, I had no interaction with 907 Gamers. I knew they were a thing, but I didn’t really know anything about them. I just went on the Extra Life page and searched for a group and found 907 Gamers and kinda attached to them to see where they were going. I found out we had a mutual friend, Charlie Sears, and that’s how our relationship grew out of that. Cameron can tell you the rest of the story for 907 Gamers and Extra Life.
CC: For 907 Gamers [in 2014], I saw a picture that went around the internet that a lot of different people have seen. It was from Portland, PDXLAN, a very big gaming event that happens every year. They had posted on Reddit a picture of this room full of dried rice and all this donated stuff, like food – they had something like 22 tons of donated food. At the bottom it was almost like a meme, “but the local press didn’t post the story anywhere.” It was kind of highlighting that gamers don’t get attention for this stuff like they should. And I thought, Well, what can I do about that? I want to do something good – it doesn’t really matter to me what it is, but something local, something good, with the chair that I’m in.
Our group at the time had something like 1,400 people in it. I thought if I could steer this in a direction that’s good, maybe that will get gaming and the community and gamers in Alaska into the press. Maybe get good feedback from the community and let people know that gaming can be a positive thing. I was searching for what would fit for that; what would be the right charity. There are a lot of charities out there, but Extra Life seemed really good for three reasons.
It fit because it’s local and there’s not really any charities that I have seen that we can say, “We want the money to go to this hospital right where we live.” That was tenet one: It’s local.
Tenet two: You can make your own team and organize your own people into it, but retain who you are.
Then tenet three: It was very easy to sign up and do an event. We went on the website and without talking with anybody made a team. We were able to use the tools on there to send people messages and stuff. We just threw together an event, no expectations. We ended up having to raise our bar, raise our bar, raise our bar because we were raising so much money-
EP: It was funny, I think your original goal was $500 or something. $500 and then I joined, that’s another $100. Then we hit the $500 and I think I messaged you and asked, “Are we going to raise the bar or are we going to be stuck going positive on the $500?” About 20 minutes later we bumped it up to $1,000 and it was two days later that we hit $1,000. It blew my mind how we could escalate so quickly. And then from there you had your event.
CC: It’s so exciting to keep pushing that bar. Cuz it was like, Oh, man, we actually have something here. Like we’re ranking up. We are actually a contender here. And then I’m like, I’m going to spend a few hours on this and dump a few hours into it. Every hour I dumped was exponential. It was like I dumped 8 hours into this now and it has gone up to $3,000 I just keep dumping time into that and we are just going to keep going up and up and up.
JG: What were you doing, exactly? Were you messaging people?
CC: Private messaging people directly with a little copy-paste with some of the Extra Life promo material:
Hey, it’s Cameron here. You know me I just wanted to let you know there is this Extra Life thing we are doing. If you have any questions I’d be glad to explain it. Here is a short video,” and I shared some of the Extra Life promo material, “if you think this is something cool that you might be excited to do, it is going to make money for a good cause, and you aren’t going to have more fun than a 24 hour gaming thing. I’d like you to jump in with us. We are going to throw a free little get-together; come join us! It all goes through this webpage and it all goes to local Providence Children’s Hospital.
Every three people someone would be like, “This is amazing! I am so on board.” Maybe the other two people don’t view it or whatever, but I would message 800, 900 people. When it pops up on their phone it isn’t an event invite, it isn’t some spam. The think, This guy knows me from the gamer group; this is a personal invite. Can I join this? It got a lot of attention. We had the open doors lot of people could – Elijah heard about it himself, I didn’t private message him myself, he just heard about it, but a lot of it was private messaging and just getting people together and networking people together.
JG: Putting in the time to make it personal.
EP: Right. Someone thinks you are taking the time to talk specifically to them instead of: “HEY THIS IS WHAT I’M DOING COME JOIN US AND MAYBE YOU WILL SIGN UP AND MAYBE YOU WON’T!”
CC: When a cashier or something asks you at the mall if you want to donate to breast cancer, it is easy to say, “no thanks,” and move on. But when your personal friend asks, “Will you do this thing with me for a good cause?” They are more likely to say, “Oh yeah, sure! It sounds fun.”
