Bonfire Funds leads a funding revolution with T-shirts

This local company is making the world better, one T-shirt at a time.

Since its modern day debut by the US Navy around 1900, the T-shirt has become a fashion staple the world over.

“There’s something about the T-shirt that’s universal,” said Brian Marks, founder of Bonfire Funds, a local company in the business of T-shirts. But instead of printing shirts for its own profit, Bonfire produce shirts to raise money for individual causes.

The company began in early 2011 with what many in Richmond considered a vital cause: keeping Shaka Smart at VCU.

“VCU was going to the Final Four in late March of 2011,” Marks said, recalling the black and yellow glow of excitement that beamed from Richmond. But uncertainty off the court had some VCU fans wallowing in anxiety as Coach Smart’s success made him a nationally sought after coach. Bigger schools with much bigger coffers than VCU were all but certain to come knocking on Smart’s door.

“[I thought with] every game we’d win, we’re going to lose this guy,” Marks said. That’s because VCU hadn’t, historically, been able to match the lure of money and prestige other schools offered Ram coaches.

So to show Smart how much RVA loved him, and to help raise money to keep him, Marks commissioned the production of “Save Shaka 2011” T-shirts. Each shirt purchased sent $15 to the VCU Athletics Department.

He also created to publicize the shirts and their mission. “It launched that Friday night and he was re-signed on Monday,” Marks said, although he freely acknowledges his efforts had little to do with Smart’s re-signing. But the experience showed him how the T-shirt can rally both people and money behind a cause.

“I think it’s pretty simple: we’re all creatures of habit and we all want to make statements,” Marks said. From bands, slogans, superheroes, to causes, people enjoy showing the world what we care about. “We all want to have stances on things.”

But showing off those stances was often problematic to organizations and groups that wanted a limited run of T-shirts. Marks called these “pain points”: What size T-shirts should you order? How many do you order? What if there are extras?

Bonfire Funds removes those questions by simplifying the process. Individuals, groups, and organizations create a custom T-shirt design—picking both the price of the shirt and how long they want them for sale—to raise money for a given fund. They then use social media, email, and word-of-mouth to promote the T-shirt.

Marks said the crowd funding component was troublesome for some people to get their minds around, even in 2012. “We were really in the infancy of the online crowd funding concept,” he said. “Even the term ‘crowd funding’ was new.”

So long as people order at least 50 T-shirts of each fund,1 Bonfire Funds prints and ships all shirts (charging $10 per T-shirt2), as well as transfers all proceeds to the fund. The system ensures that Bonfire Funds has no excess inventory, which saves money and keeps costs down.

But Marks said the company doesn’t pinch pennies when it comes to the quality of T-shirts Bonfire Fund uses. The company wants people to wear its shirts regularly and not pitch them into the closet after wearing them only once.

World Pediatric Project was the Bonfire Funds’ first cause, raising over $2,300 in 15 days back in 2012. Since then, Marks said Bonfire Funds has helped thousands of causes and has raised over $1 million in collective funds.

Late last year, Bonfire Funds made T-shirts for Gilpen Court-based FRIENDS Association for Children, an organization supported by Shaka and Maya Smart. “It was gratifying for us at Bonfire as it came full circle with the genesis of the site,” Marks said about working with Shaka Smart again, albeit in a more direct capacity.

Bonfire Funds has helped major national institutions, like Susan G. Komen, ASK Childhood Cancer, and others.

But it’s also helped smaller causes. One fund in particular that stands out was to benefit a rib shack in Philadelphia, PA. Opened in 1984 by Ron Washington, Ron’s Ribs was forced to close in 2010. Washington’s grandson, Brandon, created a fund to help reopen Ron’s Ribs. The fund earned $925 after 110 shirts were sold. “It was pretty cool to be a part of it,” Marks said.

If what Marks believes about his company and industry proves true, there’ll be many more funds for Bonfire Funds to be a part of in the future. “I think we’re just scratching the surface of what the potential is,” Marks said. “I still think we’re in the infancy of online fundraising.”

While mum on Bonfire Fund’s future plans, Marks remains committed to having his cause, his business, succeed by helping others. “We’re focused on being the best fundraising platform on the internet,” he said.

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  1. If 50 orders are not placed, Bonfire Funds doesn’t print them, therefore both the company and fund owners lose no money. 
  2. Hoodies and long sleeve T-shirts are also available. 

photo courtesy of Bonfire Funds

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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