As odd as it might seem to pair the graying world of old-school, traditional fundraising with the fast-paced, cutting-edge world of mobile technology, it is perhaps odder still to learn that one of the innovators of the movement to bring those two worlds together is a Valparaiso resident who heretofore had enjoyed success as an options trader, a tanning salon owner, a golf club inventor and a proprietor of a haunted attraction called the Amhurst Asylum.
However, despite this unlikely background—which didn’t necessarily portend his stewardship of a technology-driven firm devoted to streamlining and modernizing the fundraising endeavors of hundreds of charitable organizations across the country—Jim Alvarez seems to have indeed found his calling with Gesture. Drawing on his experiences from having attended many charity events over the years—many with a silent auction component—Alvarez saw a pronounced opportunity to relieve some of the traditional pain points associated with these types of functions.
“I knew there had to be a better way to handle things like long registration lines, pen-and-paper auction bidding and slow, confusing checkout processes,” Alvarez says. “Most of the people coming to these types of events have a fair amount of discretionary income and they’re people who aren’t used to waiting in line very often, so it’s kind of strange that they suddenly have to wait in line to make a $10,000 donation. It didn’t make any sense to me.”
Looking to remedy this situation, Alvarez sold his chain of tanning salons and started Gesture in 2011, with the goal of helping organizations get more out of their worthwhile fundraising efforts by modernizing many of those outdated processes through the use of mobile technology, with everything from event registration to auction bidding to checkout and payment moving to the palms of patrons’ hands. Perhaps not surprisingly, Gesture wasn’t initially an easy sell to organizations that had grown accustomed to running their events a certain way over the course of years or even decades.
“A lot of our success at the outset was dependent upon how innovative the charity in question was,” Alvarez explains. “Some places couldn’t imagine the idea of people using their phones to bid on an auction item, for instance, while others seemed to get it right away. This was definitely new territory for a lot of charities, so there was a lot of education and trust-building in the beginning.”
Those trust-building efforts paid off, however, and Gesture quickly began bringing in more business than even Alvarez had expected, as more and more organizations saw the potential efficiency of features such as streamlined pre-registration for events, text notifications for auction winners and mobile payments at checkout.
“The goal was always just to help our charity partners manage these processes much more efficiently,” Alvarez says. “When we started, we were like Harry Potter—we’d come in with this amazing new technology to help them get more bids than they’d ever imagined, so they would look at us like we were magicians. But all we were really doing is helping to make their process a little bit better.”
These days, as technology has improved and mobile fundraising methods have become more widely accepted, Gesture has grown to a team of almost 70 employees helping to improve the fundraising efforts of hundreds of organizations. From some of the biggest charities in the world such as the American Heart Association and the Make-A-Wish Foundation to pro sports franchises like the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Blackhawks to dozens of smaller independent organizations (including Opportunity Enterprises in Valparaiso and St. Mary’s school in Griffith), the company has helped its clients raise more than $400 million over the past five and a half years. In a career spanning dozens of disparate interests and pursuits, it’s an accomplishment that Alvarez finds especially gratifying.
“I’m really proud of the team we’ve been able to build here,” he says. “It’s great that the work of all of our charity partners is the underlying cause that we’re supporting, and I think that shared cause gives us a great motivation and advantage going forward.”