This fun-loving, experience-seeking entrepreneur has created a unique kind of charity fundraising platform.
In his mind, Matthew Pohlson WG’11 wanted to win more than anybody in the room.
One summer about a decade ago, he found himself inside a luxury hotel in Beverly Hills, California, for a Boys & Girls Club of America event hosted by Magic Johnson. There was an auction, and the prize was a chance to have dinner and go to a game with the former basketball superstar. “Magic was my childhood hero,” Pohlson says. “I probably cared a lot more about him than anybody in the room.”
Sadly, most of the other people in that room had far more money than Pohlson—then a graduate student at Wharton who only secured an invitation to the benefit because a close friend, Ryan Cummins, brought him along.
As he and Cummins drove home emptyhanded and dejected, they had an idea. Why not create charity auctions where everybody—no matter their wealth—could participate? The system would be framed more like a lottery with a lot of people entering a small amount, rather than the wealthiest giving a large sum.
Just like that, Omaze was born.
Founded in 2012 by Pohlson and Cummins, Omaze raises money and awareness for charities by auctioning off experiences and items (and making money itself by taking a slice of what’s raised). Since it launched, the company has raised more than $130 million for 350 different charities, including UNICEF and Make-A-Wish Foundation. People contribute between $10 to $100 to try to win prizes such as touring Dollywood with Dolly Parton, shopping on Rodeo Drive with Julia Roberts, and watching the Mars Rover landing with Bill Nye. In 2019 one lucky winner took home a Lamborghini blessed and signed by Pope Francis.
In the past few years, the company has pivoted from auctioning off experiences with celebrities to material prizes and trips. One recent prize was $100,000 to pay off student debt. Another was a 2020 BMW i8 Ultimate Sophisto Edition. “Since we changed the type of prizes, we have grown 500 percent in the last 24 months,” Pohlson says. The company recently landed $30 million in Series B funding toward its goal of raising $1 billion for charities.
Growing up in Laguna Beach, California, Pohlson dreamed of becoming a celebrity himself—first in sports. In fourth grade, he joined a star-studded basketball team that featured four future NBA players, hoping he might get to the NBA himself. “As a kid I was really good, but as I got older I knew it wasn’t in the cards for me,” he says. “I am only 5-foot-10 on a good day.”
Then it was acting. After graduating from Stanford University, where he majored in economics, he secured small roles in television shows like Scrubs and Everwood. But he pivoted to screenwriting and then went on to produce a variety of media projects. In 2007 he was one of the first directors of Live Earth, an event that had concerts in seven continents simultaneously to sound the alarm on climate change.
Not long after that, he decided to pivot again and go to business school. Upon entering Wharton in 2009, he brushed up against classmates who were starting companies that were “all about giving back,” he says. “I think it’s because we were just getting out of a financial crisis, and people started thinking about the world.” Once Pohlson came up with his idea for Omaze in his second year, he too joined the entrepreneurship bandwagon, asking his professors if he could focus on that in his classes. “They were so accommodating,” he says.
Still, the first years of Omaze were tough. Pohlson struggled to raise money and secure prizes that excited large audiences. “Our first experience was to be a judge on Cupcake Wars,” he says of the Food Network show. “Some people would love that—but not enough people.”
When he did secure an exciting experience—a day out with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston—he almost lost the opportunity to a competitor called Prizeo. But Pohlson used his resourcefulness to track down the actor at a party and begged him to stay on board by promising him they would raise $200,000. With stakes so high, Omaze raised $300,000.
Stars then started flocking to Omaze, and some nonprofit organizations—like People Assisting the Homeless (PATH)—began to believe in its vision too. In 2014, PATH auctioned off an opportunity to join actress Kristen Bell on the red carpet at one of her movie premieres. Since then, they’ve raised $1.6 million through Omaze, according to Tessa Madden Storms, PATH’s senior director of philanthropy. “The Omaze model effectively brings Hollywood to the masses, all in the name of doing good,” she says.
Pohlson’s had some fun along the way too. Omaze once auctioned off a chance to ride a tank with Arnold Schwarzenegger and crush things—which Pohlson got to experience himself during a film to market it. “We were there for four hours,” he remembers. “Arnold loves crushing things: cars, mini houses, DVDs of Million Dollar Baby, all different things.”
Two years ago, Pohlson had a life-defining moment. After surgery relieving a bowel obstruction, he says he flatlined for four-and-a-half minutes before coming back to life. “The doctor said to me, ‘The fact that we have you going home with your full faculties, we have no explanation for this,’” he recalls.
With a renewed lease on a life—and a lot of time to think during recovery—he tackled the question that had been gnawing at him: how to scale Omaze. Celebrity experiences were limited and dictated by their schedules and availability. But products—fancy cars, exotic vacations, London penthouses—were in much greater supply.
“These things have exceeded our best-case projections,” Pohlson says. And the pivot just might have saved the company during the pandemic. “If it was just celebrities, you can’t do those things now. I don’t know if we would have made it through.”
Omaze has started focusing on new charities and nonprofits too. Leading up to the election, for example, it raised money for Rock the Vote by giving away a $100,000 cash prize that can be used to pay off debt, save a local restaurant, or send a kid to college. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, it highlighted social justice nonprofits, including the Black Voters Matter Fund and Color of Change, a civil rights advocacy organization. (Some causes have hit closer to home. A recent campaign raised money for a mobile ECMO unit, the hard-to-find machine that helped save Pohlson’s life.)
Omaze now claims that it can raise up to 40 times more with its platform than an ordinary action or charity gala can—simply by appealing to everyday people who are willing to pony up as little as $10 if they get excited enough by a unique prize. “To have a company that starts from nothing and goes on to make a social and financial impact, it really is a dream come true,” Pohlson says. “It’s a pretty amazing feeling that this is working.”
—Alyson Krueger C’07