Patrick Rothfuss looks at a goat and asks, "What if?"
What if it wasn't just a barnyard animal. What if, rather, it was a small business? One that could give birth to baby small businesses?
Since the release of his bestseller "The Name of the Wind" in 2007, and bolstered by its sequel "The Wise Man's Fear" in 2011, Rothfuss has become one of the best-loved authors in fantasy fiction. And over the past five years he's channeled that popularity into a single-minded effort to help raise money for Heifer International. His annual Worldbuilders online fundraiser brought in nearly $450,000 this year, and earlier this month Rothfuss and his team made their first visit to the Heifer headquarters to meet with the nonprofit's development team, have a chat with some of his fans, and hang out with some donors at Heifer's Perry County ranch.
"I've milked a goat before," said Rothfuss of one item on the agenda, "but it's been awhile."
Several things brought Heifer to the attention of Rothfuss almost a decade ago. One was the book "Beatrice's Goat" — which either he gave to his mother or she gave to him, he said, admitting that he's not sure anymore which way that transaction went. Another was the video for Sarah McLachlan's song "World On Fire," where the singer took a zero-frills approach and donated the $150,000 budget to a number of charities, including Heifer.
"I think that might have been the first time I wandered around on Heifer's website," said Rothfuss. "It could even be that I knew about it beforehand, but sometimes you need to be jolted by something for it to become present in your awareness. But once I found out about it, it had everything that you want in a charity.
"If you look at what Heifer does," he said, "you can't help but see that it's educational, sustainable, good for the environment, good for society, it's long lasting, it's impervious to recession — it's everything good works should be."
And it addresses the "what if?" question, which Rothfuss said comes naturally to him and his fans.
"Fiction asks 'what if?' and no fiction has a broader scope of 'what if?' than fantastic fiction," he told a crowd of about 300 people at Heifer Village last Thursday. "The question of 'what if?' draws me to Heifer, as well. What if we did something cool, what if we gave somebody, instead of a handout, a hand up?"
Still, his Worldbuilders came about by happenstance. In 2008, Rothfuss found out just how popular his blog had become when he offered a photo contest for his readers and, instead of the few dozen entries he expected, hundreds of people from around the world sent in photos.
"I'm like, 'Wow, a lot of people want to play with me on my blog. How can I use this in a way that's not just me stroking my own ego?' " he said. "I just went on the blog and said, 'Heifer International is my favorite charity and here's why, and for the next month if you donate a dollar, I'll donate a dollar.' The gimmick was if you donated, for every $10 you kick in you had a chance to get some stuff — I was going to sign some books or whatever."
His initial goal was $5,000 and he hit that in a few days. So he bumped it up to $10,000. Then other authors caught wind and started offering signed editions of their works as prizes, and mentioning it on their own blogs. The donations kept piling up. Then, just a few days before it ended, Rothfuss got a plug on the blog of Neil Gaiman, who offered up a signed, limited edition, author's review copy of his book "Stardust."
If that last sentence didn't at least make your eyebrows arch, you're probably not part of Rothfuss's target demographic. But take it from a lifelong geek boy — that's huge, as in Madonna-sang-at-my-gay-neighbor's-wedding huge.
At the end of the month, Rothfuss was on the hook for more than fifty grand.
"And it was all the money I had," he said. "Which isn't a big deal because I'd been poor for my whole life, but I'd never been poor for any good reason and this was a great reason."
And he quickly had Heifer's attention, as well, and began working directly with the agency, which helped fuel more growth. Now dozens of name authors of sci-fi and fantasy (and many of their publishing houses) support Worldbuilders, flooding its Wisconsin office with swag for the speculative fiction set. So much, in fact, that Rothfuss had to incorporate it as a nonprofit and bring in help so he could get back to his writing.
"It was perilously close to becoming my job, which is why I brought in these people," Rothfuss said. "It can't be my job; my job has to be writing books. And for four months a year, it consumed my life."
Today Worldbuilders has a staff of six handling the heavy lifting: Gathering autographed books and other merch, coordinating with an impressive array of authors, artists, publishers and others in the speculative fiction field, coordinating with Heifer to keep track of donations, running the lottery and auction and online store, and making sure everybody gets their loot.
The Worldbuilders team joined Rothfuss on this trip to Heifer International, which he said has helped them better appreciate just what kind of real-world good their fiction-driven effort is accomplishing.
"There's really crappy things happening in the world all the time, and it's nice to see that people really do want to do good," he said. "This is tangible proof that people are good."
All told, over the years Worldbuilders has raised $1.95 million for Heifer and has helped about 5,000 families around the world, said Vicki Clarke, the nonprofit's director of philanthropy. Clarke described Heifer's response to hearing about the Worldbuilders effort as "delighted, but curious" at how much sway Rothfuss might have with his fan base. Five years on, the answer is: Lots.
"His online auctions, efforts and contest have all been warmly met and every goal has been met or exceeded," she said. "The fact that he has in previous years personally matched contributions is, well, humbling. Patrick is a man who puts his personal principles and passion behind his very persuasive efforts."
Though he keeps his hand in as president of Worldbuilders, Rothfuss is now focusing most of his effort on the third novel in his Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy — as yet unnamed and with no publication date set, he told his fans, "but I've got to get this right."
By the way, even if you missed the most recent Worldbuilders fundraiser, you still have a shot at that autographed Gaiman ARC — each year so far, the person who won it has turned around and donated it back for use in the auction or lottery the next year. This year's winner simply asked to meet Rothfuss somewhere so she could see the book and hold it, something he is happily arranging.