It all started with a fire.
The Australian bush burned red and the undergrowth glowed like lava as kangaroos fled through the night, their coats covered in soot. Later, volunteers would apply bandages to the scorched feet of bewildered koalas.
Meanwhile, in Orange County, Justine Makoff’s son was working as a busboy. Not yet 20, he was so moved by the images he saw in his social media feeds of the burned wildlife that he was donating whatever he could to wildfire relief and encouraging his friends to do the same. The only problem was figuring out how to make his money have maximum impact.
By the time they were contained, the Australian wildfires of 2019-2020 had killed or displaced an estimated three billion animals and has since been declared one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history by the World Wildlife Fund.
To say the Wishly app rose out of the ashes of this devastating event would be oversimplifying the culmination of two careers spent investing in social impact. Still, this young man’s drive to help was the catalyst for a call between the Wishly founders, when San Clemente-based Joanne Gonzalez-Forster said, “I have an idea.”
She wanted to create a fully engaged digital community where donors, nonprofits and branded corporate giving intersect, creating easily shareable campaigns and social media content, where Gen Zers could take the reins and make philanthropy accessible, affordable, fun and easy.
For the oldsters in the crowd, consider this the next-gen version of that 1980s Faberge Organics Shampoo commercial where she told two friends, and she told two friends, and so on and so on.)
Gonzalez-Forster’s idea gave Makoff the chills. “We started working on it the next day.”
That meant establishing a 25-member advisory board full of their kids, their kids’ friends, and their friends’ kids. Next came the fundraising.
“We raised $400,000 from investors in order to build the app,” Gonzalez-Forster explains.
It took a year for Wishly’s App Store debut, and in the two months since the two have managed to raise an additional $800,000. No small feat, but no surprise, considering their histories.
Makoff and Gonzalez-Forster met in Los Angeles when they were just out of college and working on the first California Department of Health Care Services anti-smoking campaign. Since then, they have been colleagues, roommates and bridesmaids — all while Gonzalez-Forster was raising millions of dollars for AIDS, breast cancer and autism research in her career as a marketing professional. Meanwhile, Makoff was initiating community youth programs and facilitating the first group of inner-city teenagers to come through the Free Rein for Equine Assisted Learning Program in Huntington Beach.
Given all of this, it’s little wonder they are raising the next generation of philanthropists.
“We both have two millennials and two Gen Zers,” says Gonzalez-Forster. “My daughter is 27 and my son is 22. Justine’s are 24 and 21.” She goes on to brag about Makoff’s youngest, Maddie, who left high school to become a shark conservationist. “She’s one of those tall, beautiful women who gets in the whitewater and swims freestyle with great whites.”
Swimming with sharks might sound like an extreme example of a single individual, but the statistics back it up: Gen Z is a generation of doers, willing to go to great lengths to give back. Nicknamed the “philanthroteens” by author Beth Kantor way back in 2015, this is the first generation to be raised online — 98 percent of them own a smartphone and 81 percent of those folks are connected for five to 10 or more hours a day. As bad as that might sound, the result is proving to be a generation of people who are globally connected, community oriented and incredibly empowered by the sheer scope of information available to them.
According to The Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, 52 percent have donated to charitable organizations; 40 percent have volunteered and/or created social media content relating to an environmental, human rights, political or social issue; and 30 percent have participated in some sort of public demonstration.
In short, these kids don’t just believe in their ability to affect change, they’ve taken responsibility for it. And by sheer numbers — Gen Z is the youngest, largest and most ethnically diverse generation in American history — they’re leading the world to follow suit.
Which brings us back to the Wishly advisory board. They’ve been weighing in on features since the beginning, brainstorming ideas — including creating collections of nonprofits to support, similar to and shareable like a Spotify playlist — and explaining how they want the app to function (fast and simple enough to hold the eight-second attention span of Gen Zers).
Figuring out how to make the app better might have even been what a few of the board members were doing last September when six students reported to the University of Southern California (USC) that drugs were placed in their drinks at the Sigma Nu fraternity house. One of those students also reported a sexual assault. Since then, USC has suspended activities at several frat houses and implemented strict guidelines for Greek life, and Los Angeles Police Department officials have named Sigma Nu Chapter President Ryan Schiffilea as the suspect in the assault case.
For three of the Wishly advisory board members who attend USC, that wasn’t enough.
“They came to us with an idea to do a campaign on Wishly,” says Justine. “They don’t think enough has been done on behalf of the administration. So, they’re creating a collection of nonprofits that they want to promote, which is one of the coolest features on Wishly. And they are getting all of the sororities and fraternities on board.”
As a result, the campaign is bubbling up at schools across the country, reaching beyond Greek life. “Sexual assault is, and always has been, a major issue on college campuses,” acknowledges Lily Ghodsi, an advisory board member and USC sophomore.
And she’s pushing back. Her sorority refuses to accept the pervasive narrative of “what were you wearing/how many drinks did you have/why did you go to his room” that points the finger of blame at them rather than holding the perpetrator responsible. On top of the mandatory training for all students, educational courses for new Greek members, hotlines and risk managers at parties that have been implemented in recent years, she hopes to see more roofie test strips available to students.
“I know that survivors have spoken with each fraternity chapter personally,” says Lachlan Bonesteel, an advisory board member and USC senior. “I know that the school has required all fraternities to take sexual assault courses.” But he believes these Band-Aids are not enough.
There’s a lot of stigma associated with reporting a sex crime, and advisory board member George Duncan has watched it play out in real time at USC. “I’ve definitely seen instances with my friends and peers in which sexual assault goes completely unreported, or in which it is reported but no action is taken.”
In a display of how this passion project has spread beyond the USC campus, advisory board member Griffin Bonesteel, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, is hoping Wishly can spearhead “a campaign that will create awareness and ignite systematic change” rather than simply managing the symptoms of a sick system.
Say what you will about the “overt sensitivity” of Gen Z. Perhaps they are the first generation to understand that placing security guards at the door of a frat party or requiring members to complete sexual assault courses is akin to taking an aspirin when you have a brain tumor.
The collection hopes to raise $100,000 in the first month, and will include three nonprofits committed to ending sexual violence — PAVE, Peace Over Violence and 1 in 6 — as a special launch project for the Wishly app.
Wishly is itself a social app, allowing you to friend folks, message them, match their donations and share their collections, which could revolutionize not just philanthropy, but also the way we interact with each other. Imagine an app that leads with what we’re truly passionate about, beyond our favorite taco stand and the latest episode of “Succession.”
Which brings us to the brand component: Corporate giving exceeds $30 billion a year because success in 2022 means proving to your customers that you care about social responsibility, just like they do. How better to do that than a public campaign on Wishly that anyone can join and support?
And, yes, says Gonzalez-Forster, that means everything from Fortune 500s to the coffee shop down on Main Street. “We’re talking about the local boutique or the flower shop, or the person who does your eyebrows. They all want to show what they’re doing beyond their business, and they can use Wishly for that.”
All you have to do is log on to Wishly. You might even be prompted to tip them through the app. It’s transparent giving with just one click.
“Simplified,” says Ghodsi, “just like our generation likes it!”