IN THE NEXT twenty years, there will be thirty-five trillion dollars inherited in the United States — possibly the biggest opportunity for philanthropy in the history of the world. Patrick Schmitt, a current student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, along with his co-founders Helen Zou and Jennifer Xia, wants to use this very fact to make a positive impact on the world.
Over the past year, Patrick and his co-founders have come to understand why planned giving (the act of donating money posthumously) does not happen at a faster rate. The solution to this systematic structural issuer? FreeWill, a social venture developed by Schmitt, Zou, and Xia. The goal is to make planned giving easy, accessible, and totally free.
On FreeWill's platform, users can make a legally valid will— yes, as in Last Will And Testament— in 15 minutes, by answering a series of simple and straightforward questions — no legal jargon, no confusing details. When users create their will, they have the opportunity to donate some of their personal funds to charity — one very important use-case of FreeWill. This unorthodox, yet brilliant method of fundraising has helped to raise $33 million dollars and counting for nonprofits. Funds have gone to Doctors Without Borders, American Cancer Society, and dozens of other charities. This money is quite literally planet-saving stuff, and Patrick wants to help its owners wield it well.
We sat down with Patrick Schmitt and he told us about leaving a legacy.
PULSE: WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND FREEWILL?
P: In the next twenty years, there’ll be thirty-five trillion dollars inherited in the United States, which is probably the biggest opportunity for philanthropy in the history of the world...The challenge is that people hate estate planning and don’t do it. And then when people do do estate planning, nobody asks about giving, and just from a behavioral economics standpoint, we know that that radically reduces giving.
I ran email fundraising for President Obama for a little while, [and] was the Head of Innovation at Change.org. In both of those cases, we learned that people are both lazy and remarkable. When you can make things clear and easy for people, they’ll move mountains, and when it’s difficult and challenging, they’ll stay at home. That is true of you, it’s true of me— this is just how humans exist.
P: WHAT ROLE HAS STANFORD PLAYED IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF FREEWILL?
P: Stanford’s just an incredible community. In many ways, the values that come from incubators like YCombinator — access to expertise and an access to a cohort of other people trying to do big things in the world — come with Stanford. So we’ve been really lucky. It’s where I found both co-founders, who are just extraordinary people—two women who are two of the very smartest humans I’ve ever encountered.
P: HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO CREATE SPACE IN YOUR LIFE TO DEVELOP FREEWILL?
P: I think if you have the right people, and enough focus, you can do pretty extraordinary things. You can’t do it alone, but with a great team, it’s all possible. I did most of this while at Stanford. It’s probably 60 hours a week on top of grad school, but it’s worth it.
At this point we’ve raised 30 million dollars for nonprofits.
And there’s just nothing I can do that’s that valuable.
P: WHAT WAS SOMETHING THAT SURPRISED YOU ABOUT THE PROCESS OF BUILDING FREEWILL?
P: When we started, we had a product that was totally legitimate and valid in 50 states, and we showed it to people, and we were like, you’re gonna love it. And then they would be like, wow, that was too fast. They felt almost cheated. And so we’ve worked to slow the process down, actually, because when it’s too quick people didn’t trust the process. When it was over in 13 minutes they felt like it wasn’t hard enough to be real.
P: HARDEST PART?
P: The hardest part about FreeWill is that there are always great things that you’re not doing. We have to be so judicious on picking the most valuable thing to do at any minute that it means time and attention are really scarce. Stanford is just an exercise in making decisions about what great thing you don’t want to do.
P: WHAT WAS THE MOST REWARDING PART OF BUILDING FREEWILL?
P: Any time you get to create something totally new with an extraordinary team...Collaborative creation. Something that didn’t exist now exists, and we did it together, and that will continue to be true.
Great man theory is not that real. Great teams do extraordinary things, and it’s very rare that individuals do extraordinary things.
P: IS THIS WHY YOU WENT INTO BUSINESS [SCHOOL]?
P: I don’t think of myself as having gone into business.
I grew up playing a lot of board games. And the thing about board games is that you just need to win— it doesn’t matter how you get there. And you have no attachment to what chess strategy you use, or what Settlers of Catan strategy you use, you just have to win. And I think I’m very outcomes-oriented.
I would like to raise a trillion dollars for high-impact nonprofits. And this turns out to be the way to do it. And it’s not the other way around. It's less about the work and more about the outcomes.
P: DO YOU HAVE GOALS FOR EXPANDING FREEWILL?
P: The secret plan is, step ONE, create the best-in-class estate planning tools for the whole world.
TWO, use these to make it really easy to leave money to nonprofits and charities.
THREE, make it totally free for everybody.
FOUR, raise a trillion dollars while helping tens of millions of people do this.
The way you can do incredible things is help normal people be superheroes. And I think that’s my theory for how I can change the world.
The spirit of altruism is the silent tide keeping society afloat. America’s nonprofits account for nearly 10% of our salaries; they keep our citizens fed, clothed, and protected; they have given us doctors, stethoscopes, and lives. Patrick Schmitt, Helen Zou and Jennifer Xia know that when giving gets easier, more people can be superheroes. With FreeWill, they are hoping to help us help each other; they are here to help us don our capes and gloves. FreeWill is a creative solution that is helping ordinary people do extraordinary things.