Industry Insiders: Torsten Gross, Hardheaded Philanthropist

The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation supports innovative research for spinal cord injury and works with individuals living with paralysis. A noble cause like this one needs the right direction, the right planning, and the right foundation. In comes Torsten Gross. An active member of the Foundation and wheelchair-bound himself, he is also the producer and organizer of fundraising events. Most recently, he underwrote and organized Reeve Rocks at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. BlackBook caught up with the busy philanthropist post-soiree.

How was the first Reeve Rocks event? I was very pleasantly surprised to say the least. We don’t know the exact count yet, but we’ll find out how many walk-ups we had. Even if we make just a little bit of money, if you do a couple of these, it adds up. I think we got a good enough turnout through auctions that we’re going to see a return. This was the first one; we’ve learned our lessons.

You underwrote this fundraiser yourself, and secured great sponsors. Getting a big auction list is a good thing. The next time around, we’ll have amazing pictures, video, something big and small. The sponsors we got really cared — either they knew the Reeve Foundation, or they knew me. To make it synergistic, we got some weird things given to us, and no, I’m not going to tell you what they are. The point is to raise money and keep costs low. The not-for-profit community has rules, but I wouldn’t have been able to pull off the event without the help of a lot of really dedicated people.

What makes for a successful event? Having the right people come together for the right reasons. I thought I would just be giving the money to make the thing happen, and then I fell in love with what I was doing. We didn’t get international donations, or 300,000 people, but what I care about is the 400 people who said “Holy shit, I didn’t expect this. I want to go to the next one!” So money or no money this go around, we’re in for the long haul.

When’s the next Reeve rave, and where will the underwriting come from? Chances are, the next one will come out of our pockets again. Where the money goes is up to the Foundation, so it’s not just spinal cord research, but it’s also today’s care for paraplegics. That’s why the Foundation is behind the operation. It won’t go into a bank account to accrue money to have a bigger and better event; it will go back into the Foundation.

So, why you? Because I’m the one who rebranded all of the Foundation’s work. One of the things we came across was that in 15 years, nobody’s going to remember just that Chris Reeve had an accident — they’ll remember Christopher Reeve the personality, the actor. This is one of the ways to bring awareness to the possibilities.

What do you do when you’re not planning events? I’m the CEO of Innovation Consultancy.

Tell us about Innovative Consultancy. We’re very new, and we’re growing fast because we developed a business model no one has done yet, especially in the innovation space. It’s happened more quickly than we’d ever hoped. We don’t deal with promotion, marketing, or communications; we deal with innovation and the product itself. Consumers are so geared toward what they want, as they’re scrupulous with their money, that companies are looking to us for new stuff — and they need it now.

Who do you work with? I’m New York based, but we innovate everywhere. My company’s name is Fatbaby Innovation. Before I invented it, I was working at an ad agency and rebranded the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. I really started to fall in love with what they do and who they are. I’m in a wheelchair myself. I had an injury 15 years ago in a diving accident. So in one way, shape, or form, I’ve always had something to do with the Reeve Foundation. I now have the ways and means to be able to help out. The face of the Foundation is suffering a bit now that Chris and Dana are no longer here, so we need to bring a younger group of activists and supporters into the mix. We (Matt Reeve and I) wanted a show, and I decided to personally put down all of the money for it.

How would you describe yourself? I’m insanely attractive and on a roll. Pun intended. I can never sit still. If there’s something that needs to be done; I want to be in the mix at all times. I think a lot of times people pass things off too easily, especially when it comes to charity. When somebody has the ways and means, this is the time for the right people to step up. And I practice that.

What are your spots? In Vino on East 4th, because they’re a local, amazing restaurant, and the people there make it the world a better place. Knife + Fork because the chef, Damian, is the only person in the kitchen. He gets up with all the food and serves it in a 30-seat place. Lastly, the back room of Double Crown is a hidden room that’s absolutely fantastic. It’s a great place to go and have a drink with friends and not have to deal with the riffraff. It’s not snobby or elitist; on the contrary it’s very laid back, so I don’t know why they let assholes like me in there.

Name two people you admire. This will sound so cliché and retarded, but my parents. And then I’d say Matt Seiler, the global CEO of Universal McCann. He’s a brilliant, out-of-the-box thinker.

What are the trends with philanthropy now? I’m sure I’ll get flamed from rich people, but young people have the heart for it, and they want to get involved. If a lot of people donate $20, it’s a lot of money.

Any big negatives recently? Giving without heart is just awful. Giving money with your heart behind it is important. To give as a tax deduction is great, but at the same time, why not put a little bit of heart into it? Your giving doesn’t only mean money, it also means time. The Reeve Foundation is about finding the cure, but it’s also about quality of life for people in wheelchairs.

Something that people might not know about you? I’m so loud and obnoxious. Everybody knows everything because I don’t shut up!