JG: It is kind of the difference between going out and shouting “I’M DOING THIS THIIIING!!!” and approaching someone and taking the time to explain it, “I am doing this thing.”
EP: Right, exactly.
JG: So, your guild kind of exploded.
CC: Well [the 2014] event happened without a guild. So for our first event, we, as 907 Gamers, went to this space, it is called the Maker Space. It is like this crowdfunded, non-profit tool shed where people can donate their tools and share time. They pay dues like $40-$100 a year to come and use printers and all these things and they have this back space. So we told them, “We would love to host this event where all these people come with laptops and Xboxes and TVs and play here.” They were like, “Yeah, it sounds like a great thing for us to do, get some publicity for the Maker Space from a bunch of likeminded people and the right demographic. Let’s do it. Let’s throw it together.” So, we were able to grease the wheels with the idea that this is a good cause and we all should do it. It didn’t cost anyone any money and we just kind of organized it and we did about a month of promotion for it.
JG: And how did you promote it?
CC: Just Facebook messages, a Facebook event, some Twittering, tagging, I mean we had a Facebook group at the time of 1,400 people that are all locals, so they would take it from there and share it on their timeline. We had some local viral effects; made YouTube videos from the b-roll from our previous events that we had done. Just putting signs on the road, we did as much stuff as we could. We weren’t working with the hospital yet. It was just our team as a community going and doing this. That night, I remember we were just rolling and rolling our bar up higher and higher during that 24 hour period. We went $5-$6-$7-$8-$9,000 and there weren’t that many people there!
EP: I think at one time he went from $7,500 to $10,000 or something. There was a huge jump and I was just like, Alright, he is setting his bar high!
CC: It didn’t make sense to us because we had maybe 86 people on our team, but maybe only 50 people attending. But we were making thousands of dollars an hour you know and it was just like, Man, this event is a game changer. The fact that we are holding this local gathering is just like- people all have their computers there so they are taking breaks from gaming saying, “Well, I have been playing games for five hours so I am going to sit and put a little time in, an hour of messaging.” And it wasn’t just me anymore and Elijah had gone through a bunch of family and friends, but when we get these random people in there that just come to our events, we show them what we are doing and they say things like, “Well, I have a computer here, too. I brought mine.” Basically we had a giant typestudio. We had a studio of everyone writing out messages. It was like a little sweat factory for getting the word out! It was really cool. I think I spent 9 hours of that 24 hour thing writing messages. I had at the time about 1,000 friends and I went through all of them from A-Z messaging every single one. A lot of them would come back with questions and I’d answer those, keeping a conversation going, giving them links. When multiple people are doing that it’s just crazy.
The people at that event definitely donated a lot, but people are shaving their heads on Twitch for donations from outside. We did little auctions where people brought paintings or old gaming gear. One person was like, “I don’t have the money; I am living paycheck to paycheck. I can’t donate to Extra Life, but I do have an old Sega Genesis with a lot of games that I don’t play anymore and I am sure some gamer here would love to have it.” What better way to give than to give them this in return for a donation? They can get something right now from another gamer that is thanking them for donating. It’s the extra step. Just having a lot of that stuff happening. It was infectious.
EP: I didn’t get the opportunity to go to the [2014 event]. My first Extra Life was very, very personal to me. I just stayed at home with a couple of friends and we kinda just did our own thing. They had a video editor on site and every hour and a half he was pumping out a new video of some new crazy thing that was going on down at the event. It would have been nice to have been there, but when you start seeing those numbers, they just keep coming. It was amazing. I think then from there you had your check presentation.
CC: Yeah, so then we finished at $11,000 and our event was done and we were like holy moley. This was way beyond- we didn’t know what we were getting into with Extra Life, but this was a shock. Holy crap, you know? We all had fun everyone loved it, so we decided to do it again next year. So we were thinking, how are we going to get $11,000 again? That was a lot of work. Writing all those messages, getting all those people together, getting the space and everything, so we thought maybe we should look for some help outside of us and a Facebook group. We all did 24 hours of work that day, space, gear, I don’t know how many hours leading up to it was spent on getting people involved, added, and joining. But it was more effective than we ever thought it would be. We wanted to do it again, but we knew we had to work smarter and get help from the right people, bigger organizations than just our Facebook group involved.
