When the Critical Role show started in 2015, the simple but charming Dungeons & Dragons series didn’t seem to have much ambition beyond being an entertaining web show that tapped into a game millions of people around the world play. Critical Role soon found a group of dedicated, and growing, fans — more than 602,000 followers on Twitch and 1 million subscribers on YouTube — and decided to use their newfound platform to try charity streaming from time to time, beginning with an event for Doctors Without Borders.
Now, Critical Role has launched the Critical Role Foundation, an entirely new arm of the business dedicated to ongoing charity fundraising that newly appointed president Ashley Johnson hopes will turn one-time events into a year-round campaign. Johnson, who joined the show’s cast as an original member in 2015 and is also known for her work in Blindspot and The Last of Us Part II, tells The Verge it was partially the response from fans over the years to fundraising events that helped the Critical Role team decide to launch the foundation. Johnson was “continuously blown away” by how well the charity streams went.
“It’s something that we’ve thought about for kind of the duration of streaming, thinking, ‘It would be cool one day if we could actually just have a foundation,’” Johnson says. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have the community and the audience that we have.”
Critical Role has evolved from a series that started on Felicia Day’s Geek & Sundry website. It’s a successful company, holding a record for Kickstarter’s highest-earning entertainment project ever and a deal with Amazon. But at the end of the day, they’re still entertainers on platforms like Twitch. Some creators feel like having a platform comes with a responsibility, and many have tried to turn their celebrity, no matter how big or small, into something beneficial. Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson gives away cash and cars to people, David Dobrik often gives away laptops to students, while platforms like Twitch and YouTube have drawn up FAQs for people who want to use their channels for charity streams.
Johnson says the team didn’t feel like they had to ever stream charity events, nor did they feel pressure to launch the foundation. Johnson’s only concern is “being able to do this right” and elevate lesser known organizations and voices in the nonprofit space. For example, the foundation’s first partnered charity organization is the First Nations Development Institute, which works to help Native American people by improving economic conditions through technical assistance and training, advocacy and policy, and direct financial grants. When Critical Role announced the foundation, aiming to raise $50,000, they blew past their initial goal.
Even with a successful history of charity events, Johnson says she was caught off guard. The hope now is that both Critical Role’s fans and people who may not follow the team as closely will be able to donate throughout the year, treating it like a marathon not a race. One advantage Critical Role has over other traditional entertainment companies is that because the various cast members feel so accessible online — building a fan base while streaming on Geek & Sundry before moving to Twitch and YouTube in 2019 — their new charity initiative is coming from a team that people already know. Being transparent online with fans (who call themselves Critters) about how important charity work is to them will hopefully keep things going strong, Johnson says.
“This is a journey where we’re constantly just trying to better ourselves and add some positivity, and just be real — and sometimes that means not sugar coating stuff,” she says. “There’s a really nice sort of realness and transparency that we’ve created with the audience, and I think that’s part of why the charity runs have been so successful.”
Figuring out how to straddle that line — how open to be, how much of their lives are lived publicly versus how much they keep for themselves — was a learning curve. It’s especially true for Johnson who, now as the star on a popular web series and other shows in addition to becoming president of the foundation, lives with social anxiety. Johnson slowly opened up on stream about herself and found her transparency rewarding but challenging. It’s something that many creators, especially those who are coping with anxiety, depression, burnout, or other issues, have also started to do over the years. “I found a lot of comfort in this community,” Johnson says. “I think it’s incredibly important to show that and to be real with your audience.”
Working on being more open and keeping a dialogue and relationships going with members of the community is important to Johnson — and it’ll likely play a big part in keeping the enthusiasm up for the charity. The main goal right now is encouraging people to keep donating, if they can, during the pandemic. It’s a hard and scary time, and there are many charities trying to figure out ways to help people who are ill or out of work. Johnson was worried that might affect Critical Role Foundation’s rollout, but the first few days went better than she could have expected.
“We’re all big on presenting ourselves in the most real way that we can, and maybe that helps the audience really trust us,” Johnson says. “And especially when times are hard, it always seems like the Critters know and really show up.”
Correction (October 7th, 6:17pm ET): An earlier version of this story said Ashley Johnson was in The Blacklist instead of Blindspot. The Verge regrets this error.