America is consistently the most generous nation in the world. In response to a crisis, however big or small, Americans are known to rally—and overwhelmingly—giving their hard-earned cash to support others.
Dave Portnoy, founder of digital media company Barstool Sports, has tapped into this history of American generosity to solve a pressing issue. In addition to his creative control of Barstool Sports, he operates a day trading blog, hosts a pizza review series, and, most recently, he launched The Barstool Fund.
Portnoy took the internet by storm last December when he announced the Barstool Fund in response to a crisis among American small businesses that have had limited or nonexistent business due to nationwide government lockdowns. Unsurprisingly, restaurants have been hit especially hard. According to Yelp, over 53% of restaurants that closed amid the pandemic have shuttered permanently—and we have yet to see the full picture as to how many small businesses will be closing their doors for good.
Almost every day, Portnoy releases a Barstool Fund recap video featuring the most recent businesses saved. Incredibly, the fund has raised over $36 million from more than 220,000 individual donors. There are countless small and mid-level donors generously lending their support, along with major six- and seven-figure gifts directly solicited by Portnoy using the power of social media to encourage (some would say bully) wealthy friends and other well-known figures into supporting his cause. Big name celebrities including Guy Fieri, Elon Musk, and Kid Rock have answered the call, usually by tweeting their pledge directly to Portnoy.
In addition to his friends, Portnoy has rallied Americans of all stripes to support bars, restaurants, tattoo shops, salons, daycares, racetracks, and more from Santa Clarita, California to Portland, Maine, and everywhere in between.
The Barstool Fund is an amazing example of grassroots civil society solving problems that the government simply cannot do in a timely manner. It’s also an example of real charity. In his initial announcement, Portnoy laments that this isn’t “the best plan” but “we’re going to do what we can.”
He goes on, however, to explain how the fund works. There’s one rule: you have to be paying your employees. After that, he just needs to know what you need help with and why your business is important.
But here’s the best part: the Barstool Fund isn’t cutting a one-time check to the businesses. They’re selecting businesses to help, and the Fund will stick with them with monthly support until “this thing’s over.”
Interestingly, Portnoy here sets an example for funders and fundraisers. “What good does it do to help ya for two months and then disappear?” He wants to identify businesses that need help and then really help them. More than this, “identifying businesses” isn’t an onerous process. Portnoy cut the red tape—beloved of governments and foundations alike—and put together a short, sensible application, which seems mostly to hang upon a short video selling your business.
Needless to say, this creates a need much bigger than his initial $500,000 pledge. His response: “I don’t care how I get the money.” Portnoy, of course, has connections and an audience that most fundraisers don’t have at their disposal—but his approach here is instructive. It’s confident, bold, uncompromising. He casts a vision to help businesses and sets out to do it, come hell or high water.
That, I suspect, is no small part of why he’s been able to generate so much support.
Of course, there’s also the mission.
Portnoy is an expert at transparency, winning supporters with every new busines that he funds. He announces grants from the Barstool Fund through FaceTime calls with business owners and then shares these videos on his Twitter—along with the original video submission—giving supporters and potential supporters a front seat, emotional look at what their giving is making possible. Any fundraiser should learn from this.
Last month, Yodels Frozen Yogurt, a locally owned self-serve frozen yogurt shop in Muskegon, Michigan “got the call,” with Nik Tong answering Dave’s call alongside his son. They learned of the coming support and received the funds within 72 hours of their submission.
To date, 298 small businesses won’t be shutting their doors thanks to this movement started by Portnoy. And although he won’t shy away from a chance to brag about his efforts with his famously arrogant and (some would say) charming attitude, it’s this kind of quick grassroots action that gives one hope that when given the opportunity, Americans will step up to help their fellow neighbor—even now.
Portnoy here exemplifies the power of civil society, charity, and fundraising all at once.