JG: How did you go about doing that?
CC: [We had someone talk with Rick Heaton and Doc at Extra Life] and heard about the Guilds. We said, man we need a Guild. We need a connection to something that can work directly with the hospital, spread awareness through all sorts of things, just pull all these pieces together. We need a Guild. Elijah, through the 2014 event, he did it personally, I did it with a group – I was the second ranked fundraiser, but he beat me personally by himself.
EP: Yeah and that’s one of the biggest – when you tell people that you are doing this Extra Life thing they ask, “Where am I supposed to find the money?” I’m answer, “I don’t want you to give me the money. That’s not what I am asking. Just ask other people for money.” That’s all I did. I signed up almost exactly two months before the event and it was twice a day I would spam Facebook saying, “Guys, the only way to get me to shut up is by donating so either donate or block me, but it isn’t going to stop coming.” So friends and family and coworkers some cash donations-
CC: He broke $2,000 in a very personal way, not taking any shortcuts at all. The legitimate-connection-to-friends-and-family-way and that was hardcore. I was really impressed because I have all these people that I’m not really personally attached to in any way- they are in my facebook group and maybe we talk about games here or there, but I don’t know their life and I’ve never met some of them. I spammed out ten times as many messages, but he still beat me and that was incredible. It was really awesome that he was able to do that.
We did a big check thing and that was a big turning point. We talked to a local company to do a big, fake check to symbolize that we went and raised $11,000 because, although we did it and it was online- the people that were there knew about it, but no one else knew about it. And we want everyone to know what happened. The fact that it happened was great, but we should ride off of that so that next year it is even bigger when people know about it and they can get ready to be there and be part of it. We took the check, took about five of us and scheduled a meeting with our rep at CMNH here in Anchorage. We went over there with the big check and they had never met us before. We wanted to symbolically give this to them and maybe shake hands. Maybe have the press come and takes a picture and let people know this happened. Because a lot of gamers out there weren’t a part of this. They didn’t know and they could have been. So we showed up and I think it sent a really serious vibe that we were committed to this and wanted to do it again. We weren’t just a fly-by-night operation. […] It was like February 2015 that we officially became an Anchorage guild. We were super stoked about that.
EP: What’s shocking is how easy they make it to become a guild. I think it is 100 participants donate $100. For us, I think we had well over that.
CC: Our first year we had 88 participants, but our average- I don’t know about statewide
EP: Statewide was a little bit more, $200 or $300 maybe. We ended with $31,000 at the end of 2014 which was coming from 2013 when I think we raised $500 in our entire state. What that tells me is that somebody was participating in Extra Life, but nobody knew about Extra Life, nobody was getting the word out. We went into the Guild thing not knowing what the hell it was, then going into 2015 having all these different people showing up.
JG: The hospital can be such a huge resource.
EP: Yeah, absolutely. 907 Gamers, since they are the biggest Facebook group in Alaska, Cameron is able to reach out to every one of those people and it is kinda cool that we get to see new faces every time we meet as a Guild so we can share our message; share what we are doing because I am sure there are half a dozen people in between now and last year that say, “Man, what the hell is this Extra Life thing? Maybe I’ll go to the Guild meeting and figure out what it is all about.”
CC: We had lots of people come that we didn’t know about coming to say, “Hey, I work for this bottling company and I can bring Rockstar for you guys.” Cool! And another said, “I have a snowboard to give away.” Oh, wow! I didn’t know we had that. We just all these people just come out of the woodwork. By the time we had our event we had a 24 hour schedule of DJs willing to donate their time to DJ for sets. We had something like 20 sets from 18 artists.
JG: These are just people who showed up to your guild meetings?
CC: Yeah and I reached out to some people that organized the EDM scene in Alaska, which is a very tightknit community and said, “We are doing this gamer thing and we would like DJs to come,” and then those people would go through their network.
