How J.J. Watt Raised $37 Million From Complete Strangers

by | September 27, 2017

It started on August 26 with this tweet:

JJ Watt, all-Pro defensive end of the NFL’s Houston Texans, urged his followers to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey, setting a modest goal of $200,000. Three weeks later he closed the fundraising portion of the relief effort. The total amount raised? $37,132,057!!

At last count, 209,426 people responded to Watt’s appeal, meaning that the number of donors surpassed the dollar amount of the original goal! This amazing story raises an interesting question for those of us whose work focuses on inspiring generosity: why did total strangers trust JJ Watt and his foundation to be the conduit for their compassion?

From my perspective, these are the key factors:


1. A Clear and Compelling Mission

Watt stated his objective very clearly and concisely: “Recovery efforts for Hurricane Harvey will be massive. We must come together to help rebuild our communities.”

Lesson for church leaders: “Belief in the mission is the #1 reason why people give. “We’re worthy, give us money” message will not work in today’s competitive philanthropic environment. Make the case that giving to you (and your mission) will have an impact and make a difference.

2. Personal Involvement and “Skin in the Game” Generosity

JJ Watt was active in the Houston community long before Hurricane Harvey arrived. He did not just write checks to local non-profits, he personally participated in their events and outreach programs. After the Hurricane struck but before starting this fundraising effort, he was seen unloading relief supplies and assisting in shelters. His reputation for hands-on work, and his willingness to write the first check to this effort, laid the foundation for this overwhelming response.

Lesson for Church leaders: Churches needs servant leaders, not “reputational” ones. As the old saying goes, people follow where leaders lead!

3. Showing Donors the Impact of their Gifts

Watt’s twitter feed and Foundation website contain numerous photos and articles about the Hurricane relief effort. His effective use of social media multiplied the fundraising effort. He did not depend on others to tell these impact stories, he told them himself and on multiple media platforms. He also allowed donors to tell their own stories about their contributions.

Lesson for Church Leaders: Don’t be shy. No one else can tell your story as effectively as you can. Find “impact stories” and publish them through all of your available communications channels. Don’t assume that a periodic announcement in a worship service or an article in the church newsletter will suffice.

4. Thanking Those whose Generosity Made this Effort Succeed

As the contribution totals rose, so did the thank yous. Large gifts, small gifts: giving at every level was celebrated.

Lesson for Church Leaders: “Thank you” is one of most underused words in mainline churches. Change that in your own congregation. Have a time for thank-you note writing at every officer meeting, expressing gratitude to  folks for their service and for their gifts. From such small gestures are sustainable generosity programs built.


Photo: By U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Alexander Martinez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. FYI, the original goal says $20,000,000 on his site.

    • Len Wilson

      Elizabeth, thanks for the post. JJ Watt announced an original goal of $200,000 and then later updated his site to reflect the response that occurred. Several news sources reported his first press release, including this article from EPSN.


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