In the fall of 2000, one year after starring in a little film called Fight Club, Edward Norton was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa with his sister and brother. That’s when he met Samson Parashina, a Maasai warrior and safari guide who had recently created a boutique luxury safari lodge to support the Maasai community. Norton was, to say the least, intrigued.
“I was just completely astonished by what they had created as an experience,” he says. “And then the more I talked to Samson about how this was really just the seed of a larger attempt to develop sustainable economic value out of natural resources, I got more and more involved.”
In 2009, Norton ran the New York City Marathon to raise money for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which preserves wilderness, wildlife and cultural heritage for the benefit of the Maasai people. Today, he serves as president of its US board. We caught up with him near the finish line of last weekend’s NYC marathon—where he’s pictured above, with Parashina (center), now president of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and Michael Rodgers, New York Road Runners VP of Development and Philanthropy—to talk about his work with the Maasai trust, his fundraising platform and his latest film, the critically acclaimed Birdman. Also, Cher.
“Pay attention in your life to things that have positively affected you or transformed you, and then lean into those.”
A lot of guys want to get involved or give back, but they don’t really know how or where to start. As an experienced philanthropist, what would you suggest?
Well, I always think that engagement with anything that you want, a cause or an attempt to contribute positively, shouldn’t really flow from arbitrary selection. The weird rhythms of life, they make you bump into certain things. You have authentic encounters like I had with [the Maasai people]. I didn’t anticipate in my life that I was going to work on something like this as deeply as I have, but I just had that encounter. It affected me. I really liked these guys, became friends with Samson, and it just evolved.
Pay attention in your life to things that have positively affected you or transformed you and then lean into those. Like, figure out ways someone helped you and see if you can return that favor. Or if you’ve gone somewhere and been impacted by it, and you want to keep that relationship growing—you know, if you’re a surfer, maybe you care about coastal marine health. Everybody has things in their life that they would like to see sustained or replicated or whatever, and I think that’s the best way to go.
The Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust accepts donations on its website. But it also has an eco-tourism partner, Campi ya Kanzi, that allows people to go on a safari with the Maasai. How is this different from other African safaris?
I think a lot of young people are looking for experiences that feel more authentic and not like they’re on a chartered-out tourist loop. And the thing that really struck me and my brother, who’s a very serious outdoorsman, when we went [with the Maasai] is it was very, very, very different from other places we went. Other places we went, the experience of meeting people from a traditional culture felt almost like a front-of-shop presentational thing at the front door of what was essentially a hotel experience that you could get in the Maldives or in the Caribbean, and you never feel in a lot of these places like you’ve had an authentic encounter with a community.
This place they’ve created as a travel experience, it really delivers something extraordinary and different in the sense that you are actually visiting with this community in a place they have built themselves, not an external hotel. And they’re delivering this unbelievably unique experience of being out on foot with Maasai trackers in the morning, which you can’t do in the national parks. You know, you see no one else while you’re there. You don’t visit a place where there’s a trinket stand. It’s not 20 vans circling one cheetah. You go with the guides to their homes and meet their families and hang out with them. It’s just an entirely different caliber of experience.
You also helped found the fundraising platform Crowdrise. How did that begin?
When we did the marathon in 2009, I wasn’t that happy with the fundraising platforms available, so we built our own, and it was very successful. And then a lot of other organizations came to us, and even the New York Road Runners club came to us. So we actually built it out, [and it’s now] one of the largest peer-to-peer fundraising platforms for charity in the world. I think over a hundred million dollars a year are being raised on it, and we see young people especially just doing unbelievably creative things on it.
What sorts of things?
We have an enormous number of people who run races like the marathons, they convert their activity into some fundraising for causes. We see people using their birthdays, saying “In lieu of presents, contribute to this.” But we’ve [also] seen guys saying, “We’re never going to run a marathon, but we’ll go to a concert of a band we hate, sober, and we think you should kick in.” We have these guys, they’ve done Backstreet Boys sober, Cher sober and Creed sober, and they’ve raised 8,000 bucks each time. Nothing against those bands, I’m a huge fan of Cher, and Cher actually heard they were doing it, and invited them into the front row and then called them out. It was hysterical. Now they’re like huge Cher fans.
But the point is, we see people getting unbelievably creative all the time, pretty much the same way people take a platform like Twitter or Instagram and figure out how to express themselves. In terms of giving back, there’s more and more tools to do things. People are so network-conversant now, people who have maybe limited access to actually financially contribute realize they can use their social networks and their creativity to create leverage that far outdistances their ability to write a check, and that’s very cool.. They’re figuring out how to convert those social networks into things that are more meaningful, and that’s an interesting next-gen approach to having an impact.
Finally: Birdman looks amazing. We’re dying to see it. What do you like most about it?
It’s among the most unique and original films I’ve been involved in. It’s just wildly original, sort of in the way that Fight Club was. I just felt like this director and this piece of text produced something unlike… I had the same experience watching it actually that I had watching Fight Club. It spins your head around, not only, how did he do it, but the surrealness of it and the weird themes in it. It’s an incredibly original piece of cinema.
Photo courtesy of New York Road Runners.