EP: I think Extra Life really brought everyone together to let everyone know that we are all pushing toward the same goal. It’s not 907 Gamers vs Magic: The Gathering vs the boardgamers. We are all Extra Life. This is what we are doing and this is what we are doing it for.
CC: [Our meetings] are just an open hub that happens every month that’s in the hospital. Anyone should feel welcome to come to the local hospital and come to the Guild meeting and talk. They don’t have to be invited or know someone. This is a public event seeking public help from anyone. They can walk in. Not only that, having our hospital connection from the Guild, we know how to say, “Hey, you want to donate as Rockstar? Here is the person to talk to from the hospital and you can become a sponsor. Just go through them, we don’t deal with that.” Then they do it. It’s super easy and then they are at the event. Rockstar is at the event. That’s so cool. As 907 Gamers that would never be possible.
EP: Or as Joe Shmo down the road trying to organize his own thing that wouldn’t be possible, but because we have Extra Life to bring us all together that’s opened up huge avenues for us.
CC: Yeah, what has ended up happening is this hybrid machine that you have the big grass roots group pushing into and then you have anyone else that’s a corporation or other group or whatever going through the Guild and we all show up at the same thing and put on this huge show. In 2015 we went from fundraising around $30,000 to $200,000. We had a huge 24 hour event. We had to turn people away we had two generators-
EP: We probably had 300-400 people show up to our event. And we had to turn away half of those because we couldn’t provide the power.
CC: Our Facebook event invite was just growing and growing as the months went by. It was going to be like a stampede. We started promoting the event about three months prior. Oh man, we have 200 people now, this is getting pretty crazy. Last year was 86, so I hope not all of these people come. More and more piled up; 300, 400, 500 going.
JG: Was this in the same space as the previous year, the studio?
EP: No, no, no, this time we took over an entire stadium. [Laughs] The Children’s Hospital Providence has close ties to Alaska Airlines and Alaska Airlines just built this gigantic arena for the college and we were actually able to take over half the entire thing.
CC: They had an auxiliary gym and that was a big step from our last event. Our last event was a long, industrial car garage and now we are in a full gym. Even with that huge jump in square feet by maybe a factor of fifteen or twenty in size we still sent hundreds of people away. We didn’t have the power for that. They dropped a 750 kilowatt generator, which is equivalent to the hospital that I was working at the time; they had a backup that kicks in if the power goes out. We had a hospital-sized generator there plus another smaller one, a 250, and the building and it wasn’t enough power. So we had an absolute slam, a tidal wave of people show up. And we can grow this. In this same event space- in the main area we have upper seating and lower seating and a giant basketball court for volleyball, basketball, college sports, a jumbotron sitting up top. That’s where we need to be next year.
EP: Alaska is kind of unique because there are no conventions. There is no place for people to go to experience something like this. For us to provide that to people, that helps to boost the participation with Extra Life. If people have that thing to come to then maybe they are more willing to help out with our cause.
CC: Extra Life is a new charity. A lot of people have no conception of what it is when you ask them to join. If you ask someone to donate to breast awareness, they have no affiliation with that. But when we put on this huge event and you see a video of it, you are like, Holy crap! How did I miss this? I am going to this next year, you know what I mean? People came from Fairbanks. That’s a six hour drive that people were making to come to this. And now every year that we put out a video that shows what we did it just grows. This year we started our team January 10, right at the beginning of the year. We set up automated posts for our Facebook to once a week say, “hey we are doing Extra Life this year please take the time to join.” Took a lot of extra steps compared to three months of promotion we have a full year now.
Hopefully we can get a bigger space and do an even bigger event and continue to push that. I think it gives us a step up on the every other charity in Alaska because nothing is going on with those. Everyone wants to be a part of Extra Life.
JG: With this last event, did you also have another space for people just to send out emails?
CC: People set up their computers, so we had a huge row of probably 150 desktop computers set up for gaming, but any time when they are bored of their game or their tournament bracket is over, we’d be on the mic asking for people to please tweet, share, use their phone, take a video, post it anywhere, post a donation link to your profile. It was just incredible. Leading up to that event- as we got closer and closer, we were getting thousands of dollars every ten hours or something. We weren’t even at the event yet. By the time we got to the event we were already at $50,000 plus. The event was so big that our local ISP showed up and said, “This is so cool that this is all running on our network and all these computers are playing and all these Xboxes are connecting to GCI. Man, this is so cool!” And the VP of the ISP says, “We are going to match it up to $50,000.” So suddenly our $50,000 starts blowing out last years. We just doubled it in an instant by talking to one guy. Oh my god. Now we are in the running for the ESA check now we can win $30,000 because we are the per capita winners right now. It just attracted a lot of attention. It was unreal.
JG: What do you think makes the difference between the Alaska program you have going on here and other places that have been struggling to blow up like this?
CC: I can go through a list of them.
One, 907 Gamers as a Facebook group is just like other Facebook groups with members and people who play, but there is a very talented team behind it that puts these events on. So, we have experience putting the events on far before we ever got involved in Extra Life. There is a huge almost-free employee network that exists for Extra Life now where we come and put these on. We have a union electrician. We have like five networking IT pros that have worked in the State government and banks – they are very professional. We have me with the social media stuff; I’m like a local celebrity now from 907 Gamers.
Now we have a guild now which a lot of places don’t have. Alaska is a place where there is not a lot of competition. There is no one else doing this. If we stopped doing it, no one would do it. If 907 Gamers stopped doing LAN events completely, they would just cease to exist because there really isn’t another network team that’s doing that. There isn’t anyone who has teamed up like that before.
So there are those things from 907 gamers. On top of that, Alaska is a place that’s extremely dark during the winter. It’s very cold. It’s hostile outside. People don’t want to be out in that -20 degree wind, so a lot of people want to be gamers. That’s also compounded by the fact that in Alaska there isn’t really a way to socialize that well in the winter. You can go to movies… and you can stay home.
EP: We aren’t really the hey-let’s-go-to-the-mall-type people.
CC: It’s too much work to go to the mall! You have to scrape the ice off your car. It is nice to stay home. But here this is something where, yeah, you have to bring your equipment and stuff so there is a bit of a time investment there, but once you get there if it is 24 hours. It’s like this is going to be a totally awesome weekend.
JG: It was worth it.
CC: Right. It was worth the investment for all that fun and I think a lot of people, because it is a small community, see people they know involved in it and feel drawn into it through that personal connection.
EP: I’ve been doing it, this is my third year now, and I finally got my brother talked into it. I think he just recently got a PlayStation. Maybe I never reached out to him, but he was like “what is this Extra Life thing you keep posting about? Why do you keep doing that?” A little five minute conversation and we got him signed up in under fifteen minutes. It’s just taking the time to explain it to other people. Like I said before, people don’t know what it is.
JG: One last question: What advice would you give to other places that maybe don’t have the same climate or have more diverse groups?
EP: Just have the conversation. Extra Life doesn’t work by itself. It strictly relies on you going out to your friends, your family, encouraging them to get involved and then encouraging them to tell other people. Or even just going to complete strangers! You have to have the conversation because without the conversation you really aren’t going to go anywhere. You have to talk.
CC: I think my advice would be: There already is an organization out there, generally, whether people know about it or not. Like, 907 Gamers was there, we just didn’t know about Extra Life. So you just need to connect. When the connection happened we found our cause. I guarantee there are other people out there that have not found their cause. Gamers, in general, they get in communities. You see gamer communities all over the internet, whether it is Destiny clans or World of Warcraft guilds, they just are there. It is just a matter of connecting them to Extra Life. They are already an organization that recruits; you already pretty much have what you need right there. You just need to inject Extra Life and ask “Would you like to do that with us?” Twitch streamers already recruit followers, you know what I mean? Gamers do that already. With other charities- you might have a runner. Runners don’t recruit, not really. Gaming already has organizations that you can use. I guess I would say try to unify those and connect them to Extra Life locally. I think every local community wants to help a local cause.
A huge thank you to Elijah and Cameron for taking the time to sit down with me in the middle of all the United craziness. If you are in Alaska, be sure to check out the 907 Gamers site or Facebook group.